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.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

18 grammes of sweetness

One of those things you "have to do" when you're a visitor to Spain is to try chocolate y churros - a hot fried sweet dough stick served with a hot chocolate drink. The hot chocolate is basically melted chocolate thinned out with milk. I just checked and the Valor version, for instance, has nearly 40% chocolate along with sugar, rice flour and milk powder. So Spaniards expect drinking chocolate to be spoon standingly thick.

We Britons drink cocoa or hot chocolate too. I seem to remember that, when I was a lad, I had to be precise about the name or I got real cocoa which was much darker and bitterer than the Cadbury's drinking chocolate I preferred. I may well be wrong but I think that cocoa solids is the name for the powder left after cocoa butter has been extracted from cocoa beans and that the cocoa solids dissolved in milk were the traditional British bedtime drink of cocoa. Somewhere between the 1950s and 70s cocoa was slowly ousted by a sweeter, thicker chocolately drink, drinking chocolate, which was much easier to prepare.

Spaniards drink something very much like British drinking chocolate (I suppose thinking of Cadbury as British now that it is owned by Montelez is like saying Nessels instead of Nestley for Nestlé and pretending they're not Swiss - but you know what I mean) with the main brands being Cola Cao and Nesquik. As much as anything these chocolatey flavoured powders are drunk, both hot and cold, by children at breakfast time. Unlike the thicker liquid chocolate that goes with churros Cola Cao and Nesquik are not a favourite tipple among Spanish adults.

It's surprising how difficult this makes the conversation with my Spanish learners of English when we're talking about what they might drink as a warming beverage in a London café.

The individual packs of Cola Cao contain 18 grammes by the way.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Roast saddle of venison, tortilla and beans

I'm not much of a cook though I can usually produce something that is, at least, edible. That's not always the case; new recipes tend to turn out badly and, recently, I have had a series of culinary disasters. I did some beef, tomato and olive thing that tasted of salt and nothing else. There was another concoction that I ended up tipping directly into the bin, something with lots of cream and garlic. I'm safer when I cook up the lentils or one of the student favourites (well favourite with the one time students who are now beginning to draw their pensions or die) like spag bol and chilli con carne. Nonetheless my version of kebabs with chorizo is OK and that spaghetti with yoghurt and mushrooms and bacon isn't bad either. My shepherd's pie's perfectly tasty and there are plenty more in my repertoire that, whilst they may not exactly thrill the palette, do, at least, maintain the calorie input without hardship.

The stuff that goes into my meals comes from the shops in the form of veg and pulses and meat and cheese and eggs and stuff like that. The food may come in packets and boxes. It may have been grown under hectares of plastic, sprayed with hideous chemicals, never have felt the soil on its roots or the sun on its seed-pod but it still looks like a carrot, a lettuce or a chickpea. If it's an animal product then I wouldn't like to speculate as to whether the beast spent it's life confined in a tiny feeding station eating high protein feed made from fracked oil or recycled fish. Nonetheless, basically, whatever the food and however it got produced, it would still be recognisable as food to my forebears. The raw material of a meal rather than the finished product.

There have been prepared foods in Spanish supermarket freezers as long as I have lived here and somebody must buy them because they are still on sale. In fact I've noticed that much of the extra space in the newer larger store of a local supermarket has been taken up by new lines of pre-prepared stuff. I still don't see a lot of people buying it though. Usually the stuff on the supermarket belt in front of mine looks much like my stuff except that they have always remembered something that I've forgotten. I think it would be fair to say that most of the Spaniards around here do not buy things that come ready prepared. It's a sweeping generalisation and there are plenty of exceptions from pizzas to ready shaped meatballs. It may well be different in the bigger cities too but I think that most people in most homes still cook their food from scratch rather than heat up something they have bought.

Now I saw an advert on Spanish TV today for C&A. It's the first ad that I've noticed with a Christmas theme. This reminded me that we'll be due our annual trip to the coast to the Overseas Supermarket/Iceland store. It's not that I often wake up thinking of Piccalilli and Bombay mix or Melton Mowbray pies and Quality Street but, confronted with shelves full of products that were staples with me for forty years, there is always lot of gratuitous overspending. We usually go to buy something specific that's either expensive or unavailable locally - gammon, pork and mustard sausages, twiglets - but we nearly always end up buying lots of things that sound great but turn out to be soggy, tasteless or otherwise disappointing. This year I really must remember to say no to the pre-prepared stuff however good the photo on the box looks.

By the way I apologise if I've done this blog before. Checking the blog is a bit like watching the photos, my own photos, that pop up randomly on my laptop as a screen saver. I sometimes find myself watching the slide-show of half remembered photos and thinking that some of them aren't so bad. Then one of the many blurred pictures pops up and my hubris evaporates. When I thought of blogging on pre-prepared versus fresh food I popped some search clues into the blog and I found myself re-reading long forgotten blog posts, sometimes from years ago. I thought they were OK until I bumped into two in a row which were the literary equivalent of those blurred snaps. I gave up, ashamed of my prose and the out of date information. Mind you if I've forgotten the chances are that you have too.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The lustrum

If I'm grouping people together, pigeon-holing them, stereotyping them, then short sleeved Ben Sherman shirt wearing engineers and model train enthusiasts is a group. I find I often get on well with them. I seem to like people who are enthusiastic about things.

Spanish law says that if you have gas equipment it has to be safety checked. It may well be different for fixed, mains type gas, but for the installations that run on the 12/13 kilo butane bottles the periodicity of that check is five years. The last time we got a check the man who came along was one of those neat and tidy engineers. He was wearing his CEPSA uniform but, if he hadn't been, he'd have had a pocket protector. He seemed to do his job efficiently and we talked about nothing in particular whilst he checked this and that. As we were signing off the paperwork he made his, presumably standard, sales pitch and said that his firm also did routine maintenance of gas appliances. I remembered that and, last year, when we couldn't get the water to run hot I gave him a ring.

He came to service the boiler and the truth is that he couldn't get it to work properly. We complained and he came back, a couple of times, and tried hard to sort it out. He was always well mannered, he didn't seem at all perturbed that we'd called him back but in the end we took his advice that the water heater was jiggered and we even went to the supplier he recommended for a new one.

Google calendar told me that the lustrum, the five years was up. Time to get all the gas stuff safety checked. The appointment was for 5 pm today and at 4.59 pm my mobile phone went. Obviously enough the bloke knew where we lived so, unlike most people, I hadn't needed to dash across to the village to lead him to the house. He'd tried the door and I hadn't answered. Nonetheless, a minute early? Come on. It took nearly an hour, he changed bits of rubber tubing so that it wouldn't be out of date till his next visit, he checked exhaust gas levels, he drew little diagrams on the safety report, I handed over the 60€ and we agreed to meet again in 2022. I must ask him his name next time.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Now, where was I?

I wrote a couple of articles for the TIM magazine which were never published. This is one of them. It was called Spanish Government

The current form of government in Spain dates from the 1978 Constitution which was drafted three years after the death of General Franco.

Central government takes care of the “big things” like foreign affairs, external trade, defence, justice, law making, shipping and civil aviation but in many areas it shares responsibility with the regions - for instance in education and health care.

The National Parliament, las Cortes Generales, has two chambers. The lower house, equivalent to the UK Commons, is the Congress of Deputies and the upper house, something like the Lords, is the Senate. The lower house is the more important. It has 350 members, against the 650 in the House of Commons. The deputies are elected in the 50 Spanish provinces and also from the Spanish North African enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Each province is an electoral constituency and the number of deputies it returns is population dependent. The big parties contest all the constituencies but there are also important regional parties which only field candidates in their home provinces. Voting uses a closed list system – if you vote for the party you vote for all their candidates. The number of seats is divvied up by a complicated proportional representation system. This means that there are several deputies for each province and no “constituency MPs”.

The number of senators changes slightly with population - each province elects four senators. The political parties put forward three candidates and voters choose up to three names - from the same party or from different parties. The four candidates with the greatest number of votes are elected. The legislative assembly, the regional government of each autonomous community, also designates one senator by right and a further senator for each million inhabitants. A different system is used in the Canary and Balearic Islands. Usually there are around 260 senators.

The official result of a general election is made public five days after the poll. Parliament meets and the deputies are sworn in. Next, the King, it's always been a King so far, meets with the heads of the parties and asks one of them to try to form a government. The government has to be agreed by the parliament as a whole. That's a simple enough process when one party has a clear majority or when a simple coalition will do the trick but the last couple of times, with no clear winner, the process has been very messy.

The leader of the party of government becomes the President of Spain with their official residence at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid. The President decides what vice presidents, ministries and ministers are required to run the country The people chosen form the Council of Ministers, akin to the British Cabinet

The Constitutional Court ensures that any new parliamentary laws are constitutional and comply with Spanish International agreements. The judiciary, overseen by the General Council of Judicial Power, is independent of government and has both national and regional structures

All of the 17 autonomous communities have their own president, government, administration and supreme court. The majority of funding for most of the regions comes from central government. The autonomous communities have differing devolved powers based on their history, on ancient law and local decisions. All of them administer education, health, social services, cultural and urban development. Several of the communities, like Valencia, have separate linguistic schemes.
Each of the 50 provinces, for instance Alicante, has its own administration, the diputación, that is responsible for a range of services.

The municipalities, the town halls, are headed up by a mayor supported by the councillors of the ruling party or coalition. Town halls are responsible for local services from tourism and environment through to urban planning and social services. The official population of the municipality, the padrón municipal, is the basis of the electoral roll and so the basis of this whole structure. Oh, except for the Monarch who gets his or her job simply by being born.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The crickets still sing in October

We've had some decent weather until recently - in fact I keep hearing how it has been unseasonably mild and suchlike. That may be true, they, whoever they are, may have reasons for lying to me about all sorts of things but I'm sure that the weather isn't one of them. So, if they say it's been a warmer Autumn than usual I am happy to believe them. 

It's started to cool down now though. For the past couple of weeks, we have sometimes turned on one of the butane heaters in our living room just to take the chill off. We put the slightly thicker duvet on the bed too and I've put some pullovers back into my wardrobe. Yesterday Maggie said it was cold so I trundled another heater into the kitchen just in case. She even fired up the pellet burning stove for our telly watching last night. We are right on the cusp of it getting cold. Inside, in our bit of Spain, over the late autumn and winter it can be unpleasantly unpleasant in our house when the heating isn't on. Outside of course it's nice, or at least it's usually nice. Cloudless blue skies and sun being the standard.

Oddly enough the Town Hall website just published the round-up of the October weather. They used to do the monthly report without fail but I haven't seen it for a while so here, for your delight, is the October 2017 Pinoso weather.

The highest temperature on the 27th was 29ºC and the lowest, of 5ºC, was overnight on the 26th/27th. So quite a temperature range on the 27th! The median daytime maximum through October was 23.7ºC and the median minimum was 8.8ºC.

We had just one rainy day but, on that day, the 18th, we got 16.5 litres of rain per square metre. That day was also classed as stormy because we had gusts of wind of up to 87km/h.

We had five misty starts and 26 mornings with dew but 22 of those turned into clear sunny days and there were another five with sunny spells.

All in all then the sun shone for 27 out of 31 days, the standard daytime temperature was in the mid 20s and it only rained once. That does sound like a pretty decent October then.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

A weekend in Elda Hospital

It must have been the price of the cat food in the Día supermarket that triggered it. I was there picking up a few essentials before going out for lunch. My eyes went funny, as though each one was switching on and off at random, and the next thing I know is that I didn't know much.  I didn't know where I was. I was confused. It took the ambulanceman to explain that I had passed out and they were about to take me to Elda hospital and only later did I remember the detail of the strange visual effects. I wonder how much disruption I caused in Día and whether I'll ever be able to shop there again?

Maggie turned up at the ambulance not long after. She wasn't with me in the supermarket so my guess is that the emergency number strip on the lock screen of my mobile phone did its job. The police found it and were able to contact her. My second guess is that the description given of my sack of potatoes impersonation in the supermarket to the 112 emergency dispatcher meant that he or she sent a specialist ambulance with a doctor on board but, when the crew found me basically recovered, they transferred me to a less specialist ambulance for transfer to hospital. Apart from thinking on my own mortality on the journey to the hospital, I've often suspected that I will not reach a ripe old age, the journey was uneventful.

It was pretty routine in the hospital too. They dressed me in one of those funny back opening gowns, checked my heart, did a CT scan and a couple of x-rays as well as taking blood samples and then wheeled me off to an observation ward with lots of beds where they hooked me up to a drip. Maggie sat with me. Her poor friends, denied their promised posh meal, camped out in the waiting area of the hospital. Not long after they moved me to the Neurology ward to a room I was to share with Pepé. He was having a lot of trouble breathing and they had some machine pumping oxygen to his lungs. I would have found out more but my Spanish collapsed completely. I could not utter a single coherent sound and I was soon much more concerned about my Spanish than I was about whatever was supposed to be wrong with me.

I lay in my bed and every now and then someone would come and take my temperature, my blood pressure and check my blood sugar levels - there was even a 6am raid for some serious blood samples. The results and readings were always normal and, apart from a quite nasty headache, which still hasn't completely gone, and a general weakness when I started to try to move around I felt absolutely fine. In fact I began to feel a bit of a fraud. As I settled in, and as they let me exchange the gown for pyjamas, the food started to arrive - dinner, breakfast, no elevenses though, lunch, afternoon snack and back to dinner. The food wasn't great and they had a particularly tasteless line in soups cum gruels but I thought it was good that they fed me at all. The food and the constant stream of nurses, cleaners and auxiliaries were a break in the routine of lying there, trying to listen to a podcast that I found much, much harder than usual to understand. I finished my book, La uruguaya by Pedro Mairal but I was hard pressed to follow even the gist of the last few pages and as to understanding what the string of visitors were saying to Pepé's wife I had absolutely no idea. When I did utter a few words to try to be pleasant people would just stare at me blankly and uncomprehendingly. I soon limited myself to weak smiles and multilingual grunting.

Visitors can stay with people in Spanish hospitals all the time and there is probably an expectation that someone will be there to do a bit of the caring for a patient. Pepé's wife, Ana, stayed with him overnight and through the morning though someone, usually a daughter, came and took the midday shift so that Ana could go home and get changed and get something to eat. She was back by the early evening to take over again. Maggie came to see me and she would have stayed too but I shooed her away. I was able to feed myself, straighten the bed etc. and, when I was given the say so, go and get a shower. I saw absolutely no point in both of us being confined to barracks. The permission to get a shower came from a doctor who came to see me on Monday morning. You don't have a tumour, you didn't have a stroke, you don't have diabetes and it wasn't a heart attack so now we're going to do a resonancia. I supposed, though I never asked, that they were looking for signs of a fit or epilepsy. In the meantime, said the doctor, feel free to get out of bed, sit in the armchair and have a shower.

And that's what happened. No breakfast for me on Tuesday, en ayunas, fasting, and then off for an MRI scan. Into one of those tunnel things with quite a loud noise. I thought it would be horrid but, in the end, it was just boring. I asked how long it had taken when I came out and the answer was 25 minutes. About an hour later the doctor came to see me again. The resonancia found nothing, we can't find anything, all we can think is that it's your lifestyle - too much alcohol, to much smoking - so cut it out and be good. Now you can go home. I did flick to the last page of the medical report they gave me and it said not to drive for six months. I asked someone on the desk what this meant. It's all a recommendation she said and that's where we left it. Not being able to drive would be a serious blow for someone living in Culebrón.

They looked after me well. They came and got me in the first place. They treated me quickly. They found me a bed. They spent presumably large amounts of money on trying to find out what was wrong with me and they gave me food to eat, clean sheets and pyjamas to wear. I am so glad that I demanded legal contracts so many times from so many employers so I had a right to that healthcare.

Just as I was writing this I've been trying to decipher the medical report. Even if my Spanish were brilliant I don't think that I could understand it but it seems to cover all the things they said I didn't have. The big thing is that I had convulsions - Wikipedia equates those with epilepsy. Alcohol and tobacco use are also highlighted and the last line says chronic small vessel ischaemia (in Spanish) which Wikipedia tells me is basically a mini stroke. Maybe it's a bit belt and braces - we didn't find anything but it could have been any of these.

Well, at least this time. I got to blog about it.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A brief history of time

I was sitting in front of the computer trying to think of something to blog about. It didn't help that I was playing the MixCloud version of my old pal Harry's community radio programme. I'm more a cotton wool in the ears than Led Zeppelin at full blast if I have maths homework to do sort of person. As inspiration faltered I decided to go and see the dance group cum choir in town. The title of the event was in Valenciano but, from what I could make out, this was the fourth edition of a series of concerts called "Do you remember.....?".

This one was called Do you remember .... The Giants. The giants in this case being a couple of three to four metre high wood and cloth figures named after people who were well known in Pinoso at some time in the past and who gave their names to the dancing giants when they were first commissioned twenty years ago. The real people were Constancio Valenzuela y Adela Chinchilla who were known as Uncle Guerra and Aunty Pera or el Tío Guerra and la Tía Pera. And that's what the two giant figures are called.

The dance group and choir were due to leave the Pensioners club at 7pm, wander around the streets a bit and then go to the Parish Church for a mass before starting to perform at around 8pm. I left home a bit after 7pm and as I drove into town I saw our Mayor hurrying in the direction of the church. If he was heading that way I could be pretty sure that's where el Tío Guerra and la Tía Pera would be.

There wasn't much happening outside the church. The giant figures were in the street and there was a knot of people there too but no singers or dancers. I hung around for a while. I talked to a British woman who is part of the dance group.

I thought of something to blog about. The elasticity of Spanish time. We British have a reputation for punctuality. We are punctual, I suppose, though I suspect that mobile phones have made us less so. I'm just trying to find a parking space or I've just got off the bus so I'll be a few minutes are admissions of tardiness without admitting anything. But, on most occasions if we say 8pm then 8pm it is. And if it's  an 8.30 performance at the theatre we will do our best to be in our seats for 8.25. The Nine o'clock news on the telly definitely starts at nine o' clock which is not the case with Spanish TV where programmes are often late, or early, which still amazes me.

Spaniards have a reputation for being unpunctual. People are going to argue with me about this but I don't think Spaniards are that bad as timekeepers. There is a difference though - the time to keep is not, necessarily, the time on the poster, ticket or WhatsApp message. You simply need to know when you should appear. Most of my students turn up for their classes on time for instance. The dentist is waiting for me at the appointed hour. Films start on time at the cinema. Doctors aren't punctual of course but that's because the appointment system is just as rubbish in Spain as it is in the UK and because, in both places, a doctor's time is so much more valuable than a patient's.

Spanish theatre performances, concerts and similar events nearly always start late. In fact they generally start about fifteen to twenty minutes late so all you have to do is turn up ten minutes after the advertised time and you'll have plenty of time to get your coat stuffed underneath your chair and read the programme notes before kick off.

Talks, exhibition inaugurations, book launches and the like are less predictable. They often depend on a speaker - maybe the author, the artist or a local politician - to open the proceedings. Normally then the projector and laptop are in place, the microphones are tapped and everything is ready for the set time. The "personality" though is nowhere to be seen. When he or she arrives they are usually accompanied by an entourage. The entourage has to be introduced to the microphone tappers and screen unfurlers. Last minute supplies of bottled water have to be placed on the table then there is a bit of compulsory hanging around for no apparent reason until, all of a sudden, everyone lurches forward. At least there is something for the waiting audience to watch. The usual delay is around thirty to forty minutes.

There are other events which are less predictable. Maybe the event for the cancer charity or the film screening with a feminist angle. This is advertised as starting at, say, 9pm. At 9pm there are just four of us and the microphone tapper. The microphone tapper knows that the chair, secretary, treasurer etc of the association are not there. They also expect a better turnout than just four members of the public so somebody makes the decision to wait and wait. Sometimes there is an announcement, the sort that starts with the microphone turned off until the microphone tapper helps the hapless announcer to find the on switch. "We're going to extend the courtesy time for another few minutes but we'll be starting very soon," says the person with the microphone. I always wonder about this Spanish concept of courtesy time. How courteous is it that the four of us who arrived on time have to wait for the majority who couldn't be bothered?

Most unpredictable of all though are the social events. We have meals in the village. The only time that is mentioned in the invitation is the time for the chair unstackers, the table setters and the napkin folders to turn up. Maybe the time given for that is half past one. If you decide to help with the preparations then turning up before two is a waste of time because nobody else will be there. In turn this means that the tables won't be ready till around three. If you're going to skip being helpful and just intend to eat then you probably need to turn up at around three to three fifteen but there is always the vaguest possibility that the preparations really did start at 1.30 in which case the food will be on the table an hour later and if you turn up at 3.15 they'll be well into the main course when you show up. There is a variation on this for the works Christmas meal, the organised birthday meal (or similar). The appointed time is 10pm for the meal. Nobody will show up till 10.15 but that's understood. Most people will be there by 10.30. The waiters will want to start collecting orders and serving around then but everyone knows that there are still some stragglers to come. The diners don't want to start without them and the waiters are trying to get finished before 2am so there is some negotiating to be done. All the early arrivers can do is have another beer or wine and wait.

So I'm outside the church and it's running to time. The giants and the choir are in the church. The mass has started. It will take about half an hour so people will be only a few minutes behind the predicted timetable for the dancing and singing. A Spanish pal talks to me. My Spanish is incomprehensible nonsense which really annoys me. I'm fed up now; enough of this hanging around I think. I walk back to the motor, come home and stare again at the empty computer screen.