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.

Friday, September 22, 2017

When in Rome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Sex and violence

Spanish cinemas tend to have shows at around 6, 8 and 10 in the evening. At the weekends, and on Monday or sometimes Wednesdays, which are "el día del espectador" - spectator's day, when tickets are cheaper - there is often an earlier showing around 4 and a late show at midnight. As you may expect the most popular show times are at 8 o' clock and 10 o' clock. Actually I've never been to a midnight show so I could be wrong.

We tend to go to the early midweek shows, to the less than blockbuster films and to one of the second tier and less popular cinemas. It's not at all unusual for us to get the theatre to ourselves. Not always of course, If we choose Tom Cruise even at 4pm there may be a handful of us but we've just seen The Limehouse Golem for instance and we were alone.

Last Wednesday we were in Elche at a shopping centre cinema that doesn't show many of the French or Latvian films so popular in our regular cinema. We chose to see "It", a horror film that was the best selling cinema film of the week in Spain having knocked Tadeo Jones off the top spot. Tadeo Jones 2: El secreto del Rey Midas is an animated kid's film featuring a slightly nerdy Spanish version of Indiana Jones. For the past few weeks we've often had to negotiate hordes of children heading to see Tadeo do battle with the baddies. I've thought, more than once, how fortunate we are not to be in the same cinema as those children. Spaniards in general and children in particular are pretty talkative and quite loud. I like a cinema to be quiet apart from the sound coming from the film.

When we got to the box office, actually the popcorn counter, the woman told us the cinema was pretty full - either odd seats at the side or the first two rows. We chose the second row. Someone was in our seat but we didn't bother. The cinema was loaded with little girls. I thought they looked about 9 years old though Maggie tells me they were seasoned 12 year olds. It's the first time I've been in a cinema so loaded with children since I went to see Indiana Jones, the first one, in 1981. I remember thinking then that they added something to the film - hissing at the baddies and cheering the goodies - so I wasn't too concerned at the idea of seeing a horror film alongside phone toting, popcorn munching children. The children were OK really, the film was rubbish though.

I was a bit taken aback that there were so many obviously under 18s. To be honest I'd presumed that the film would have an 18 certificate. In fact "It" has a 16 certificate. I've just checked and it's more or less the same in the UK where it has a 15 certificate. I was surprised to find though that the Spanish certificates are just recommendations, orientation for the viewers, and they have no "legal" status at all. I well remember the arguments between anguished youngsters and the staff at cinemas in the UK as to whether they were old enough to see a 12 rated Batman film. It seems that, apart from going to see an X rated film, and it looks as though only three cinemas still exist in Spain to show X rated films, anyone of any age can go to see any film they like. So there's no reason to get a babysitter if you fancy taking your children with you to see a blood and gore 18 film. Well there is actually, there aren't any to see. Fifty Shades of Grey was the last film on general release in Spain to get an 18 classification and before that it was 300, the film about the Spartan stand at Thermopylae.

I thought it was interesting that when I went looking for an explanation on the Internet of the purpose of the certificates there were several discussions about the use of ratings, like the ones in the UK and the USA, that have a legal status. There was absolutely no support for them in any of the discussions.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Immaterial my dear Watson

Elche is a biggish town just a little under 50kms from Culebrón. It's home to two World Heritage sites - well one of them isn't a place at all - it's an event; the Mystery Play. The play was awarded the badge of Intangible World Heritage back in 2001. The year before the palm grove in Elche, the Palmeral, the biggest palm grove in Europe, had also been given World Heritage status.

In the middle of the week we popped into the Archaeological Museum in Elche to see an exhibition called Inmaterial: Patrimonio y memoria colectiva. The exhibition was basically groups of photos based on everyday culture, on the intangible daily events which, though long gone, are still recognisable to us today - sections on trades, transport, on fiestas, gossip, division of male and female labour and the like. The title of the exhibition is a play on words of a sort. Patrimonio Cultural Inmaterial de la Humanidad translates into English as Intangible World Cultural Heritage. But inmaterial, as well as meaning intangible, also translates as immaterial - so, unimportant under the circumstances or irrelevant. Geddit? Crikey, that took some explaining. Maybe it's not such a good pun as I originally thought.

I enjoyed the exhibition. Some of the old photos were excellent. The information boards were short enough to be read but long enough to be descriptive. This was what the board said, more or less, about Fiestas, the adapted translation sounds nowhere near as good as the original: The fiesta is a collective expression which embraces a complex symbolism through gestures, clothes, dances, music, songs, recitals, beliefs and emotions. This set of manifestations, is repeated periodically following a well trodden path which constitutes what we call ritual and ritual is, arguably, one of the most expressive forms of any culture. These shared experiences, carried out in the present day, refer to a collective memory. In the Fiesta there is a shared identity among the members of a community which temporarily neutralises the daily tensions and fissures within that community.

Right, moving quickly away from Pseuds Corner, and back to reality. So there was a leaflet that went with the exhibition detailing lots of events related to it. One little section said that every Friday at 11.30, in the bit of the Palmeral which houses a museum and is used as a teaching space, there would be a demonstration of palm tree climbing. So I turned up to watch. The woman in the museum knew nothing about it. "Ask the lad who looks after the palm grove," she said. So I wandered around until I found a bloke pushing a wheelbarrow.

"Do you know anything about this demonstration of palm tree climbing?" I asked.
"Have a date," he said, "I just picked them. The problem is that there was a big group here about an hour a go so I shinned up a tree for them."
"So it's not on?," I asked.
"No, it's not a problem, I can go up again."

So having waited for him to get his gear I was given a detailed run down on the palm, the palm groves and associated lifestyle. We talked about the gear he used and its development over time and we had a useful conversation about keeping the weevil, that's destroying palm trees, at bay. I took careful note as it's something that may be useful to protect the palm tree in our garden - a sort of biological warfare using a fungus that's poisonous to the weevils but no problem to the palm or the bees or the birds. I think he talked to me so long in case someone else turned up. They didn't.

He shinned up the tree, I took some snaps, I said thanks and went to have a look at the Med down near Santa Pola.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Out for a run in the motor

I went to Castilla la Mancha yesterday. Just the bottom bit, the part nearest home, bordering Murcia. I'd intended to go further, to a place called Argamasilla de Alba, one of the villages that claims to be the unnamed village where the Knight of the Sad Countenance lived, the one at the start of the el Quijote book. Then it dawned just how far it was so, when I was just about to join the Albacete bound motorway, I had a look at a paper map that I had in the car and chose a place that was in the middle of a bundle of mountains where the roads looked very wiggly. 

The place was called Riópar. I made a bit of a diversion to stop at a reservoir which the sign said was 6kms from the main road. It was actually over 18kms to the dam wall but it was an interesting run nonetheless. It was also the first time in Spain that the "beware deer" sign was telling the truth, at least for me - four deer bounded in front of the car and disappeared into the long grass. Riópar turned out to have next to nothing to look at. The bar I went to for a drink and a sandwich didn't even have toilets but they did offer sliced tomatoes on the sandwich which was another Spanish first for me.

In Riópar I set the SatNav for Alcaraz, which I vaguely thought I may have visited before. Jane, the SatNav voice, didn't get at all angry when I took no notice of her at the turn for Riópar el Viejo. Again there was nothing much to look at but an old looking church and a nicely disordered cemetery. On the drive to Alcaraz the car climbed through the sun dappled pine forests (well they looked like pines to me) and went through yet another pass that was over 1,000 metres - I'd gone over one earlier that was over 1,100 metres (3,608 ft) - and even as I drove home across a flat plain there was another. High country. Alcaraz was nice enough, I had been there before, with a main square full of big impressive buildings. There were nice views to the olive tree planted hillside opposite but in the whole day I probably walked less than a couple of kilometres. Most of the time I was in the car, windows open, radio loud enough to compete with the wind noise and often going slowly enough to appreciate the countryside I was passing through. 

And it was the countryside that I enjoyed most. Just driving through Spain. Whenever we go to the neighbouring town of Yecla Maggie comments on the beauty of wide valley, thick with vineyards, that we pass through. From Jumilla to the A30 motorway the road glides between mountain chains to left and right which, I don't know quite how to describe it, just reek of Spain. The colours, the dark hills, the bright crops, the dusty yet green valley floor, flat but rolling, tranquil yet always active. 

As I drove up the hillside from Riópar to Alcaraz the deserted road twisted and snaked like so many that I've driven in Spain. I could have stopped to take photos tens of times but I've tried it before. Photos don't capture the heat, the sounds, the smells or even the look. I've grown to really appreciate the landscapes we have all around us and even on the humdrum runs it often strikes me how beguiling it all is. But I did stop for one last snap, not far from Hellín. The plain went on and on and on as it so often does in Castilla la Mancha and the colours were stupendous. At least I think so.

Mind you I should add that I grew to love the Cambridgeshire Fens too so maybe I'm easily pleased.

Thursday, September 07, 2017


There is only one news story at the moment in the Spanish media. Catalonia. The bit of Spain that rubs up against France and has a Mediterranean coastline.

Some Catalans want a divorce from the rest of Spain. The Regional Government tried to hold a referendum in 2014 with questions about whether the voters wanted a separate, independent state. The answer was yes. But as the Spanish legal authorities had declared the referendum illegal it only went ahead in a half hearted way. Turnout was low and there was no update of the electoral roll so that the result could only be seen as a wide scale consultation. Later, the politicians who had mounted the referendum, had to face legal action and some important figures were barred political office as a result. The possibility of punitive fines is still grinding through the legal system.

There can be little doubt that Catalonia has an identity. Other regions in Spain, particularly the Basque Country and Galicia have independence movements too. I'd better include Andalucia in that list too because the Andaluz president got pretty uppity about being left out yesterday. The struggle for Basque independence was the motor behind the ETA terrorist organisation for instance.  The parallel is sometimes drawn between Catalonia and Scotland but the big difference there is that Scotland was, for centuries, a distinctly separate country. Catalonia, on the other hand, was, a principality of the crown of Aragon. When Isabel and Ferdinand married in 1469 they united Castille and Aragon and so laid the foundations of modern Spain.

What's happening at the moment though is remarkable. On one side there's a Catalan political party formed from the remnants of other nationalist parties backed, in the Regional Parliament, by a group who are usually described as anti system. Between them they have a majority in the Regional Parliament and they have used that majority to push through the call for another referendum on October 1st. They have faced opposition from most of the other groups in the Parliament with the local grouping of Podemos doing quite a lot of fence sitting.

On the other side is the Government of Mariano Rajoy, backed on this one, by two of the three other big political parties. The Government strategy has been not to negotiate but to block the Catalan Nationalists with every possible legal, financial and procedural obstacle they can think of.

There seems to be no doubt anywhere, except amongst the Catalan Nationalists, that the referendum is illegal. The Constitutional Court has said so and lots of organisations that deal in international law have agreed that there is no legal basis for the proposed vote. The nationalists have legal arguments too and they repeatedly ask how holding a vote, the very basis of democracy, can be unconstitutional.

For the past couple of days, as the Catalan Parliament pushed through the referendum legislation and the law for the transition to a Catalan State afterwards the President and Vice President of Spain have given press conferences. Listening to the VP, as I cooked the rice, I was absolutely convinced that she was going to announce that arrest warrants had been issued. They hadn't. Just strong words.

There is, within the Spanish Constitution an article designed to deal specifically with this potential scenario. Article 155 basically says that if a region threatens the stability of the nation then Central Government can use all of the state apparatus to stop it. Tanks on the streets as it were.

It's  a lot like one of those nature programmes where Attenborough tells you that usually the animals just face each other until one or the other backs down but there's always the possibility that it will turn into a lot of death by head butting. Neither side seems to want to talk to the other, neither side is for backing down. It's as fascinating as it is boring. I don't think I can bear to listen to another radio discussion where the same old stuff is regurgitated time after time but make no doubt about it, Spain is in the middle of a huge constitutional crisis.

Sunday, September 03, 2017


The first ever Spanish language course I took leaned heavily on the BBC course Digame. The Digame book and cassettes or records were backed by TV programmes which featured short reports about life in Spain. The series was based in Cuenca, one of the provincial capitals of Castilla la Mancha. The first time I went to Cuenca I followed the directions from the bus station to the Hostal Pilar - directions that I'd learned from one of the programmes. In the tourist information office I talked to the man who I'd seen on the telly and, when I went for a beer, in the bar Los Elefantes I fully expected to find Zobel having a wine with Antonio Saura.

One of the TV reports was about Cuenca on a Sunday. We heard the local radio station open the day, we saw the faithful heading for Sunday mass, we followed someone to buy the Sunday bread and newspapers on the quiet Sunday streets. Down, on the sunny banks of the River Huecar, a man washed his car, in the shallows, while his family set up a picnic. In the early evening the local football team, Unión Balompédica Conquense, lost their local fixture.

Digame was first broadcast in 1978. I bumped into it around 1982 and, back then, Sunday was a day of leisure in Spain. A day that was different from the rest. Of course, in 1982, the UK was pretty quiet on a Sunday too.

We popped down to Monóvar just before lunch to see the opening of their 49th International Salón of Photography. I thought some of the photos were pretty good though I do wonder why people still insist on producing black and white photos. Maggie was underwhelmed, she was done in minutes; it wasn't a long visit. Afterwards we went to get a drink. We sat outside a bar in a square in the town. Young girls in pretty frocks took their dollies for a pram ride in a stereotypical display whilst the little boys chased balls or their sisters/cousins. Teenagers sat on benches laughing about the videos on their phones and lots of adults were outside the bars having a beer, a vermouth or whatever as a bit of an aperitif before lunch. Nothing, except the bread shops and the bars, were open. Strolling was the order of the day and dog walking was big. Rural Spain still closes down on a Sunday

It's different in the big cities of course and even near here, on the coast, lots of the big stores are open on Sunday but not all by any means. Mercadona, the biggest retailer in Spain opens none of its stores on Sundays. Murcia is the 7th largest city in Spain and el Corte Inglés, the second largest retailer in Spain, has three big stores there but none of them are open today.

It's rather reassuring. Very Commodores.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Into each life some rain must fall

It's raining in Culebrón. This is unusual. It's not unusual in the North of Spain, it rains a lot there, but here in sunny Alicante, well, it's usually sunny. 

It does rain of course. A quick check on a couple of past years and we seem to get about 50 rainy days a year. But that means any rain. The number of days when it rains and rains are few and far between. It's raining now though and it has been for a couple of days. Fortunately, for the local farmers, it's not torrential and there's no hail. Hail is a remarkably common component of the infrequent but heavy storms we get. The number of dimpled cars is testament to that. Big blighters. Balls of ice cracking and smashing down on things. There's thunder and lightning too. The sky alight with lightning is pretty common but the fireworks don't always lead to a downpour. Rain, like everything else in our neck of the woods is very localised. It can be pouring down in Paredón, drizzling in Ubeda yet still dry here.

Our house is miserable when it rains as it is now. All of our external doors lead directly into rooms - there are no hallways - so we traipse the filth from the patios into the kitchen or living room. When the rain comes down in sheets, as it is wont to do at times, the streams gouge suspension breaking channels into the compacted earth of our track. The resultant mud is transported, by wheel arches, to our patio where it combines with the pine needles, leaves, palm fruit and other plant debris to produce a gooey planty mulch through which we have to paddle.

There are Spanish reactions to rain that I still find noticeable. The umbrellas come out. I don't understand how someone wearing shorts and a T shirt can magically produce an umbrella when the rain comes. I don't like umbrellas. Unmanageable brutes that force me to step off the pavement or risk anophthalmia. I'm more of a hooded raincoat person myself which Spaniards must find slightly eccentric given the number of times that I have been offered the loan of an umbrella.

There are like minded Spaniards though. The umbrella-less ones. In towns we hug the walls of the buildings where the overhang from the floors above provides some sort of protection. We walk in single file with the occasional chicken like confrontations of pedestrians headed in opposite directions. Spanish drains don't always cope with the sheer quantity of water so whoever finally gives way can expect sodden shoes and turn-ups.

One compensation though. We're not in Galicia or Asturias, the País Vasco or Huddersfield so it will soon be over. The sun will come out, the sky will be blue and things will be back to normal.