Life in Culebrón

Saturday 15 July 2017 - A breath of fresh air

I went to have a quick look at the tanganilla competition in Culebrón this morning as part of the weekend long fiesta. Tanganilla, I think, also goes by the name of caliche, hito, bolinche and chito and there seem to be variations of it all over Spain.


Tanganilla isn't a difficult game to organise. A line in the dirt, a 10cm high (or thereabouts) wooden rod and some 7cm across (or thereabouts) metal discs plus some players - maybe a referee. The rod is set up about 20 metres from the line - I understand that one of the variations, and there are lots, says that the distance is 22 strides. Isn't that the length of a cricket pitch? The basic idea is to knock over the rod but from watching there seemed to be other rules about how close the thrown discs were to the fallen rod. Amongst the many regional variations a common one seems to involve placing a coin on top of the rod and then measuring the distance of the discs from the coin once it has been knocked off the rod. Dead easy and complicated at the same time - like pétanque or crown green bowling. The game was one of the innovations of last year's fiesta. A good innovation I thought, a traditional game, no cost and a bit of fun plus an easy opportunity to drink beer.


The other day in my English class, where I nearly always start off with any sort of Q&A session, to get everybody warmed up, I asked about fast food. Do you prefer burgers, pizza or kebabs? What's your favourite fast food? blah, blah. It's not the first time I've asked similar questions. When someone answers hamburgers I then ask whether they prefer McDonald's, Burger King, Fosters Hollywood, TGB and so on. Then I ask what they order?, what side order?, what drink?, diet or standard? But it didn't go that way with my Pinoso students. They liked burgers OK but they liked the ones from the local butchers or the ones that their Gran makes. It's the first time that I've asked the series of questions outside of a reasonably big town. The Pinoseros were re-assuringly dismissive of the floppy, semi warm burgers that the chains have a tendency to serve up. It was particularly re-assuring because Maggie and I have been shocked recently to see the queues of traffic waiting in the Drive Thru lane at the McDonald's in Petrer as we leave the cinema. Spaniards tend to like and enjoy food and it seems strange that they would queue for burgers.


I suppose the difference is that Petrer or the side by side towns of Elda and Petrer have a population of about 90,000 somewhat larger than the fewer than 8,000 of Pinoso. Tanganilla and home made burgers - symbols of a rural idyll?
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Friday 14 July 2017 - More of nothing

I'm watching a fly trapped between the mosquitera, the fly screen, and the glass of the windows. It must have walked in but now it seems unable to retrace its steps. Bear in mind that that's my opening sentence, the considered first paragraph. Do the sensible thing and move on now!

Hunting for something to write all I can think of is trivia. Second warning then.

 
The third cat, the newest cat, the skinniest cat, Gertrudis has nearly got to the point of trusting us. She doesn't always push off after she's wolfed down her food ration. In fact she's settled down on the sofa a couple of times to watch the afternoon news bulletin. Stroking is accepted but an attempt to remove a thorn or some such from her paw left me scratched and bleeding. She may yet move in for real though.


I feared we were about to take on cat number four the other morning. Gertrudis turned up with a healthy looking white cat which, Maggie assures me, is Gertrudis's son. Clapping, shouting and stomping left him unmoved. It took a hosepipe blast of water to send him on his way. Maggie seemed to take to the white cat and Gertrudis showed whose side she was on by leaving the garden with her bedraggled offspring. Later Maggie sent me a message to say that she had seen a slain tabby cat at the side of the road - were all ours accounted for? Gertrudis wasn't. Guilt gripped me. Had my dousing and her family loyalty led to her death? The dead cat wasn't easy to identify. It didn't have much head left. She weighed the same as Gertrudis, she had pointed ears the same as Gertrudis and the same sort of thin tail. I was sure it wasn't her and then equally sure it was. I carried the body home. I decided it was her - wasn't it? As I looked for a shovel Gertrudis mewed into sight, late, for her elevenses. She's Spanish, she expects a mid morning snack. I unceremoniously dumped the dead cat in the field of stubble somewhere near the dead fox that the other cats had taken to as a plaything a few days before.


Whenever I rest my arms on the keyboard or the desk I'm leaving traces of sweat. It's been quite warm for the last couple of days - hovering in the mid to high 30s. It's a topic of conversation - the heat. I was missing a couple of students for yesterday's afternoon session. They'll be at the pool - if they've any sense - said the attendees. Our liquid consumption has gone up. I'm not keen on water except for showering and doing the dishes. I know that nowadays, along with fruit and veg, and not smoking, water is one of the fundamentals for eternal youth. Put on some stretchy sports clothing and a water bottle is an essential accompaniment. To be honest all those people sipping all that water from plastic bottle annoys me. For a start I presume that most of those plastic bottles end up floating as part of those giant rubbish islands in the world's oceans. It annoys me that huge corporations, the like of Nestlé and Coca Cola, manage to flog us water at extortionate prices but, away from the global issues, I wonder at all those tiny sips all the time. If you're thirsty fine, have a drink, but sip, sip, sip, sip. Give me strength. Better out of the tap, from a water fountain and, if you really must carry water to ensure that dehydration doesn't do for you as you go around your daily routine then a reusable container would be better. Tea's good I think, and beer.


Culebrón fiesta this weekend. Usual sort of programme. Bouncy castles for the kids, a gachmigas making competition, meal on Saturday evening, football here tanganilla there. To be honest I'm not that keen on participating. I know I'm not one of the world's most gregarious, social, sympathetic or even friendly people so that most people can take me or leave me but Maggie is pretty sociable. Last year, after we'd chosen a seat for the meal, a seat we'd paid for, we were asked to move. It's that the brother in law's great aunt is coming tonight and she's going to need somewhere to sit. It happened once or twice more until we were basically in the seats with a restricted view behind the pillar. In Pinoso tonight there are songs in the open air from a choir. Tomorrow, nearly as near, but in the other direction, in Casas del Señor, they have an evening of short films, outside and with free snacks. Over in Petrer the guitar festival is still in full swing and in Sax, there's an "ethnic mix" music festival. All of them free. If I were actually to look for some events there would be more. Hmm? Which attracts me more: 15€ worth of takeaway chicken eaten with plastic knives and forks or a bit of free cinema or music?

Ah, ah! The fly is gone. Like those Shakespearean writing monkeys blessed chance must have led it to fly free again. My cue to go away.

PS Maggie has just returned from visiting someone and she says that a Spanish person from the village has messaged her for us to sit with them tomorrow. Bother! Well, I'm not going to let the truth get in the way of thirty minutes worth of post writing. Publish and be damned as someone once said.
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Friday 7 July 2017 - The Mousetrap

Our house is surrounded by vines, by peach and almond trees with fields of wheat and some fallow fields. The track that passes the front door is of compressed earth. The street lighting is a symbolic single lamp. We live in the country.

The other day our cats were very interested in something in the long grass just across the track. It was a dying fox. Hares bound across the track now and then and a friend had some trouble with a wild boar. We had a couple of reddy black squirrels in the garden for a while. We occasionally get non domesticated animals in the house too. Birds fly in from time to time, little lizards often scurry across the wall. The mice and rats usually stay away but all of our cats, past and present, seem to like to bring their toys home. If they find a shrew, a vole or a mouse the dismembered parts will be left distributed over our floors. Sometimes the wounded beasts escape the cats to die underneath the bookcases or sofa until the stench sends us in search of the bloated corpse.

Yesterday as I fiddled with the computer a tiny mouse ran across the interior patio. Some wagtail sized bird hovered over it for a while presumably eyeing it up as a possible meal. I'd actually seen the mouse the night before - it had scurried past me in the back room and dodged under the bed. I'd left the door open so it could return from whence it came and then forgotten all about it. The mouse would be easy prey for the cats in the enclosed patio so, when I was in town, I went to an ironmongers and asked for a mouse trap that wouldn't kill the mouse. The shopkeeper was amused that I didn't want to kill the mouse. He had a trap though, the thing in the photo. I can guarantee that the trap wasn't made in China or Korea. It's about as home made as shop bought things could be. The floor is of laminated chipbard and there's a wire cage held together with staples and bits of twisted wire. The idea is that you hang the bait from the dangling prong and when the beast nibbles on the food there is sufficient movement for the hook to let go, the spring takes over and the door shuts fast.

"Put some cheese on the prong as bait," said the man in the shop. I laughed "Mice only eat cheese in cartoons." "Well they like chocolate, that's for sure" "Oh?, I thought biscuits or cereals would be good." "Chocolate biscuits would be best then." "Mice only like good quality chocolate" joked another customer.

I hung some chocolate in the trap and forgot about it for a couple of hours. When I remembered to look there was the mouse. It was paddling in melted chocolate. The trap may look primitive but it worked well enough and the mouse sped off in a spray of liquid chocolate across the wheat stubble when I opened the trap. More like this on my Blogger page - Google Life in Culebrón
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Tuesday 4 July 2017 - Crime and punishment

I've got a few hours of teaching over the summer with an academy here in Pinoso. Sixty hours of preparation in six weeks for the B1 exam.

Within the European Union there is an agreed framework for language study. Various educational bodies organise exams to accredit learning at the various levels which go from starters - A1 - through to more or less bilingual at C2. So B1 is a lower intermediate type course.

This is the official description of the B1 level: Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.

So basically it says that you can get by in situations that you know about with texts, recordings and conversation in English. Obviously enough, within the documentation for the exams there is more detail but to give an example, about pronunciation, the documentation says that a word should be intelligible.

Now I have a critic. A Spaniard who lives in the UK and who always takes me to task whenever I make generalisations about Spaniards. So here we go. I await his comments.

It seems to me that one of the elements of the Spanish education system is to punish errors. The exam I am teaching to is run by Cambridge Examinations and their style is to reward success. To give an example at school. If a Spanish pupil fails more than a given number of subjects then they are sent back to repeat the year. There are opportunities to resit the exams between the end of one academic year and the start of the next so lots of Spanish youngsters spend a good deal of their summer holidays cramming for exams. If they pass sufficient of the failed subjects they can continue without repeating the year.

Lots of the students I deal with have learned with the la Escuela Oficial de Idiomas, the Official School of languages. Without having direct experience of la escuela oficial it sounds to me as though they have some quality teachers doing a quality job. On the other hand they seem to be very nit picky. They teach the sort of English that is grammatically correct but, at the same time, old fashioned. It may well be true that "Could I have an orange juice, please?" is more formal than "Can I have an orange juice, please?" but I don't think many English speakers would worry about that. Indeed it may well be that the escuela oficial is even more grammatically correct and teaches "May I have an orange juice, please?" I was taught, and I still say, "If I were you..." but I have no problem with "If I was you..."  - I'm sure the escuela oficial does. So the students are barraged with lots of rules, lots of detail. They become so caught up in the detail of the grammar that they find it difficult to speak or to write fluidly. Now grammar is important but if it gets in the way of basic communication it becomes a problem.

So one of the problems I have with my students is getting them to see the broader picture. Through their learning career they have seen their work returned covered in red pen. Every detail mistake is punished. Rather than being praised for having written something that has mistakes but would be perfectly comprehensible to an English speaker, the only comments are on the errors. Students are corrected as they speak breaking the spontaneity and communication. Obviously mistakes have to be corrected but they don't need to be over emphasised. "Then these two persons go to the cinema," says the student. "Ah, says the teacher - so these two people went to the cinema - and what film did they see?" Corrected but not deflated. Oh, and I've been told a couple of times by Spanish colleagues and employers that I should replace my black or blue biro with a red one so that the mistakes are highlighted.

We were doing something about the speaking exam and I mentioned that asking for clarification was a good thing - it shows that students are behaving as real people would if they were speaking. I mentioned that navigating around a word they didn't know or remember was also considered to be positive. "Oh, I've forgotten the name but it's the thing you use to dig the garden". I sensed that the students didn't really believe me. On the listening exam where lots of the questions are multiple choice I was stressing that they should leave no question unanswered. if you have three choices and you don't know which it is give yourself a sporting chance and plump for one. "Don't they take marks off for getting the answer wrong?" I was asked.
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Saturday 1 July 2017 - Contact sport

I'm hypermetropic and astigmatic - long sighted with funny shaped eyes. When I was young my family thought I was stupid because I had problems telling cows from sheep. Maggie still often thinks I'm stupid when I can't tell Ryan Reynolds from Ben Affleck but I suppose that's different. I think they noticed that I couldn't see very well when I went to school. I wore glasses all the time till I was about 25 - not all the time really but you know what I mean. Thick glasses. Opticians told me I couldn't wear lenses but I insisted on trying them and, nearly 40 years, later I'm still wearing them or rather their successors. Because of the astigmatism they are hard lenses, little plastic lenses that float on the tear layer on the surface of my eyes. I presume the technology has changed a little since the first ones I had but they are nothing like the floppy disposable lenses that most lens wearers use.

One of the first bits of advice that I got on putting in and taking out the lenses was to put the plug in the plughole. The little blighters can escape. A few weeks ago, whilst I was putting them in, I dropped one of them. Half blinded I searched around but I couldn't find it. I went looking for an old pair. I found one set so dried up that the lens just snapped when I picked it up and the only serviceable pair were really old and quite painful. Fortunately as I cleaned up the washbasin, blinking hard, I found the missing lens caught on the grid of the plug hole. Time to buy another pair I thought.

My last pair were about five years old, bought in Cartagena. The optician had been painstaking in getting them to fit properly. I thought about going back because finding a good optician is like finding a good dentist. Once you have one you like it's worth a bit of effort to stick with them. But it's a 240 kilometre round trip to Cartagena and I decided to shop local instead.

The optician in Pinoso that I chose seemed a little off hand to be honest. It had none of the white jacket, almost medical, mentality, of the Cartagena place. The Pinoso optician was much more like a hairdresser's - people coming and going, a sort of community atmosphere, the sort of place where you would get called "love" in the UK.  Actually they seemed to delight in my name - Kreest-off-air.

The eyetest was normal enough though there was none of that red and green background with a circle thing nor the little puff of air but they had some impressive looking machine for scanning the shape of my eye. Once they had the prescription and the measurements they asked the manufacturer for a price - it was a reasonable 350€ so I said yes. A while later they phoned me to say they had the lenses. The next time I was in town I popped in to make an appointment to try them.

"We won't do the test now." they said. "They take time to settle in, take them away, wear them a few days and then come back and we'll have a look." "What about the money?", I said. I wasn't keen on handing over cash till I was sure the lenses were OK. "Oh, you don't want to pay until you know they're OK".

So they let me walk out of the shop with 350€ worth of lenses without knowing much about me. True enough Pinoso is a small place and everybody knows someone who knows you but it was still my first time with them and I could have been in Pinoso on holiday for all they knew.

It was a good system though. The lenses did definitely settle in but, even then, the left lens wasn't right. It was sitting too low and they've sent it away to be changed. They also sent a video of my eye full of fluorescein, an orange dye which, under UV light, shows how the lenses and the cornea interact, so the manufacturer could get the lens right. I still have the right lens though and I've been wearing it for over a week now. And I still haven't paid.

Small town life. Small town Spanish life.
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Saturday 1 July 2017 - Just for the record

We just did a little walk around the Pinoso town archives. It was really interesting in a slight sort of way. Not in the manner of seeing the Pyramids at Giza but good.


We were shown the census records, births and deaths stuff, details of the charges for cutting wood or esparto grass on the land owned by the town, details of the charter that set the town apart from what had been the more important town of Monóvar in 1826 and lots more besides. There was a broader history reflected in the paperwork - the way that the town was governed under the Constitution of 1812, the change when Fernando VII was reinstated and then when he was forced to accept the 1812 Constitution between 1820 and 1823. The broad stroke of history reflected in the fine detail.


I particularly liked those little details. For instance we were shown the minutes of the council meetings. During the Republican period in the early 1930s the paper was very official, with a watermark and a letterhead, good quality, heavy paper. Into the Franco years and the paper becomes much more flimsy and poorer quality because the country was poorer and short of resources in general.


Obviously nowadays lots of documentation is only presented electronically. Lots of the older stuff is being digitalized. But technology changes. I used a database in 1984 that is no longer supported by even the simplest of modern programmes so it's useless. On the other hand I can still read the cursive writing on those documents from1812. What happens when the particular format chosen to digitalize records becomes so long in the tooth that it is withdrawn?
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Wednesday 28 June 2017 - Power struggles

Anyone who has followed this blog for any time will know that we have a piddling electrical supply of just 2.2 kW or some10 amps. Not technically sufficient to run the kettle and the iron at the same time. Nonetheless because of the tolerances of the system we get by.

Things change though and we recently got a letter to say that our power supplier, Iberdrola, is on the verge of fitting a smart meter with a built in cut-out. We decided that we couldn't be sure that more modern kit would be as elastic as our ancient equipment so I started an email correspondence with Iberdrola to see if we could up the power.

The last time I asked I was told that 3.45kW was as high as we could go. This time, because Iberdrola replaced the supply cables a little while ago, we were told that we could have up to 15kW. There was a snag though. The boletín, the thing that shows that we have wiring to such and such a standard would only allow us to have 3.45kW unless we got an electrician to test and certificate the system for more.

There's a lot of fuss in Spain about the price of electricity and one way to reduce costs is to reduce the power contracted. That's because the standing charges are a big component of the bill. Consequently there are lots of ready reckoner type websites to tell you how to calculate how much power you need to contract. I tried one and it said we needed 3.75kW, another two gave very similar results. I don't think it's true myself but people who know better than me say it's enough. Maybe it's to do with the tolerance of the system. So I checked with Iberdrola, If we went to 3.45kW and it wasn't enough could we still go up to more kilowatts if we got the appropriate certificates. The answer was yes.

We're now on about email number six or seven by the time I finally say yes to go ahead. This time Iberdrola, and the emails have become much more chatty by now, come back and point out that we will lose the Social Bonus. This is an automatic 25% reduction on the total bill because we contract so little power. I know, I tell them, go ahead anyway. It hurt to send that email I can tell you.

And today, probably now on email number 10 or 11 Iberdrola come back and say that even to go to 3.45kW we'll need to get a new boletín. I've reminded them that they said we were OK with that at the start of the process but who knows how it will end?
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Day to day life in the Spanish village of Culebrón in inland Alicante

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