Life in Culebrón

Sunday 19 November 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.

Oh and the individual packs of Cola Cao are 18 grammes and if you'd like to read more of the same or similar just Google Life in Culebrón.
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Saturday 18 November 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 or maybe twiglets - but we nearly always end up buy 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.


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Tuesday 14 November 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.


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Sunday 12 November 2017 - Now, where was I?

This is another self indulgent post much more about me than about life in Spain. Read on at your own risk.
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Whilst I was in hospital I downloaded a book from Kindle and started to read it. Every time I open the book now I can't remember any of the story so far. It's probably just a boring book and nothing to do with me. I listened to a podcast from the radio about Ginés Morata and his genetic work on fruit flies. I didn't understand much of it but then again my Spanish has never been much good. Trouble is that I keep forgetting phrases and words when I'm speaking English too. It may all be very temporary or I may just be a bit more stupid now than I was before my brain did something odd last weekend.

Anyway, in letting me leave hospital, the doctor told me I shouldn't drive for six months. Not such a big problem. Everywhere in Pinoso is basically within 5 or 6 kilometres of Culebrón. Even if I were to amble there, it's only an hour's walk. Anyway I have a bike and though the saddle seems to have been designed by some mediaeval torturer. Although my lungs, castigated by forty years of cigar smoking, seem to be functioning less adequately than I may have hoped. Although my leg muscles, basically unused since I rebelled against running cross countries nearly fifty years ago, have a tendency to the consistency of jelly, I optimistically hope that everything will improve after a few more journeys. Actually the bike rebelled and parts of it fell off leaving it useless but a pal has, very kindly, agreed to lend me a hand crafted bike till my madness has passed or at least for the six months of my driving "ban".

I approve of bikes. Clean, fast, simple, effective forms of transport. Not good at load carrying though. Someone suggested a trailer which is worth investigating but I can also foresee problems mixing a bike and trailer with 100 km/h traffic. The bike will carry me to Pinoso in quick sticks. Lots of people have offered to give me lifts and I can almost certainly impose on them to transport my text books, butane cylinders and grocery shopping. With just a tad of organisation it should all be reasonably doable. I do have a couple of lessons that finish after dark though. I'm not so sure about using a bike at night despite those remarkably effective rear flashing LED lamps for bikes. I've driven for a long time and I know the difference between what pedestrians and cyclists can see in the open air and how much less car drivers can see from behind the windscreens of their cars. I can probably beg a lift again but does that mean I'll have to abandon the bike in town? If there were a taxi I suppose I could spend the earnings of an hour of work on the ride home but I understand that Pinoso is currently taxiless.

On Monday I often go to a language exchange session which starts an hour after my last class and goes on till around 10pm. To fill the unfilled hour I usually take my laptop to the local library and write up my lesson records and do the plans for the next classes. I won't be able to carry the laptop on the bike. Anyway, do I want to be riding home at 10pm? I suppose I'll just have give up the language exchange. Maybe I'll have to give up going to the cinema for six months too? And I'll probably have to stop taking photos because I can't carry the camera around so easily but that won't matter so much because I won't be going to any events to speak of anyway!

This is all temporary and it's all sortable. In no time at all I will work out ways to get most of it done with a combination of self help, money and assistance from chums. It has made me realise even more though that the advantages of the rural location of Culebrón, with peace for us and the cats, has its downside too.

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Thursday 9 November 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 fired up one of the butane heaters in our living room in the evening 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 in the living room for our telly watching last night. We are right on the cusp of it getting cold and 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, for your delight, here is the October 2017 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 of 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.


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Tuesday 7 November 2017 - A weekend in Elda Hospital

It must have been 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 don'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 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 - I couldn't even understand that and I've listened to scores of those podcasts in Spanish. 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. 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 though. 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 (an MRI scan in English). 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.

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Saturday 28 October 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.

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Sunday 22 October 2017 - Impeccable words

My main armament against the weeds in our garden is a Dutch hoe bought in the UK and transported (minus handle) in my hand luggage. There was an interesting discussion at customs in Stansted as to whether a hoe head was safe to take on board an aeroplane or not. The weeds are unstoppable, it's simply a holding action.

Whilst I weed I often listen to the podcast of a Spanish documentary programme called Documentos. I've learned a lot about Spain, Spanish personalities and Spanish History from Documentos. Over the past few weeks we've had stuff about the cyclist Miguel Induráin, the story of a Spanish comic, the illustrated paper kind, called TBO, the 1922 Flamenco competition held in Granada and something about Ava Gardner in Spain. This week the programme was about Blas de Lezo and his 1741 defence of Cartagena de las Indias in Colombia against a British fleet led by Edward Vernon in the War of Jenkins' Ear.


Now, as it happened I'd read a novel about Blas de Lezo who is sometimes referred to as Mediohombre, Half-man, because, by the age of 27, he had lost his left eye, his left leg below the knee, and the use of his right arm. The Spanish title of the book translates as, Half-man: The battle that England hid from the world. You may be able to guess, from the title, whether the author, Alber Vázquez, had any sort of bias in his book.

In the Documentos programme there was passing reference to an earlier battle at Porto Bello now Portobelo in Panama where a British admiral, Vernon, had an easy victory over the Spanish. Apparently it's the place where Francis Drake died in 1596. Francis Drake is always referred to, in Spanish, as El pirata Francis Drake. I'll leave you to work out the translation. I was intrigued and had a quick look at Wikipedia to see what I could find about Drake and Porto Bello. In the process I ended up reading the entries about Blas de Lezo and the defence of, or the attack on, Cartagena de Indias in the Spanish and English versions. Just as an aside the Spanish version mentioned that Rule Britannia was composed as a tribute to Vernon's taking of Porto Bello. The Wikipedia entries about the Blas de Lezo stuff in both languages was similar but different. Here are the opening paragraphs.


Spanish. The siege or Battle of Cartagena de Indias, from the 13th March to the 20th May 1741 was the decisive episode that marked the outcome of the War of the Right to Board (The War of Jenkins' Ear) (1739-1748), one of the armed conflicts which took place between Spain and Great Britain during the 18th Century. It was one of the greatest naval disasters in English history and one of the greatest Spanish naval victories comparable to the victories at the Battle of Lepanto or the English Armada. The defeat caused an enormous number of deaths among the British though the greatest number of deaths, on both sides, was due to Yellow Fever and not to combat


English. The Battle of Cartagena de Indias was an amphibious military engagement between the forces of Britain under Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon and those of Spain under the Viceroy Sebastián de Eslava. It took place at the city of Cartagena de Indias in March 1741, in present-day Colombia. The battle was a significant episode of the War of Jenkins' Ear (Guerra del Asiento) and a large-scale naval campaign. The conflict later subsumed into the greater conflict of the War of the Austrian Succession. The battle resulted in a major defeat for the British Navy and Army. The defeat caused heavy losses for the British. Disease, especially Yellow Fever, rather than deaths from combat, took the greatest toll on the British and Spanish forces.


This morning I was reading the news reports about the pending implementation of article 155 of the Spanish Constitution in Catalonia - the article which allows the Central Government to take over an autonomous community. I read English language versions from the Observer, the Guardian and El País in English. The Spanish language versions were from 20 Minutos, Diario Público, El Confidencial, El Pais and the Spanish edition of the Huffington Post.


It was very much like reading the two Wikipedia entries. The British newspapers talked about the overthrow of a democratically elected leader and the overwhelming majority in favour of independence in the recent referendum. The Spanish newspapers talked about the illegal referendum, support from the EU and the manipulation of democratic processes. The Guardian, for instance, said, in the opening paragraph of an article that Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, announced that he was stripping Catalonia of its autonomy and imposing direct rule from Madrid in an attempt to crush the regional leadership’s move to secede. Stripping and crush are hardly neutral words. Later in the same article the direct quote from Mariano Rajoy is "We are not ending Catalan autonomy but we are relieving of their duties those who have acted outside the law."

  
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Monday 9 October 2017 - Days off versus holidays

It's The day of the Valencian Community today, a day off work in Valencia. On Thursday it's the día del Pilar - officially the Fiesta Nacional de España - and that's a holiday in the whole of Spain. In Culebrón then, or anywhere in Valencia, just three working days for most people this week. I noticed that someone on one of the Facebook pages I read was complaining about "yet another" Spanish holiday.


In fact there are fourteen official days off. In England and Wales there are normally just eight unless some Royal does something. There's a big difference though. In England the holidays are holidays - you get your eight days off come hell or high water. So, if Christmas day were to fall on a Saturday and Boxing Day on a Sunday there would be substitute holidays on the Monday and Tuesday.


In Spain they are not holidays they are non working days. One none working day is the 25th of December. If that day happens to fall on a Saturday then you don't have to work. If the 25th happens to fall on a Sunday you don't have to work. But lots of people don't work Saturday or Sunday anyway. So Christmas Day on a Saturday or Sunday means, for most people, that it's just a weekend like any other. A Saturday Christmas Day would, of course, make a difference to people who normally work Saturdays.


There are fourteen days off work wherever you live in Spain. The National Government lists, in the Official State Bulletin, up to nine non working days - that's days on which people don't have to work. The Regional Government names three more and finally the local Town Hall names two. The last time all nine days were used by the National Government was 2009 though it was pretty close this year with eight. All the Regional Governments chose to name the 6th January as a holiday too so that, in effect, all of Spain will have been closed down on the same nine days by the time that 2017 ends. 2017 is going to be a good year for holidays. Out of the fourteen possible only one falls on a weekend so we'll actually get 13 out of the maximum 14. On bad years I think it can be as low as 10.


When the Government publishes its “unchangeable” list they also publish a suggested but changeable list. These are the holidays the Regional Governments can alter for local traditions or expectations. They include Epiphany on January 6th, Maunday Thursday at Easter and San José, Fathers Day on March 19th. Mother's Day is on the first Sunday of May so it's never a holiday. All of the Communities add in a day of the Community like the ones for Valencia on October 9th and Murcia on June 9th.


The normal National Holidays are New Year's day, Good Friday, Labour Day (May 1st ), Assumption Day (August 15th), National Day of Spain (October 12th), All Saints Day (November 1st ), Constitution Day, (December 6th), Immaculate Conception (December 8th) and Christmas Day (December 25th).


In Pinoso the two local days are usually the Monday after what we Brits would call Easter Monday, (which is usually a Valencian day off) and is named for San Vicente - in 2018 that will be on 9th April whilst in 2017 it was 24th April - and the 8th of August (for the Virgen del Remedio).
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The list for Pinoso for 2018 is 1 de enero (Año Nuevo), 6 de enero (Reyes Magos) como día retribuido y recuperable, 19 de marzo (San José), 2 de abril (Lunes de Pascua), 9 de abril (Lunes de San Vicente), 1 de mayo (Fiesta del Trabajo), 8 de agosto (día dedicado a la Virgen del Remedio), 9 de octubre (Día de la Comunitat Valenciana), 12 de octubre (Fiesta Nacional de España), 1 de noviembre (Todos los Santos), 6 de diciembre (Día de la Constitución), 8 de diciembre (Inmaculada Concepción), 25 de diciembre (Navidad)




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Thursday 5 October 2017 - Saying nothing

A couple of people have expressed surprise that I haven't written anything about Catalonia. There are a couple of reasons. One is that, in general, this blog is about what happens to us, the things we experience, and, apart from a couple of conversations and listening to the radio or watching the telly I have no direct experience of what's happening in Catalonia. I was also reticent to write anything because I haven't cared for the reception that I have received, as a foreigner, the last couple of times that I've been in Catalonia. That treatment has left me a little bit anti Catalan and that's not a good starting point for a post.

To some tiny degree there is a bit of a reflection of Catalonia in the region in which I live, in Valencia. Valenciano, the local language, and Catalan are similar enough that if I use the Catalan version of Google translate on any items written in Valenciano the translation is at least as good as it is from Spanish to English. Lots of the sources of information I use are turning more and more to Valenciano. I've tried, and I continue to try, to learn Spanish to fit in to my adopted home and I sometimes feel that someone is trying to take that possibility away from me. Going into a restaurant in Barcelona the only menu they were willing offer was in Catalan. The restaurant was saying quite clearly that non Catalans were unwelcome. We took the hint and left. My local town hall producing a magazine or an event programme in Valenciano transmits the same message.

Catalonia was a stronghold for the Republic in the Spanish Civil war and Franco made sure that the Catalans paid for that for the rest of his life. Grandparents who were involved, parents who remembered and today's younger generations of Catalans were shaped by that repression. The feeling in Barcelona that Madrid has it in for them was, and is, a constant in daily life.

Politics in Catalonia for the last several years has been a shifting ground of political parties with the same faces but changing party names. There was an earlier referendum in 2014. That process ran into legal problems, a stand off between the central and local government. As a result of that failed referendum regional elections were held with the clear intention of showing that there was popular support for independence. The politicians who had fomented the referendum lost ground. The only way they were able to form a regional government was to form a coalition. One of the demands of a political group, usually described as anti system, to enter into that coalition was that the old president, Artur Mas should go. His successor was Carles Puigedemont. The main election pledge of the coalition was to hold a referendum and that's what they just did.

There was plenty of opposition to holding the referendum within the various political parties in Catalonia. Several normal procedures were set aside or ignored completely to get to the point where the regional parliament approved the legislation to hold the referendum. Basically the coalition bludgeoned the legislation through. Democracy gave way to expediency. However it was going to be done there was going to be a referendum and that was obvious to anybody.

Spain is basically a federal country. Local regions have lots of devolved powers in things like education, health, transport and lots, lots more. The central government has a hand in everything but it's only in areas like defence and foreign policy where the regions don't have a say. Some regions have more devolved powers than others and Catalonia is one of the regions where nearly everything is under local control. That's why, for instance, there is a separate police force in Catalonia - the Mossos d'Esquadra. After Sunday's vote the boss of the Mossos has been accused of sedition by the National Court.

So, the Catalan government has said that it's going to hold a referendum. The response of the central government is to say "You can't do that." There were some very half hearted attempts at doing what politicians do, which is to talk, but the Catalan elite said they were only willing to talk about the when and how of the referendum. Instead of finding a way to talk all that President Rajoy and his pals did was to sulk in the corner and repeat over and over again that it was illegal, unconstitutional etc., etc. For years as the process dragged along the central government stuck to that line. Basically they did what we in the trade call bugger all. The other major political parties weren't much help either - one day this, the next day that. As the referendum started to take shape the Government response was to ask the courts to decide. The courts said the referendum was illegal because it was unconstitutional. The courts used their powers, to thwart the illegal referendum. Judges don't go out to sort out the problems on the street. They send the police. Anyone with half a brain could see what was going to happen as boat loads of police from all over Spain were shipped in to stop the referendum. Exactly the same as when police are deployed to protect a G8 conference or a World Trade Organisation summit. The protestors push and shove and shout and throw stones or burn cars or whatever and eventually some police officer or some police commander loses it and answers stones with rubber bullets. Policemen are given big sticks and body armour for a reason and wire meshes aren't put onto police vans to make them easier to drive.

Up to a point then we have a conflict between two groups of politicians. But, as the referendum got closer it all became much more personal. Lots of Catalan towns have local administrations that do not support the ruling coalition. The mayors said they would not open up their buildings for the vote. Supporters of the vote harassed the mayors and their families. There was a telephone campaign to persuade people to vote and people who said they were not in favour of the vote were verbally harangued on the phone. It became the usual round of graffiti, slashed tyres, children told about their traitorous parents. All you have to do is to think about the things that people who identify themselves with one tribe or another, from football fans to terrorist organisations, do to other tribes to know what happened, and is happening, in Catalonia. Well except for deaths, I'm not aware of any deaths yet.

The vote itself of course was a complete democratic fiasco. Almost none of the usual controls to ensure that a vote is fair were in place. Votes were not secret and it was unsafe to attempt to vote no. Anyway the "no" voters simply stayed away. For anyone to suggest that over 90% of Catalans support independence is sheer nonsense. Eventually, of course, the police waded in and afterwards the Catalan government said that hundreds had been injured. We all saw the violence on telly but how many people were injured is moot. If some Guardia Civil whacks you over the head with a big stick that's one thing but if you become exhausted or hurt in the pushing and shoving, the advances and retreats of an angry crowd that's something different. I have read that just four people were hospitalised after the violence. Either way facts and emotions are different things. Police hitting people with sticks is bad. It's bad press too. It suggests a repressed group kept down by bully boys.

But here's the personal bit. In one of the earlier blogs about corruption I suggested that one of the reasons for so much political corruption in Spain is because of the everyday small scale corruption of Spanish society. The bills without VAT, the wages paid cash in hand etc. There is a parallel in the way that you can appeal or complain to the authorities. For instance, we have been overcharged by several hundred euros in our rates bill. I sent in my appeal about seven months ago and nothing has happened. I can't get an answer. I made a suggestion to the local town hall about the junction near our house using the official process. The response? - none whatsoever. Some pals were charged a tax on the profit on the sale of their house despite actually losing money. The tax is illegal but they were told by a solicitor that it was a waste of time taking it to court. Other friends were mis-sold dodgy shares by a bank and had a hell of a job getting anything back. A couple of years after we first arrived here there was a scandal about a pyramid selling scheme based on stamps and that case is, only now, going through the courts. There is a freedom of information act here but when I tried to ask a public radio station for its policy they simply didn't reply and the ombudsman said it was nothing to do with her. When I tried to ask the interior ministry why Guardia Civil don't wear seat belts in their cars I was told that the will of the people was delegated to central government and that it was not my place to ask such a question.

Britons living in Spain often complain about the bureaucracy. One reason is that if you move from one country to another there are a lot of processes to be completed. My personal view is that Spanish bureaucracy isn't that different from bureaucracy anywhere. The problem in Spain comes when something doesn't go to plan because there seems to be naff all you can do about it. Not answering is a remarkably effective technique for making a problem go away.

The Catalans want some changes and they didn't get any answers either. In my opinion it's not surprising that they chose a radical approach. When the King spoke on telly the other night he said that there were democratic means open to the Catalans to express their views. I think he's wrong. He seems like a nice enough bloke, for a king, but my guess is that he normally gets answers if he asks a question. Getting redress, getting answers in Spain is often a tortuous process.

As I said at the start of this I'm a little anti Catalan but, if I'd been there on Sunday and the streets had been flooded with booted and suited police I may well have been angry enough to go out and vote too.

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Wednesday 4 October 2017 - La sala

As Cataluña burned I popped in to Consum to get some mince. On the way out I decided to buy a lottery ticket from the chap who has set up his stand there recently.

The ticket I bought was for the daily draw run by the charity for the blind, ONCE - Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles. The ticket seller didn't have any of the daily tickets left but he said he could print me one. What number did I want? Anything I said, then I changed my mind, something ending in 36. We call that one La sala he said, as he took my 1.50€, and this one is Francia and this one La corona. I didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about but I repeated what he said and tried to look vaguely interested.

I just checked the ticket, not a winner of course, but I remembered the bit about the names and, as you would expect, Google knew all about it. The various terminations, the last two numbers, of the lottery tickets have a name - ask for the Agony and you'll get a 99, the Cat and it's 75.

I must try it before the burning turns to gunfire.

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Saturday 30 September 2017 - Oiling the wheels

One of my standard responses to anyone who asks for a description of Culebrón is to say that we have a restaurant, a bodega and a post box. I should perhaps change the bodega to say bodega/almazara because Brotons produces both wine and olive oil. A bodega (in this sense) is a winery and an almazara is an oil mill

I went to get some oil the other day and I was a bit shocked when Paco, one of the owners, wanted 20€ for the five litre plastic bottle. It wasn't the price that was a shock, it was the difference in price between this and my last purchase. I'm sure it was 15€ last time. On the label the description of the oil says that it is de extracción en frio which means that it is cold pressed. I don't quite know what that means. My, very simple, understanding of olive oil is that the very green stuff, the extra virgin olive oil is the best, produced from the finest olives, whilst virgin oil is made with slightly riper or damaged olives which makes it slightly more acidic. Olive oil labelled simply as olive oil or pure olive oil is, usually, a mix of both pressed and refined oils. I think there is European legislation to say that any oil labelled virgin must pass a taste test and have been extracted from the olive by pressing rather than by chemical refinement. Because the label from our local almazara doesn't say virgin or extra virgin I can only presume that it doesn't reach the required criteria. Now there's another oil mill in Pinoso over towards Caballusa, near el Prat called Casa de la Arsenia. They produce virgin olive oil. They sell oil in half litre heavy bottles that look as though they are ceramic rather than glass. The name is a little more complicated- Ma' Şarah - with the apostrophe and that funny s, the typeface on the bottles is fancy, the colour scheme is chosen with care to look "organic" and "quality" and they stress the olive variety - either the more intensely flavoured oil made with picual olives or the lighter oil made from the arbequina variety. I bought some - one variety cost 9.40€ for half a litre and the other one costs 9.90€ which makes it about five times as expensive as the stuff from Brotons. They do five litre plastic bottles too, both organic and ordinary, with a mix of both olives.

So in one place we have traditional Spanish marketing and, in the other, “value added” through labelling, aesthetics and increased quality. Something similar is happening with the wine around here, well in Spain actually. Spain is usually listed behind Italy and France in global wine production though we were told in a bodega last year that Spain is now the largest producer in the world. There are several Spanish websites that say the same thing. Whatever the truth Spain produces a lot of wine and it sells most of it to other people who then put it into bottles, make it into sangria, sparkling wine or wine mixes. Most goes in big tankers to the French, Italians, Germans and Portuguese who turn the dirt cheap wine into something with value added, with nice labels, with cachet. Spaniards drink less and less wine and more beer every year but Googling around for who drinks most wine turns up very contradictory evidence. My best guess/synthesis is that, per head and in order, it's Andorra, Vatican City, Croatia, Portugal and France with an honourable mention for the Falkland Islands (Malvinas for my Spanish readers) at number 8 – the UK comes in at 29th. Quantity wise it seems to be the USA, France, Italy and Germany who top the lists but, whilst consumption in the USA is increasing, the French and Germans, like most Europeans, are drinking less wine each year. Expanding markets include Brazil, Canada and, inevitably, China.

A couple of years ago our bodega, Brotons, suddenly had new shaped bottles, new varieties, wine boxes, new labels and Roberto, the owner, became Robert. They were chasing a more sophisticated market. The same has been going on in Jumilla for a few years now and, in fact, all over Spain. When I visited the bodega in Pinoso the other day, which is the largest producer of organic wine in Alicante, it was obvious that they were on the same trail; new names, new labels and a few more barrels for producing crianzas and reservas down in the cellar rather than putting it into a HurTrans tanker  - HurTrans is a transport firm with its roots in Culebrón.

Increasingly Spanish wine, is Denominación de Origen – where all the grapes must come from the region, where there is a body to oversee the production of the wine to ensure that it is produced in such and such a way with such and such controls and that basically it's as good a product as the region can produce. Our local DOs are Alicante, Jumilla, Yecla and a bit further away Bullas. Again, Googling around, there is a slightly more prestigious classification which is Denominación de Origen Calificada or DOCa. The main difference that I can see between ordinary DO and DOCa is that for DOCa the wine must be sold in bottles. That suggests to me that it may be possible for someone to produce wine that fits the DO criteria but is then bulk shipped to, lets say, Marks and Spencer who bottle it up in the UK but label it as DO Jumilla or Alicante.

So upping the game on olive oil and on the wine. As we passed the el Cabezo salt dome the other day, in the charabanc coming back from the marble quarry and heading for a tour of the Pinoso bodega our personable mayor, Lazaro, was complaining that the salt shipped from Pinoso to Torrevieja as brine should be labelled as being from Pinoso. I've seen coloured, and expensive, salt for sale that says it's from the Himalayas. Marketing, marketing – all is marketing.

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Friday 29 September 2017 - There's nowt on t' telly

I was just on the phone to my mum. She told me her news. And what have you been up to she asked. Nothing much I said, a bit of gardening, a bit of preparation for my classes. Oh, and I've seen four concerts and I've visited the largest quarry in Europe and been on a bodega tour. I could have listed the things that I've missed too.

When I went to see the Excitements at the Yecla Jazz Festival last night I could have gone to a homage to the poet Miguel Hernandez in Pinoso instead, When I went to see Viva Suecia last Friday I could have chosen to  stay in Pinoso and see the Catalan singer songwriter Cesk Freixas. Indeed just thinking about the events that we've been to in the past couple of weeks, not including going to the cinema a couple of times, we've been to a photo exhibition, missed another poetry event because of the torrential downpour, missed the dressage event at the local riding school plus some event featuring folk dancers and traditional Valencian instruments because we were away for the weekend in Altea. Mind you whilst we were away we saw the local Moors and Christians Festival, oh, and on the way back we stopped off to see the display of banners in Monóvar to celebrate the life and works of Azorín. For this weekend I've not got much in my diary - there's a Roman market all weekend in Petrer and another photo exhibition and, of course, the Yecla Jazz Festival is still on. Next week Maldita Nerea, another band that have regular hits in the top 40, are on, for free, in Petrer as part of their fiestas and down in Murcia there's the Big Up music festival. Just to show that it isn't all music in the rest of the month there's a whole series of talks about recent Spanish history, a couple of book launches, two theatre productions, a bit of lyric opera and a couple of events for Halloween including itinerant story tellers in Pinoso. Pinoso has a population of 8,000.

I wasn't writing the list to show off where we've been but more to stress the "cultural" offer that there is in our local towns. The truth is that I tend to be a bit of a collector of events. The Internet brings me news from all the local town halls and I follow up on the titbits of information I hear on the radio or see in the press but I miss more than I get to see. What suddenly struck me about all these things was how available they are.

We went with some chums to see the first of the Yecla Jazz concerts. They are staged in a lovely end of the Nineteenth Century theatre - all red brocade and gilt. The compere is a radio DJ from the national station Radio 3 and the musicians whilst not been exactly superstars are all well above the run of the mill. It can't be a cheap event to mount. Our pals were bowled over by the setting and by the fact that the concert was free. Also in Yecla, but this time as a part of the September Fair, we went to see Fangoria. The lead singer of the band is a woman called Alaska. She is Mexican by birth, I think, but she's been a star in Spain since the mid 1970s. Alaska and Fangoria will not be a cheap band. This isn't like seeing a band who are unknown to anyone who doesn't have wrinkles and grey, or no, hair.  It's more like seeing The Pet Shop Boys or Tom Jones - someone who has been around forever and who may be past their heyday but who are still big. Fangoria were free too. A few days later I went to see Viva Suecia; this lot are an indie band but they are a band tipped for greater success. The sort of band that, in the UK, would have got a lot of airplay on the late evening and nighttime Radio 1 shows when I lived in the UK but may well be on Radio 6 nowadays. Free again. In fact from all the list above the only paying events would be the cinema.

The cultural offer in Spain is wide and varied and, even when it's to be paid for, it is usually pretty inexpensive. The arts market took a bit of a pounding when the ruling PP party jacked up the VAT rate on cultural events but, as a bit of an example, I just looked how much the three day VIP ticket for the Low festival in Benidorm would be and the answer is 40€ though that is a special "you're paying ages in advance without knowing what the bands will be" ticket and last year the Low Festival didn't drag in many big name foreign bands though they did have 75 bands and lots of them were big on the Spanish scene. Down in Cartagena at el Batel if you want to go and see Sleeping Beauty by the Russian National Ballet the cheapest tickets are 18€ and the most expensive 30€. In Murcia, at the Teatro Romea the best seats for the regional orchestra doing Beethoven's 9th are a whopping 20€. It's not so cheap in Madrid; to see the Lion King for instance you'd pay 96€ for the best seats but that's still a bit cheaper than the £129.50 for the same show in London on the same day.

Not a bad offer though for anyone who's a bit bored with what's on the telly. New series of The Big Bang theory on Sunday though.

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Friday 22 September 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.

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Saturday 16 September 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.

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Friday 15 September 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.

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Tuesday 12 September 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 was 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 look, I don't know quite how to describe it, but they just reek of Spain. The colours, the dark hills, the bright crops, the dusty yet green valley floor, flat but rolling.

 
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.

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Thursday 7 September 2017 - 1-O

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 like watching 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.


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Sunday 3 September 2017 - Easy

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.

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Wednesday 30 August 2017 - Into every life a little 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.


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Day to day life in the Spanish village of Culebrón in inland Alicante

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