Life in Culebrón

Tuesday 29 August 2017 - What can I get you to drink?

I went last night, as I often do, to the Monday evening intercambio session at the Coliseum bar in Pinoso. The idea is simple enough, an English speaker is paired up with a Spanish speaker and the hour long session is divided in half - the conversation is in English to start, or in Spanish, and then, for the second half, it's the other way around. It's supposed to run from 8.30 to 9.30 but we're always a little late starting and so a little late finishing. There is no cost but there is the expectation that you will buy a drink or two.

If things go well, if the conversation flows, as it often does, I really enjoy the sessions because they are an extended chat. They add to my cultural briefing on Spain. The exchanges have to go further than "hello, how are you?" and people are expecting linguistic problems so there is none of the feeling of failure if one of the speakers tries an extended discourse. Serpentine as the monologue of one of the speakers may be, however many times there are attempts to reform the phrase so it makes sense, the other person tries to hang on to the sense and to encourage the speaker.

There are some interesting characters; a bloke who doesn't eat anything that's been cooked, another, an Argentinian, with a Uruguayan background who is a rice chef at a classy local restaurant and a professional waitress who has been moving between jobs trying to find something more permanent. Last night I got a man who has sent the last dozen years teaching Spanish in Serbia, in Belgrade, with the Cervantes Institute.

But it wasn't the intercambio that I intended to write about. It was that thing that the only expectation on the attendees is that they buy a drink, or two.

Despite avoiding water I think I drink quite a lot. I drink tea in a pint pot and, when I have the time, I think nothing of drinking a couple of pints on the trot. I drink juice with breakfast, I drink pop, coffee and non alcohol beer in bars. I tend to drink quickly too. I drink wine, brandy and beer at the same sort of speed as Coca Cola which is one of the reasons that I'm trying to have a bit of an alcohol break at the moment. I don't think I'm unusual. Maggie drinks plenty of liquid too and so did my mum's friends when I visited the UK a couple of weeks ago. There aren't many Britons whose first offer to a guest entering their house isn't a drink - tea, coffee, soft or hard depending on the time of day and the circumstances. At any British event the bar is usually pretty crowded. Spaniards drink too of course but my impression is that they drink less. This isn't a bad or a good thing, it's not comparison of alcohol consumption, it's a comparison of volume and something I think marks a difference. I did look for empirical evidence and I found something from the European Food Safety Authority which listed the UK consumption, per person, as being 1598ml per day as against 820ml for Spaniards but it was a long and learned paper, which I couldn't be bothered to read, so there may be all sorts of provisos against those figures.

In all of the weeks that I've gone to the intercambio I have at least two drinks and sometimes three. We are, after all, sitting at a café table. My Spanish partners don't. Everybody has a drink but they usually stop after the first. Whilst I feel slightly uncomfortable occupying a table with an empty glass or cup in front of me neither the bar staff nor the locals seem at all worried that people are doing just that.

Obviously there are exceptions. Spaniards go out drinking too and they can put plenty away. A good meal is often accompanied by copious quantities of alcohol and the "botellón", a gathering of young people in a public place to socialize and drink alcohol, is very common and is considered, by some, to be a social problem.

Right, that'll do, piece written, I think I'll put the kettle on and get a cup of tea. I deserve it.

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Saturday 26 August 2017 - In case of emergency

It's pretty dry in Spain at the moment. Occasional stories about the state of the reservoirs turn up in the media every now and again and there are forest and scrub fires reported all the time - some of them burn out of control for days. Often the news story says that the fire was provoked by human intervention. This does not always mean that someone set the fires deliberately (though that is amazingly common) but it does include the sparks from the summer barbecue, the fag end tossed, carelessly, out of the car window and the garden waste fire getting out of control.

Lots of the fire engines in Spain are designed to deal with forest fires. The bodywork sits on great big wheels and the vehicles are intended for off road as well as on road use. We've seen both aeroplanes and helicopters dropping water on fires. There is a special unit of the military - Unidad Militar de Emergencias - whose job is to intervene in national catastrophes. The hillsides have fire breaks cut into them (although one of the common complaints in the aftermath of a fire is that the fire breaks were badly maintained because of budget cuts and did not do their job), the motorway signs remind people of the heavy penalties for dumping cigarette ends from vehicles, you need a licence to burn garden waste which lays down all sorts of restrictions and there are campaigns to recruit volunteers to staff watchtowers in vulnerable areas. In short there is an awareness of the possibility of countryside fires and measures to deal with them. Indeed, in our own garden one of the reasons we maintain lots of weed free bare earth is because a Spaniard warned us of the possibility of fire there.

We went to see the Spanish equivalent of the Tour de France today. A little before that we'd popped in to browse a Mediaeval fayre in Almansa. Wherever there is a Spanish event there are always lots of uniforms to keep it functioning. Local police, the Red Cross, sometimes Guardia Civil (the militarised police force) or the CNP - the National Police - and Civil Protection.

As we walked from the parked car to the Mediaeval fayre I noticed a Protección Civil vehicle parked up. In the back were a bundle of tools that looked like heavy duty garden rakes and other stuff which I guessed were for dealing with fire. I was a bit surprised. Protección Civil are always at any sort of event. If I've ever thought anything at all about Civil Protection I've thought of them as being a bit like unpaid Police Community Support Officers, like stewards for events, like the marshalls for car races - extra hands to help the police and public administrations keep things organised.

The three Protección Civil people, wearing their distinctive dark blue uniforms trimmed with bright orange, who were strolling through the fayre were the usual sort of volunteers. I don't actually remember them but, almost certainly, they would have been young or old, men or women, fat or thin and with or without glasses. In short they look ordinary. I would never think of them as being particularly "professional". A bit sort of Dad's Army. That may be the case but a quick look at Wikipedia suggests otherwise. It tells me that Protección Civil has a hierarchial command structure (presumably professional and paid posts) supported by lots and lots of trained volunteers. I learned that Civil Protection is written into the Spanish Constitution and that each level of Government has to contribute to civil protection plans. The personnel seem to have to take part in a fair bit of training and drills and, amongst their roles, a key one is fire fighting and rescue operations.

It's strange how things just become commonplace. The Civil Protection people are just there and it was only seeing that set of tools which made me wonder. Let's hope they don't have to use them.

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Saturday 19 August 2017 - No tenim por

As you may imagine the Spanish media has been full of the events in Barcelona, Cambrils, Alcanar and Ripoll for the past couple of days. First the headlines, then the confused facts and incorrect information before the more accurate picture started to emerge, the political response, the tales of heroism, the eyewitness reports, the pundits and their views. The coverage was so intense that I don't think there was even football news in the main bulletins yesterday!

We watched the news, we speculated and we went to the silent demonstration outside Pinoso Town Hall to show our "solidarity." We clapped at the end of the three minutes silence and we clapped again when the councillor read out the council's statement of support. Spaniards applaud at funerals and all sorts of events.

I was skimming through Twitter and, in amongst the messages of support, the pictures of mangled corpses and the pleas to help find missing people was the usual crop of offensive, racist tripe suggesting mass deportations, complaints about symbolic gesturing and unworkable solutions like banning the hire of vehicles or curtailing the payment of benefits to terrorists. There were a few messages though that struck home. The ones about why an attack in Europe, the USA or Australasia is so much more newsworthy than an attack in Asia or Africa.

When I decided to put something on the blog I couldn't remember the two countries mentioned in one tweet about other terrorist attacks this week. One was Nigeria so I googled terrorist attacks in Nigeria 2017 and came up with a site that listed terrorist attacks. I was taken aback. The storymaps site told me that there had been 866 attacks and 5,224 fatalities in 2017. I noticed that the list wasn't up to date because the Finnish attack wasn't there. Nonetheless, in August (in just the first 18 days of August) the site listed attacks in Burkina Faso (several attacks the greatest with 18 dead), Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria (27 dead there in one attack but several more), Turkey, Mali, Somalia, Pakistan (15 dead), United States, Yemen, Cameroon (7), Venezuela, Philippines (5), Indonesia and Myanmar.

Al-Qaeda have killed 317 this year, Al-Shabaab 352, Boko Haram 452, Islamic State 2,186, PKK 33, Taliban 823 and other groups 1,061.

The Wikipedia site is more up to date. Since the Barcelona "vehicular attack" are listed: stabbing in Finland, executions in Kenya, ambush in Iraq, bombing in Iraq, bombing in Burkina Faso, bombing in Turkey, stabbing in Russia and car bombing in Iraq.

The definitions of what is a terrorist incident - the numbers above include deaths in the street riots in Venezuela for instance - may be arguable but even if you were to discount large percentages the figures are still astounding yet, apparently, at least in Europe, we are way behind the terrorist deaths through the 1970s and into the 1980s. And nowhere in Europe is in the top ten for terrorist deaths: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria have the dubious honour of topping that list. The worst year for global terrorism so far? 32,765 deaths in 2014.

No tenim por is Catalan for we are not afraid - the shout that went up after the silent demonstration in Barcelona yesterday.

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Wednesday 16 August 2017 - They walk in the sun

I've just been to the UK, to see my mum. I was feeling a bit guilty about not having seen her for about seventeen months. She was in good form, fit and well and full of life.

In the UK I don't have any problem with talking. My words and phrasing may be a bit old fashioned but I can say what I want to whoever I want and with an appropriate emphasis. People even understand me if I throw in a bit of irony.

Nonetheless I find the UK a bit more foreign every time I'm there. I refer back to Spain all the time. I noticed hundreds of little differences - for instance I was impressed by the way that people repeatedly gave way to other people - in traffic, in queues, in doorways. People really do choose to walk on the sunny side of the street rather than to search out the shade. Food was distinctly different and I noticed that people eat all sorts of food in the street at all times of day. Forms of retailing seemed much more innovative with all manner of kiosks and small businesses offering services and products that don't exist here. It could be a long list.

I tell my students about ordering and paying for beer at the bar but I was surprised when the bar staff wanted the money before pulling the pint in Wetherspoon's so I'll have to change that a little. I tell my students that for we British a coffee is a coffee but I'm wrong - lattes, cappuccinos and americanos have taken the place of the distinction between coffee and black coffee and I wasn't there to notice. I found it strange, though I know the system, that the bus fare varies width distance. I was constantly perturbed as I rode on the buses that they seemed determined to drive into the face of oncoming traffic. It would take a while to relearn the driving on the other side of the road thing. Even the cars were slightly different; I spotted lots and lots of Jaguars and I doubled the number of Bentleys I'd seen in my life in just five days. I had to check the unfamiliar banknotes and coins before paying and not being able to see the tobacco in supermarkets was most odd. 

So I was quite at home in England but always a bit off balance at the same time. To be honest it's probably the same here though maybe the other way around. I'm in a bar as I type this. I was going to have a coffee but, as I waited to be served I heard the waitress say the coffee machine was broken. When I ordered I checked about the machine and ordered a non alcoholic beer instead. She came back, "You may think I'm joking," she said, "but we don't have any zero alcohol either." I understood what she was saying without any trouble - though I probably didn't hear every word - and changing my order for a third time was no problem. It's not that I was lost, it's not that I was phased or confused but I wasn't exactly at ease with the situation either. So the talking can be a bit tricky but the way of doing things and the things I see around me are just commonplace.

As I got off the aeroplane in Spain I felt glad to be home but, as I will never be fluent, fluent, maybe I will never be at home.

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Saturday 5 August 2017 - Crackling

I love the heat of Alicante in the summer. The unremitting, unrelenting nature of it. At times, it's too hot but that's often the best bit. There seems to be no escape and, just then, there's a slight gust of breeze or you walk into the shadow of a building - even more perfect.

A few years ago we went to see the Misteri d'Elx. This is a religious play, performed in the Basilica in Elche by an all male cast in Ancient Valenciano. It's one of UNESCO's intangible World heritage things. I think it's possibly the most boring thing I've ever seen - though I would urge you to go and see it. There's still time to book up for this year! 11th, 12th and 13th August with tickets on the Sabadell instanticket website.

I was reminded of the Mystery yesterday evening as we saw a trio of live bands. The crowd was bopping up and down as crowds are supposed to do for contemporary music. Lots of the young women were waving fans, I don't mean they were fans waving I mean they had fans for fanning themselves and they were waving them. When we saw the Misteri it was hot in the church, hot like the boiler room of the Titanic, infernally hot. We were on a balcony, dripping with sweat and looking down on the action. The players clothes were dappled with rivulets of sweat. The audience was a sea of beating fans. The fans were really impressive. A still audience in constant movement. The Facebook screens on mobile phones were less impressive though they confirmed my "bored to tears" theory.

Fans are not an oddity or a rarity in Spain. They're not touristy Geisha or Louis XVI coy. They're a working tool. Spanish women, and some Spanish men, fan themselves almost incessantly. I dislike it, intensely, when the person alongside starts to fan themselves and me in the process. People complain about second hand smoke, why shouldn't I complain about second hand breeze?

I don't really care for aircon either. In buildings it's not so bad and if people weren't so determined to make it fridge cool inside I probably wouldn't complain at all. Cold is nice at first. Walking from the sunlit street into an air conditioned shop can be very pleasant experience. But why are people determined to reproduce winter like temperatures? Rooms so cold that the warmth just drains from your body. Horrid. And, in a car, that horrible claustrophobic feeling that aircon produces as the torrent of cold air fights the heat streaming in through the hectares of glass. Open the windows I say with the added bonus that you'll be able to hear the cicadas sing even as you pass at 120 km/h.

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Thursday 3 August 2017 - Fire, water, and government know nothing of mercy

There has been a big forest fire in Yeste in Albacete. It consumed about 3,300 hectares, equivalent to a tenth of the area of the Isle of Wight. The fire was started, almost certainly on purpose, last Thursday and it was only brought under control yesterday. Firefighters had to battle the blaze along a perimeter of over 32 kilometres. Yeste is about 150 kilometres from Pinoso and we reckoned that the white powder that dusted our cars over the weekend came from there.

Often, when it rains in Pinoso the cars, and the outside furniture, end up covered in thick red dust. The story, and I have no reason to doubt it, is that the dust comes from the Sahara. The nearest bit of the Sahara is in Morocco or Algeria about 1,200 kilometres to the South of us.

When I went in to town this morning I thought I should, perhaps, remove  a few layers of Algeria or Morocco from the car. Thirty other drivers obviously had a similar idea about their vehicles. There were long queues for the car wash.

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Monday 31 July 2017 - Easily amused

I've talked about Spanish supermarkets before. Just as a quick recap. We have four decent sized supermarkets in Pinoso and I use them all. My choice is usually based on geography, wherever the car is parked. Sometimes on product - only two of the four for instance carry English Council House tea.

Whilst I'm not at work I've started to use Día more frequently than I used to. This is because it's on our side of town and the car parking is good. Now I'm going to fall into all sorts of problems with stereotyping here so please forgive me. Día is exactly the opposite of the UK's Waitrose or Spain's Corte Inglés supermarket operations in both its products and its customer profile. Día sells some quality products but it is typified by cheap and, sometimes, low quality in the sense of industrially processed food. Día does not, generally, attract well heeled clients in search of premium product. Now you can already see the stress lines in my argument because the one in Pinoso has plenty of British clients and, again generalising, we're not a hard up community. It's a touch of that Lidl/Aldi mentality - there are bargains to be had for the careful shopper and the other stuff can be bought elsewhere.

I'm beginning to really like Día. All of the supermarkets in Pinoso have their adherents and all of them will tell you how friendly the staff are. Personally I think the people in Consum and at Día are pleasant whilst the Más y Más and HiperBer people are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. But the women on the till in Día seem to go out of their way to say hello to people. The food varies in quality. With a bit of care though you can save a fair bit of money and get perfectly reasonable product. It's not the easiest supermarket to shop in though. The aisles seem to block up easily, I still find the layout illogical and there seems to be a mentality amongst Día shoppers to take up the maximum space, to talk at maximum volume and to choose product at the minimum pace. Waiting for a family group to choose a flavour of yoghurt, a family group that is blocking access to the packet of butter that I can't quite get to, can be very frustrating. The shelf stacking staff can be nearly as bad - they seem quite oblivious to my attempts to slide between their palette cart loaded with pop to get to the diet Fanta as they chat about football. The till area is another weak spot. One of them seems to be used as the makeshift office. It is always piled high with paperwork and it is never open. There seems to be an unwillingness to open a second till until the queue has snaked well past the fresh fruit stand and is passing the pickled gherkins.

So far then not a glowing report. But the place is just bursting with life. There are always incidents. Often the incidents involve my compatriots. Confusions with language, confusions about the price, about the queuing structure, about the money off coupons. There are also the strange conversations I have with Spaniards - usually as they let me go before them because I only have a packet of peanuts and a bottle of brandy - conversations about my food habits.

Today, for instance, I did something very Spanish. I put my stuff on the cash desk belt and, whilst the man in front's stuff was going through the scanner, I rushed off to pick up the bread that I'd forgotten. When I came back the man in front of me still hadn't had all of his things go through the checkout but a couple of Britons were grumbling about bloody Spaniards leaving their stuff and then going off. They were standing over my things and they had already usurped the Spanish bloke behind me. After a little chat about who owned what they went to the other till. As they left I asked the Spanish bloke why he hadn't said anything - "It's what I expect," he said.

The other day a group of Britons had bought loads and loads of stuff. They'd brought lots of old carrier bags to load it into too and they hung each newly filled bag on the back of a pushchair that contained a toddler. There was a flurry of argument about who was going to pay. As everyone, including the pam pusher, proffered biggish banknotes and deluged the grinning checkout woman in a flood of English, the pram overbalanced and toddler and supermarket produce spilled everywhere. All the people, maybe six or seven of them, scrabbled for rolling oranges, cans of pop and bawling children as fifty euro notes drifted back and forth in the gentle breeze from the sliding door.

Another bottle of brandy and some onions. A Scottish pal let me queue jump. The woman in front of me was a Culebrón resident. Strange conversation in English to my left, in Spanish to my right and in Spanish again across the little perspex shield of the checkout.

I'm sure there's an advertising slogan in there somewhere for Día.

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Thursday 27 July 2017 - Wispy light and more

The first time I ever caught the sense of a conversation going on around me in Spanish was on a bus in Granada. I'd always thought that Spanish conversations were probably about Goethe or something equally profound but that one was, in fact, about whether peas should or should not be an ingredient of some stew. Food is a topic of conversation close to the hearts of many Spaniards.

One of the things that crops up in those food conversations is the Mediterranean diet. If you were to ask me what the Mediterranean diet I'd have to say that I'm not quite sure. I know that it includes more fish than meat, cereals, pulses, nuts, vegetables, fruit, wine and lots of olive oil but I'm a bit hazy on the details. We live pretty close to the Mediterranean. In fact yesterday we were in Santa Pola and if we'd chosen to we could have gone for a paddle, so I should know what the diet is but I don't. One of the confusing things about it is that lots of what seem to be traditional Spanish foods look remarkably unhealthy. Surely things like chorizo, the white bread sticks, the deep fried pescaitos, the peanuts dripping in oil, the cheese, the croquetas and all the rest can't really be part of a healthy diet?

Back in Santa Pola I asked if they had any sangre, blood, to go along with the beer. I'm not sure what sangre contains exactly apart from blood and onions but it looks like liver and it tastes yummy (though Maggie disagrees). It's not so available away from the coast which is why I was taking my opportunity. There wasn't any so I asked for Russian salad instead. Ensaladilla rusa is a staple in lots of Alicante and beyond - a sort of potato, egg, tuna, carrot and pea salad held together with mayonnaise. Tasty certainly but healthy?

Actually, I know exactly what I think of when the Mediterranean diet is mentioned and it has nothing to do with the food. The Mediterranean diet is a bronzed Anthony Quinn peeling and eating fruit directly from his pocket knife, it's him eating, and laughing with his friends as he drinks copious quantities of wine around a sun dappled outdoor table against the azure blue background of the sparkling sea.

I read an article in el País yesterday which seemed to reach a similar conclusion only they made no mention of Quinn nor Jean Reno in the Big Blue who would be my other point of reference.

El País told me that back in 1953 an epidemiologist called Leland G. Allbaugh published a paper about the, then, normal diet on Crete. Cretans ate a very basic diet yet they were healthier than Americans. A medical doctor, Dr. Ancel Keys, saw the research and spent years trying to work out why. He did research in seven countries and, to oversimplify, came up with the  conclusion that saturated fat in diets was a major conditioner of heart disease along with cholesterol and high blood pressure. Whilst he was involved in the early years of the survey Keys and his wife published a book called Eat Well and Stay Well. Later, in 1975, they published a second book called How to Eat Well and Stay Well: The Mediterranean Way. It was, apparently, that book which led to the term Mediterranean diet coming into everyday use. But the “Mediterranean Way” was more than particular foods and cuisines or eating patterns. It involved aspects of lifestyle and the economy, such as walking to and from work in physically active occupations like farming, crafts, fishing and herding, taking the major meal at midday, having an afternoon break from work. In short the food was only a part of the traditional Mediterranean  lifestyle.

In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority published a position document arguing that it could not establish whether the Mediterranean diet was healthy or not because it was unable to find a clear definition of what the diet was. The Authority also noted that the inclusion of quite a lot of wine in all of the versions made it technically unhealthy. The Mediterranean diet though does feature as an intangible cultural heritage on UNESCO's list - just like Flamenco or the Fallas celebrations. The definition is not about the food it's about agriculture and tradition, about sharing food and about cultural identity. The full definition is at the bottom of the page

The newspaper article writer argued that the Mediterranean diet was actually more of a process of four decades of hype than an actual dietary regime. Like I said, Anthony Quinn, the suntan, the cicadas singing, the shared bottle of wine. The laughter. Now that was all around us as we ate the ensaladilla rusa in Santa Pola yesterday.

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UNESCO definition: The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food. Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity. It plays a vital role in cultural spaces, festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes. It includes the craftsmanship and production of traditional receptacles for the transport, preservation and consumption of food, including ceramic plates and glasses. Women play an important role in transmitting knowledge of the Mediterranean diet: they safeguard its techniques, respect seasonal rhythms and festive events, and transmit the values of the element to new generations. Markets also play a key role as spaces for cultivating and transmitting the Mediterranean diet during the daily practice of exchange, agreement and mutual respect.
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Saturday 22 July 2017 - I only have plastic

When I lived in the UK I had a lot of credit cards. I made a hobby of moving non existent money between one account and another to try to keep the interest payments down. When I left the UK I cancelled the majority of my plastic but I hung on to a couple for one reason or another. Nowadays I hardly ever use my British plastic but, every time the banks try to take them away, I obstinately hang on to them "just in case". Every now and again one of the British card issuers sells or buys my account and changes something or other. Barclaycard recently did just that when they terminated an agreement with AMEX. As an incentive to use the new card they offered me a bracelet so that I could make contactless payments by simply waving my forearm at the credit card machine. Why not I thought? I suspect I will never use it.

I was a Barclaycard customer in Spain too. They sold their operation to Banco Popular who renamed the card WiZink. The name sounds OK in Spanish, if a bit corny, but rubbish in English. It took ages for the websites and the cards to change and they got around to the final rebranding just as Banco Popular went belly up and was bought by Santander for 1€. Strange really. Santander also absorbed the bank I had my current account with in Spain.

I use my credit card a fair bit in Spain but I use it in quite an old fashioned way. I use it for decent sized purchases - at a clothes shop, for the big shops in the supermarket, for diesel, for the posh restaurant and for anything online. Even if there were sandwich shops in Spain, and Spaniards cannot understand why we like to mix so many ingredients between two slices of bread, so there aren't, I wouldn't think to buy a sandwich and a coke with plastic. In Spain I use money. I go to a bank machine and take money out of my current account. I then use those notes (and the coins that they spawn) to buy beer, duct tape and similarly useful articles

When we were in Hungary a little while ago we were always asked if we wanted to pay with cash or card even when we'd just had a couple of beers. The last time I visited the UK one of the things that struck me was how the tiniest of purchases were made with plastic. I know that Denmark is now more or less cashless. I have seen Spaniards pay small amounts on plastic but my impression is that it's not generalised. So I wondered if it's just me that's old fashioned, if it's another of those rural/urban things, if I should be paying for coffee with virtual money or if there is a real difference between Spain and some other European countries.

The answer seems to be that it's the way that the banks operate that's different plus a bit of inertia.

Spanish banks now charge for pulling money out of cashpoints that aren't theirs. There are also fewer cashpoints because of the closure and merger of so many offices within the troubled banking sector. As a result, for the first time last year more money was spent on credit and debit cards than in cash. So there is a real increase in the use of plastic.

On the other hand only 16% of all transactions in Spain are made on plastic as against figures of around 50% in Portugal or France. One reason for that may be that only 40% of all Spanish businesses accept plastic. And in turn it seems likely that this low percentage of acceptance is because, historically, Spanish banks charged high commissions to retailers on plastic card transactions. In fact the Government introduced legislation in 2014 that limited the commission that the banks could charge the businesses for each transaction. That included very low percentages on micro purchases. Despite this there are still lots of businesses with the signs up to say that you can't pay amounts of less than so many euros with plastic. The suggestion, in many of the articles that I read, was that Spanish traders don't pay a lot of notice to the blurb sent to them by plastic card companies. As a consequence many businesses are still under the impression that commission charges on plastic transactions are very high and it will be a while before the message gets home.

I should add that when the banks were faced with the loss of income on the commissions charged to traders they responded by charging customers more to hold the cards. I don't pay anything for the maintenance of my UK cards but I pay 36€ a year for my Spanish bank debit card. There's also an annual charge for my credit card but I never pay that as the charge is refunded so long as I spend more than so much per year. Interestingly though the Spanish cards charge a lot less for "foreign" transactions than the British cards.

So it's not something amongst we yokels nor is it simply my misperception. Spaniards really do use plastic less than a lot of other Europeans.

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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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