Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

Funny Things They Eat in Spain

Warning: Don't read this if you are vegan/vegetarian
 
It was during my first week in Spain that I ascended an escalator in a big supermarket, turned a corner in to the meat section and was greeted by a rack of pig faces. It was quite a bizarre sight! It looked as though the left half a pig's head had been placed in a polystyrene tray and wrapped in cling-film. There were dozens of them, all looking the same way, which of course prompted a question in my ever curious mind. Where were the right hand sides of the pig's heads? Was there another shelf somewhere with dozens of pig faces looking the other way? I never found out. I consoled myself that at least they all had their eyes closed. Were they open, now that just would have been weird!
 
Even though I'm a meat eater, I was still troubled the first time I bought what I thought was an oven ready chicken in a small local supermarket. It looked like the ones in blighty, again sitting in a polystyrene tray wrapped in plastic. However when I unwrapped it I was in for a surprise. The head was still attached and dropped onto the counter with an unexpected thud! What I was supposed to do with it I don't know to this day. I think I actually closed my eyes when I cut it off with scissors and threw it in the bin. Yuk!
 
Spain is obviously a different country with a very different culture to the Britain I grew up in. The food they eat here and the relationship to food and to animals takes some degree of adjustment. The first house I bought was a country house, and the owner had a shed full of rabbits he bred for the table. I had him remove them before I took possession of the house as I didn't fancy myself having to kill and butcher rabbits. However a short time after I moved in, a neighbour invited me around for Sunday lunch. He introduced my wife and I to our meal, which was a live, white rabbit that was hopping around in his garden shed. You know what's coming next don't you? Yes he killed and skinned the rabbit before our eyes. Within the hour, bits of poor bunny, including his head were on a plate in front of me. I understood being served the head was quite an honour, but one I could have lived without if truth be told!
 
Heads are quite a thing here. One of the restaurants in Cehegin used to serve roasted goat's heads on a Monday night. They were brought out on a tray from the oven and placed on the bar. Each head was sawn in half, and as I recall served face down, so you could see the brain, tongue, sinuses etc. I'm going back a few years, but I think half a head and a few roast potatoes was pretty good value for one euro fifty.
 
My rabbit murdering neighbour invited me out a few weeks later to go snail hunting. Eager to integrate myself into Spanish society I was accepting all such invitations at the time as it seemed the right thing to do. The day came and I went with him and some family members on a walk in the 'campo' along a quiet road where I was assured lots of snails would be found. Now I'd seen bags of snails for sale in the market and they all had ornate spiral shells, which I'd assumed was the hallmark of some special edible species. How wrong I was. All sorts of varieties and sizes of snails were apparently fair game, some looking distinctly like the ones I'd had to put pellets down for in blighty to stop them chewing my Hostas. After a while, we had amassed several buckets full of sundry snails, which my neighbour took to the kitchen of his country house. I was hoping they would be well cooked or at least boiled for long enough to kill any remnants of 'snailness' but alas no. All he did was put them in bowls of vinegar and pop them in the fridge. The next day I was invited around for a snail feast. They were served in some kind of sauce which I had not been privy to the making of, but it tasted quite spicy, as though some cumin and chilli was involved. Much to my surprise they tasted quite good, though I don't think I'd go to the trouble of making them myself. Incidentally, this incident revealed the answer to question that had puzzled me since I first bought my house. The grounds were fenced in, and the fence mounted atop a small wall, two breeze blocks high. Dotted around the property, ceramic tiles were lent up against these walls. It turns out they were snail hotels, deliberately placed to provide a cool, moist, comfortable space for the snails to repair to so they could be easily harvested. I'd inadvertently purchased a snail farm!
 
Probably the most unsavoury thing I've known the Spanish to eat are wild birds. I've not seen this with my own eyes, but someone who does it showed me the equipment he used. I visited the country house of a friend of a friend one Sunday morning for a barbecue. Breakfast barbecues are not uncommon on a Sunday in Murcia when the weather is good which is often. On this occasion we were eating six week old goat (yes I know, animal lovers must be cringing by now, but when in Rome). So we were talking about barbecue and the bird topic came up. The guy went into his shed and brought out a large black net and a device that looked like a camouflaged military radio. It turns out it was a bird-caller. He turned it on and within a minute or two, birds started flocking into the olives trees around us. He explained how he would setup the net between the trees, play the bird sounds, and when enough birds had arrived, he would gather the net entrapping them. Then he would pick them out of the net, and, miming the action, described how he would spike them on a skewer, presumably while still alive, and cook them on the barbecue. 
 
"Which birds" I asked, visibly wincing a little in anticipation of the inevitable answer.
 
"All types" he said. "Whatever is in the net."
 
As you can imagine, I was extremely glad not to be invited back to see that in action.
 
The same chap provided the meat for a birthday party I was invited to a few months later. He worked in sales and drove all over Spain for a living, so contrived to bring back two baby pigs from a trip to Segovia, which those in the know will tell you is the best place to go in Spain if you're into eating piglets. The pigs were placed on olive branches which were laid inside a bread oven. I can't remember the cooking time but I think it was a good few hours, and when the pigs came out of the oven, the meat was succulent and falling off the bone. As is traditional, they sliced the pigs up with dinner plates which were then ceremonially smashed, and everyone was served piglet slices on a paper plate, which seemed somewhat ironic. I must say though it was delicious. 
 
The list of odd things I've seen in bars here goes on and on. Pancreas was something I tried but didn't care for. I was hoping it would taste like liver but no, it tastes, well, like pancreas. One bar surprised me by selling frogs legs as tapas. On the bar in a glass case in lots of steel trays were all the usual suspects. There was Russian salad, eggs stuffed with tuna, anchovies, tigres (stuffed mussel shells), then, unusually, a tray full of frogs legs. The tapas was free with a beer so I had to try them. They tasted a little like chicken. I was surprised to see them in Spain. This was in a transport cafe on an industrial estate, so it is possible they were there to delight visiting French lorry drivers. I pondered for a while as to what happens to the rest of the frog when it loses its legs. Perhaps there were choruses of ribbiting frogs pushing themselves around in wheelchairs somewhere.
 
Possibly the weirdest thing I've seen someone eating was after a bullfight one day. When a bull is killed, the animal is taken out and butchered. The meat, known as lidia is quite prized, as a bull bred for fighting is in pasture for five years to gain the necessary weight for the ring. I've never eaten any myself but it must be along the lines of Wagyu beef. Anyway, I happened to be in a bar near a bullring one day after a bullfight and witnessed a chap chewing a raw bull's testicle! I know it's rude to stare but it was hard not to look!
 
Probably my favourite curious culinary delight is Mondongo. There was a gastronomical society that met once a month in Murcia, mainly patronised by elderly folk who revisited their youth by dining on some of the meals they ate during the Franco period. As a foreigner it was quite an honour to be invited to join the club and I went to many meals over a number of years. We were even featured on regional television, such was the interest in what we were eating. You may know, the Franco years were characterised by extreme hardship, so good meat was expensive and hard to find. Mondongo was an ingenious use of two cheaper more readily available cuts of meat, sheep's stomach and cow's knees! It doesn't immediately sound very appetising, but trust me it was delicious. The dish is rice based and cooked in a large paella pan (I know I know, you don't have to say 'pan' because paella means pan). The tripe, bones and a little stock is added and, as it cooks, something magical happens. The cow's knees have very little meat on them, but the gelatinous fat in the bones melts and gets soaked up by the tripe and the rice. When it is served, the trick is to get a palm full of oregano, then rub your hands together to grind the leaves over the rice, and then the flavour of the herb gets drawn in by the fat. I really couldn't believe how something so simple and potentially unpalatable could taste so good. I don't have much contact with Murcia anymore these days, but if there was one reason to go back it would be to relive the Mondongo experience!
 
 
 
 
 
 

The low down on Spanish weddings

What's it really like to go to a wedding in Spain?

 

I stumbled across a DVD I made a few years ago of a Spanish wedding that I was invited to. I've been to several in fact, and I've noticed there are quite a few differences to Spanish weddings, some of which may seem a little odd to outsiders.
 
Firstly, one doesn't necessarily need to know the bride and groom to be invited to a wedding in Spain.  In one instance I was very friendly with the groom's father but I'd never met his son or the wife to be. On the big day, although I attended the church, I didn't actually meet the happy couple for the first time until the reception where they shook hands with everyone on the way in to the venue. I used my pigeon Spanish to explain I was sorry for not having met before, but sensing my awkwardness, they brushed aside any embarrassment and welcomed me to join the celebration and enjoy myself. I did just that! The food was excellent. It was explained to me there were two function rooms used for weddings in town, one which was a bit 'posher' and this one which had better food. They must have had a large kitchen as there were hundreds of guests there, with waiters buzzing around like bees, bringing plate after plate and wine bottle after wine bottle. The father was milling around talking to people but kept checking up on me to make sure I was OK. 
 
"Did you like the prawns" he said, obviously knowing the the answer would be yes, given the huge pile of shell casings in front of me.
 
"Have another plate.."  He snapped his finger at the nearest waiter and another plate of prawns arrived. Now I'm no prawn connoisseur, but these things were damned good. Larger than most prawns and a deep red colour. I didn't know as I was shovelling them in my cake-hole but I made enquires about them the following week and learned they cost a euro each. I'd probably eaten my way through twenty or thirty euros worth!
 
Which brings me to funding. By convention, if one is lucky enough to be invited to a Spanish wedding, one is expected to contribute to the cost of the celebration. They way this is done is by making a discreet enquiry before the event as to the probable cost per head. Then one brings this money in an envelope as a gift to give at the reception. Some people, close family members and friends may give more, but the general idea is to cover the costs with hopefully a little left over to start married life together. I think it's a great idea and from what I've heard, the generosity of  the guests never leaves the bride and groom out of pocket. 
 
One thing I've seen at a lot of Spanish weddings, not just ones I've been invited to, but ones where I've happened to be a passer-by at the church, is when the couple exit the ceremony, fireworks are set off. I don't know how or why firing rockets into the air in the middle of the day became a thing, as the explosions are almost impossible to see in bright sunshine. The noise is most likely the reason. They also enjoy riding around town in a cavalcade of cars all beeping their horns in celebration. In a small village like Olvera it's impossible to not know a wedding is taking place!
 
Another difference at Spanish wedding receptions, at least the ones I've been to, is that there are no speeches. Nobody clinks their glasses or makes a toast. No 'best man' gets up and makes rude jokes about the groom. Having been used to the format of British wedding receptions, I recall feeling robbed of entertainment. I've also had Spanish friends tell me they have seen movies like 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and were quite envious of this but in Spain, people just don't seem to want to take the leap to address the room. Instead of being punctuated by speeches, the progress of the reception seems to be marked by which course is being served. There are generally lots of courses, multiple starters, a couple of fish courses, a couple of meat, desserts, even cigars. At one wedding I went to each man was furnished with a big cigar and each woman with a miniature commemorative five-pack of cigarettes! 
 
As with wedding receptions the world over, when the feasting is over the dancing starts. All the weddings I've been to featured discos rather than live music. What is different is the duration. Even at weddings that take place at midday, you will still find yourself dancing at six o'clock in the morning and sometimes beyond. I've never had the stamina myself, but I've been assured that the celebrations often continue back at the groom's house up until lunchtime the next day. That's one thing you can't deny about the Spanish. They sure do know how to party!

Eight Great Reasons to Visit Spain

Why Spain is a great place to take a vacation

 

I felt I was unduly negative in last weeks blog post. To be fair, I was directly ranting at the folk in charge of tourism in Spain, not the country, which is rich in reasons to visit. So, to redress the balance somewhat, here are my eight great reasons to visit Spain.
 
 
1) People have been here since prehistory.
 
The first time I stayed in Cehegin, the town in which I spent my first six years living here, I booked into a hotel that had copies of rock art on the wall. I didn't think too much of it at the time, but these images were taken from cave art found in the Peña Rubia, the big hill behind the town. It's said that the Peña protects Cehegin from the worst of the rain as the clouds tend to go around it one way or the other. I'm not sure how true that is but the town does seem to have a favourable climate. It was some time later I learned about the caves and rock art in the Peña Rubia and I hoped to visit them but they were unfortunately closed for security, restoration and research. I understand the caves can be visited today if one makes a booking in advance with the tourist office. https://www.laverdad.es/murcia/planes/larutaconunpar/201405/07/cuentos-edad-piedra-20140505190930.html After I learned about it I often marvelled that as long ago as 3500 BC people had made the place where I was living their home. Of course, the Peña Rubia is one of many prehistoric caves containing early rock art in Spain, the most famous of which is Altimira in Cantabria, the discovery of which was the subject of a fascinating movie 'Finding Altamira' starring Antonio Banderas.
 
2) The Romans
 
The Romans had an enduring relationship with Spain which I first learned about when a neighbour told me the land on which my house was built in Cehegin was the site of a Roman cemetery! No names no pack drill, but a Spanish chap I met in the same town invited me round for a family lunch one day to his country house. The garden was full of Roman columns, statues, busts and frankly looked like a museum. He told me he ran a construction company excavating roads and railway lines. Work would often stop because another piece of history had been unearthed. Such delays were as unpopular with him as they were with the firm contracting him, so often isolated pieces would quietly disappear into the boot of his car so that work could continue! The rape of Roman ruins was not limited to the private sector though. I saw a group being guided around the ancient Roman ruins of Acinipo near Ronda in Malaga province. A woman stumbled across a piece of pottery which she showed to the guide, who much to my surprise told her to keep it as a souvenir!
 
 
3) Nightlife
 
The Spanish certainly know how to party. Ibiza is the party capital of the world but nightlife is great all over the country. My wife and I stayed with a friend in Alicante for a week while first looking for houses here. Towards the end of our stay, he suggested when went night-clubbing and he showed us around all of the local gay bars. There seemed to be dozens of them. I recall dancing along to something camp like Kylie Minogue in one of them, when I noticed video being played on the walls around the bar, then I realised they were filming the audience and playing the tapes on subsequent nights. I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling of sympathy for the future punters who would have to endure my interpretation of The Locomotion. Despite this it was one of the best nights out ever, as partying with gay people often are. You don't know you've lived until you've been 'cruised' by a George Michael lookalike in the Bang Your Head bar at 2:30 in the morning! Changing tack slightly I've noticed a marked trend for nightclubs in Spain to be empty one minute and full the next. It seems the locals move in packs from one bar to another, so if you happen to arrive at the wrong time you might think the place is not happening. Don't panic though, have a look for evidence of activity. If there are glasses waiting to go in the dishwasher you may have missed the 'pack', but if it looks 'clean', have a drink and give it half an hour. Chances are the party is on the way! (Also nightclubs in Spain never have the word 'Club' in their name - that is reserved for another type of establishment altogether where the dancing is more horizontal than vertical if you get my meaning!) 
 
 
4) Beaches
 
I'm not much of a beach bum but even so I've visited dozens of beaches over my many years in Spain, all the way from the Mar Menor in the East to Tarifa in the West. With over 5000 km of coastline, Spain has all kinds of beaches imaginable, so you're guaranteed to find something to your taste. My favourite is probably La Playa de la Cortadura at Cadiz which is a sandy shoreline so long you can't see the end of it. Even in the busiest part of the season you're able to find a quiet spot!
 
5) Quaint Villages
 
The Spanish landscape is pockmarked with picturesque towns and villages. I recall reading somewhere there are about 5000 though I've been unable to verify that figure for the purpose of this blog. While I've mentioned in previous blogs the threat of rural depopulation hangs over the future of many of these, it's also true that there are more opportunities than ever to find accommodation in them thanks to the Internet and services like Airbnb. I met some American cyclists recently (well, pre-Covid) who were riding from one side of Spain to the other with no formal plan other than accepting the hops that booking their next accommodation online took them. I thought that was a great idea. I wish I was brave enough to do it!
 
6) Architecture
 
Whether you love modern architecture or megalithic monuments, Spain has it all and everything in between. We have 2500 castles and just shy of a 100 cathedrals. Particularly notable in the south west of Spain where I now reside, is the influence of the Moorish period and the colonial period where huge wealth came back from the country's expansion into South America. Much of these riches came via Seville and spread out all over the region, reflected in fine old buildings all over the Western provinces of Andalusia.
 
7) Scenery
 
Spain has a remarkable variety of countryside. I've driven back and forth between Murcia and Andalusia many times and I'm always struck by the way the views change. Driving out of the elevated pastures of Caravaca that look like a scene out of the Sound of Music, I would round a bend at the other side of the Puebla de Don Fadrique to reveal a break in the mountains revealing a huge plain, then keep driving to see the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada then beyond them on to the desert of Almeria. The landscape is constantly changing. How many places in the world can you be skiing in the morning and swimming in warm sea water in the afternoon?
 
8) Wine 
 
I don't think Spain's wines get the international recognition they deserve, which may well be because their focus has most recently been on the domestic market. Grapevines were thought to have first been brought to the peninsula by the Canaanite tribe of the Phoenicians roughly around a thousand years before Christ when they settled in Cadiz, (making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe). The Romans later fell in love with the sweet wines from Cadiz province, particularly from around Jerez, much more of which was turned over to grape production back then than it is today. The Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis wrote of the primitive sherry saying it was "highly regarded in Roman circles". Winemaking in Cadiz is currently undergoing a renaissance with many farmers replacing olive trees with vines. The olive oil industry is under threat from stiff international competition from New World countries however there is little to differentiate one brand of oil from another. Although wine faces similar competition, the difference in character between one bottle of wine and another is much more marked and so today's marketplace is rediscovering the wines of Cadiz with similar joy to the Romans 2000 years ago. 
 
These are my solid reasons for visiting Spain but there are many more. What is your favourite?

Tourism in Spain - why aren't they thinking ahead.

A rant about tourism

 

I received an official looking letter through the post this week. You know the sort, covered in barcodes and government logos. Roughly translating the label on the outside of envelope, it was from "The Institute of Statistics and Maps of Andalusia Council of Economic Transformation, Knowledge and Universities'. While mouthing the words represented by the three letter abbreviation 'WTF' to myself, I opened it up to find I'd been one of 5000 lucky people to be selected to take part in a survey about tourism. I say 'lucky', but reading the small print suggests that completing the survey is compulsory. I'd hate to be clapped in irons for not filling out a form, so I hastily took to their website to submit my responses online.
 
My first though was that I'd been singled out for selection as what they term over here as a 'residential tourist', which always makes me think we're regarded as foreigners who live here but they are expected to up sticks and go home at some point. But not so. This was a survey intended for Spanish folk, asking about their travel habits over the last few years. As the questions moved from past to the present  they were clearly designed to figure out what affect Covid has had on people's ability and desire to go on holiday.
 
I've read elsewhere in the Spanish press that certain bodies within the Spanish travel industry are pushing to refocus away from the international traveller towards the national internal market. I think this is quite a mistake. The whole point about international visitors is they bring wealth into the country that didn't exist here before. Encouraging internal tourism, trying to get folk to move around within the country, is only going to move around wealth that is already here, though clearly with the intention of sweeping more of it into the pockets of the folk behind all-powerful hotel lobby who are probably the authors of this initiative. In case you haven't come across the hotel lobby before, they were pushing to ban Airbnb a few years ago, alleging they were stealing trade from hotels across Spain. They didn't succeed but they arm-twisted government to bring in stiffer regulations to private landlords wishing to rent out the homes to tourists.
 
Tourism in Spain is in my experience a myopic, inward looking affair anyway. As I understand it, people need a degree in tourism to work in a tourist office but it doesn't seem to obligate them to speak English or any other commonly spoken European language. I've personally visited at least a dozen tourist offices here where Spanish is the only language spoken. Locally, strategy and planning to attract tourists seems frankly uninspired, seemingly going little further than adorning the old town with flower pots and slapping a bit of paint here and there. Olvera has its own official tourism website which is fittingly blank http://turismolvera.com Regionally and nationally, efforts to promote tourism seem to be equally parochial and archaic. I had a flick through the latest government report from the ministry of tourism, which was lamenting the demise of Thomas Cook and boasted of strengthening ties with the airline industry. To be fair I suppose, they didn't see Covid was going to come along and upset the apple cart. Elsewhere in the report though, there is a heavy emphasis on ecotourism and one gets the impression they are trying to attract a 'certain class' of client with a preferred profile. This is evidenced in the official Instagram feed of the Spain's Tourist board @Spain where images of cathedrals and churches outnumber beaches by about ten to one and gastronomy, nightlife or even wildlife pics are near non-existent. It's almost as if they are purposefully trying to attract the sort of tourists who do a lot of brass-rubbings!
 
My mission here today isn't to totally trash the Spanish tourist industry, but I would like to drop an idea their way. I did so at the end or the survey when they asked me for any other thoughts and I shall relay what I told them here. (Sorry to regular readers that I'm rehashing an idea I put forward in an earlier blog post but I think it's perfectly OK to plagiarise myself in the promotion of a valuable idea!)
 
The EU has in sight the phasing out of the internal combustion engine. Diesel engines are set to go by 2030 and petrol will probably go soon after, possibly as early as 2035.  (https://www.transportenvironment.org/news/end-fossil-fuel-car-eu-agenda)
 
This means that road traffic by tourists from northern Europe will be transitioning to electric over the next ten to fifteen years. 80% of tourist traffic in the past has been by plane, however Covid has decimated the air industry and the future of fossil-fuelled flight is almost as precarious as that of the petrol engine.
 
If however you try to map a route to drive an electric vehicle though Spain today you will find your journey is dictated by the paucity of charging stations in rural areas. Overlay the charging stations on a map of Spain and the image resembles the wheel of a bicycle. There is a dense hub in Madrid in the centre, then a fairly dense ring around the cities and towns in coastal Spain. In the interior of Spain is like an electric desert. 
 
One could argue that this will improve organically as the number of EVs sold in Spain increases over time. It seems to me though that the essences of attracting tourists, especially to a small town like Olvera, is by providing the transport infrastructure they need. If we had a Tesla Supercharger in Olvera it would be the only one between Madrid and Malaga. Imagine how many affluent northern European Tesla owners would see the charger on the map and plot a route to head through here on their way to the coast. Until another charger appeared somewhere else in this electric desert, this would be practically all of them!!
 
This is the way towns grow. My home town is Surbiton in Surrey. Before 1838 it was little more than a hamlet, at least compared with the neighbouring town of Kingston-upon-Thames. Kingston was an important stop on the route from London to the naval base at Portsmouth back in the day when Britain ruled the waves. As such, it had a well established and lucrative coaching house industry. When it was proposed that a newfangled railway line from London to Southampton would be running through Kingston, the coaching industry were up-in-arms that they were going to lose trade, so lobbied the council to reject the scheme. The line was instead re-routed through Surbiton. A station was built there in 1838, from which the South London commuter belt grew. The town never looked back. ( Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surbiton#History )
 
I have heard that attempts to install charging stations in rural towns in this part of Spain have met opposition. I don't know for certain but it wouldn't surprise me if this came from petrol station owners who are worried about losing trade. I hope not. I hope they see the future belongs to renewables and don't use their influence at a local level to discourage the development of the economy of towns like ours. As I mentioned in the blog post Spain's Problem With Rural Depopulation ( http://andaluciasteve.com/spains-problem-with-rural-depopulation.aspx ), towns like Olvera need every bit of help they can get to stay afloat. We should be lobbying like crazy to make Olvera an 'Electric Vehicle Friendly' town. Opinion!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Work. What is it Good For?

(Apart from the money)
 
A work colleague from long, long ago recently got in touch to wish me a happy birthday. I don't want to blow smoke up his arse but if I drew up a list of people I'd met in my life blessed with both high mental agility and being a good hang, he would be top percentile. In our email exchange, we both waxed sentimental over the team of extraordinary people we used to work with all those years ago.
 
This got me thinking. I've had quite a varied and somewhat chequered career in public and private companies of various sizes in various countries, or indeed online, with no particular country at all. The thing that struck me is that one doesn't remember the money. It's always the people, their interactions and incidents that stick in one's mind, which in some ways a better indicator of what makes a particular period of one's career good or not.
 
I hardly remember my first job at all. It was really just the first thing that came along and I was all but bullied into it by the sour-faced woman in the job centre. It was in a factory that manufactured 'architectural metal' which is unbelievably dull. I was appointed as the 'works clerk'. I soon found out I was really just a go-between, relaying the dictates of management in the office to the workers on the shop floor, then batting back their discontent to the boss. It was an extraordinarily dry, uninspiring job and I lasted about five weeks. The only memory of any richness that stays with me was a prank played on the first of April. There was a young labourer working there who clearly wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He used to cycle to work and always brought his bike inside the factory and parked it in a particular place. The prank was simply that his colleagues hid his bike. The poor guy went to jump on his steed to cycle home for lunch but it wasn't there. He started ranting, running around asking if anyone had seen his bike. Looking on as an outsider, it seemed mildly amusing but all his work-mates were creasing up in fits of hysteria. Eventually I had to ask someone what was so funny. A chap told me "We did exactly the same thing last year. Daft bastard still hasn't twigged it's April the first!" 
 
Humour is a great thing to have in a team, as it binds people together. There was plenty of "esprit de corp" in my next position that arose as a variety of gallows humour. I snagged a three month summer job working in what used to be known as the local 'dole' office, where folk would come to sign the famous 'UB40' form to declare themselves out of work and therefore eligible to receive benefits. In actual fact, the UB40 was only one a several types of form used for people that depended on the type of their employment. For example, actors who were in and out of work all the time, had a yellow form and were known as casuals, but I digress. Anyway, there was never a dull moment in the dole office. With several hundred members of the public coming in every day we saw all walks of life from Royalty (we had a Baron signing on) to tramps. These were the days before security screens. It wasn't unusual to be verbally abused, spat it and occasionally, violence occurred. One guy who was refused benefit showed his displeasure by returning to the office with a bag full of refuse which he emptied out all over the floor. On one occasion my supervisor was in an interview with a claimant who slit his wrists and sprayed blood all over her. There was clearly then an 'us and them' dynamic between the public and the staff. It was curious to feel this social pressure from outside the team, strengthen the ties between the people within it. Very soon I was bonding with my work-mates, playing in their five-a-side team, going out boozing and swapping stories about the events of the day of which there were many. This must be a phenomenon that happens in other walks of life like the police, fire service etc. I was only there for the summer but when I left, I felt curiously closer to these people than most of the kids I'd been at school with over the past seven years. 
 
I had several jobs in the Civil Service. Once you get in it's hard to leave! I was in the Ordnance Survey for a while. If I had to rate all my work experiences, excluding the contribution of people, this was probably the most enjoyable because of the travel. I was part of a small unit with a surveyor and two labourers and each day we would pitch up at eight in the morning to get the day's assignment. It was a bit like Mission Impossible! We never knew where we would be going until we jumped in the van and hit the road. We were limited only by the geographical bounds of our area, SE8H, which covered a big chunk West of London, kind of a square from Slough to Wembley, down to Dorking and Guildford. I found getting out and about everyday enormously enjoyable, as was the unpredictability.  I never knew if I would be clambering up scaffolding on a new build block of flats or measuring the distance between street furniture that was the scene of a recent traffic accident. Variety is the spice of life! The public were always curious about what we were up to. During one routine survey a guy came up to me and asked if we were building a new bypass. I assured him it was just a remapping job but he wouldn't let it go.
 
"I know! You can't tell me. I completely understand, but it's a new road isn't it? All these buildings will be coming down. Come on now, don't deny it, no names no pack drill!", and so he went on, putting words in my mouth, convinced that his little town was soon to be flattened by bulldozers. Eventually I leaned into him, and glancing conspiratorially right and left, I winked and said,
 
"Loose lips sink ships".
 
He returned a gleeful smile and doubled-tapped the side of his nostril, which I considered was to indicate that our little secret was safe with him, at least until five minutes later when he would probably share it with the rest of the village. Such are the joys of working with the public.
 
My last and longest Civil Service job was in the Department For National Savings as it was then called (now re-branded as NS&I). I was there for about twelve years and  met a lot of bright, interesting people, some of whom I am still in contact with today. This was a much larger outfit such that from our ranks we were able to put together a half-decent rock band. Despite a rewarding social life though, I felt frustrated by continuing pay and promotion freezes. In 1995 the Dot.com boom was clearly going to be the next big thing and I wanted to be a part of it. So I left the service and became a freelancer.
 
Working for one's self is a double-edged sword. While one has freedom, with that comes responsibility, the most problematic of which was to actually find work. I'd planned to be a web consultant, however I was a little ahead of the game. I thought it would be a piece of cake to get clients as there were so few people at the time who knew how to build websites. As I found when I started hustling for business, there were very few people who knew what a website was nor why it could be of value to them. I eventually fell back on more familiar IT support roles, grabbing bit of work here and there which kept me going for a year or two. It was really all down to sales and marketing and I quickly came to realise that I wasn't very good at either!
 
Then I had a stroke of luck which led to me joining the company I mentioned at the beginning that prompted me to write this piece. A relative phoned me one Friday afternoon. He said he had a friend that had a start-up business in Richmond and they were looking for people. He gave me their number and I phoned straight away. I exchanged a few words with the guy who answered the phone and within minutes I was on my way to work. They were so busy they wanted me to come right away. I was with them for two and a half years. It was a blast. 
 
The way they hired me was not untypical. Most people seemed to be there through word of mouth, networking or even chance meetings. One of the owners had apparently met the General Manager at a trade show and pretty much hired him on the spot to run the thing. I later learned the company had been formed by some high-ranking ex-Dell employees. They had a business plan and didn't seem to find it hard to find funding. As the company grew, many bright and interesting people came on board. It was a broad mix of people from super-brainy graduates like my mate to plebs like me, but everyone seemed to fit in and bring something unique to the table and nobody was denied a voice. It was a joyous time.
 
I should mention at this point, that this company revealed another important factor that can make work enjoyable beyond money alone. There is a special energy and dynamic working in a start-up company which can be its own reward. When you go to work in a well established outfit, each day knowing that the challenges you face will be little different from the day before, well, there is something a little soul destroying about that. In a start-up, things are much more fluid and one meets new challenges all the time which can be quite thrilling. I met an accountant from America who was seconded to us for a while there and he told me he only ever worked for new companies for that reason. Once things are organised and setup to run, he told me that he was out of the door, off to work for the next one.
 
Regrettably the UK branch in which I worked later folded with much of the management moving to the larger, American twin of the company. I didn't want to move to Texas so I decided to move on and set up my own venture. 
 
I'd met a graphic artist while I was there who seemed to know what he was doing and also claimed to be a sales & marketing whizz, so we decided to join forces to setup a web design company. We worked out of a small subsidised office in Kensington and this time I found myself in the right place at the right time. This was 1998 and everyone wanted a website. Pretty soon, we were the ones doing the hiring. I must say I found being at the top of the company generally far less rewarding than being down below. There were endless meetings and far less of the coal face work that I'd enjoyed as a programmer. However one thing did reward me more than anything work related, either before or since. It was a surprise that came like a bolt from the blue.
 
I arrived in the office early one morning to be greeted by a young lady we employed as a designer. She had lots of seemingly ancient slips of paper written in 'Copper Plate' spread all over her desk. She explained to me that it was her intention to buy a house with her boyfriend. The documents in front of us were share certificates given to her when she was born. She was trying to figure out how much she would be able to sell them for in order to raise the deposit. I suddenly had the epiphany that the company I had conceived of, co-founded and was a half-owner of, was actually going to be paying for someone's house! It gave me a strange sense of satisfaction and pride that I find difficult to put into words. I've never had children but this must be something like hearing your child's first words or seeing their first steps. Several more employees later obtained mortgages against the salaries we paid them and each time I was really blown away by the feeling.
 
My business partner and I disagreed over some fundamental issues over the direction of the company and I eventually sold out to him and moved to Spain. My career has slalomed most unpredictably since then, mostly downhill and never bringing forth anything like the job satisfaction that I experienced in the first half of my career. These days I far prefer to be playing my bass guitar than working in an office, though who knows? If an interesting opportunity came along with the chance to work with nice people, I'd probably jump at the chance!

Making money in Spain

The hardest thing about moving here is the income problem.
 

I wanna job in Spain and basically need to know if there is work out there for me, I’d do anything I just wanna move for the sun.  Please help!!

 
The above quote was a genuine question asked a few weeks ago on an online forum for 'expats' in Spain. I kid you not that I see these sort of requests all the time. 
 
Sifting through the three hundred or so replies reveals an interesting snapshot of people's experiences of having moved here in search of work.
 
"Most men get off the plane and become builders, while women become cleaners and dog sitters" says one.
 
"Learn Spanish". says another, "you'll improve your chances of finding a job no end".
 
There was quite a long thread about teaching English in which one camp said it was dead easy to get a TEFL certificate (Teach English as a Foreign Language) in order to get a job teaching the queens, where as another camp were saying the language schools were in decline and rejecting applicants with the cheaper certificates earned on line, preferring instead the residentially earned certificates of schools perceived to be of higher value.
 
Curiously nobody mentioned becoming an estate agent, which many do. This can be a ludicrously easy way to make money in a bull market, but as I found during the last recession it's not much fun when you go over a year without selling anything. 
 
Generally most commenters agreed that it is hard to find work in Spain. As one chap said, "it helps if you have a lot of money to support yourself while you're looking for work as it can take some time".
 
In my humble experience, I've found the the main problems are the language barrier, the extremely high unemployment rate of the country as a whole and the fiscal system here which seems deliberately to act against people starting up their own businesses.
 
Not speaking Spanish, or speaking it very badly as I do, severely limits one's ability to find a job with a Spanish company. That means people coming from the UK will struggle to find employment in inland areas where English is not so widely spoken. This less of a problem on the Costa Blanca or Costa del Sol where English is more common. A nephew of mine worked as a waiter in Fuengirola for six months without speaking a word of Spanish.
 
I knew a young Spanish girl years ago who confided in me the dark secret of her employment status as an office worker. I think her hours were nine until two then five until eight. She had a contract with her employer who officially declared that he was paying her 800 euros per month, and so he paid her employer's contribution towards the equivalent of her tax and national insurance contribution based on the sum. In reality he only paid her 400 per month in cash though. I was astonished she worked all those hours for so little take home pay, but she explained to me it was hard enough to get a job at all. Getting one that paid her stamp and had her plugged into the system was a big plus compared with many folk here who work cash in hand and cannot afford to go self employed.
 
From what I've seen, one has to be rich in the first place to go self employed in Spain. If you want to set up the equivalent of a limited company you need to prove you have 5000 euros in the bank. The contribution to the health and welfare system here known as 'autonomo' is a big chunk. It was a shade under 300 euros per month last time I looked, though there is a scheme now to pay much less in the first year of trading. VAT starts from the first euro earned if your business is dealing in rateable goods or services. Income tax is even more full of pitfalls for the unwary. One chap I know told me his accountant advised him to use a system where he paid a quarterly sum on his predicted earnings. Half way through the year he lost his contract and still had to make the two remaining tax payments for the remaining quarters.
 
Worse still, the tax office or 'hacienda' is so grossly avaricious. It has the power to monitor your bank account and grab money out of it as it sees fit. One chap I knew stopped trading but didn't inform the hacienda. Some years later he found they had taken 6000 euros from his account for unpaid taxes. It took a devil of a job to get it back. The hacienda clearly has an army of spies. For an interesting insight into how they operate, read the recent article in El Pais (In English) called How the Spanish Tax Agency followed the trail of Shakira. They left no stone unturned, even to the fine detail of  tracking down details of her hair-dresser and Zumba teacher!
 
Elsewhere the hacienda has its beady eye on your private sales. If you flog stuff on websites like Ebay, Etsy, Facebook Market place etc, they want a chunk of your profit. How this works exactly varies from region to region but typically in Madrid, sales of over 500 euros are subject to a 4% IPT (transaction tax). I've read where they have had tax officers trawling through listings trying to identify sellers. More recently talks have been taking place to make the websites to supply transaction details to the hacienda digitally. Being a cynic, I suspect when they do, the minimum sales on which these taxes apply will be decreased!
 
Perhaps the most successful group of people I've come across in Spain are the ones whose work is not, i.e. people who work remotely. If you have the right skill-set and the right contacts it is possible to have the best of both worlds, e.g. an American sized pay packet with a Spanish style cost of living. Finding such work is not without its problems as there is a very broad base of people in all corners of the world competing for remote jobs. Websites such as Freelancer and Fiver allow one to pursue work in a wide range of countries but the downside is there is a mountain of competition from all over the world, so bidding for work is more often than not a race to the bottom. It is almost always preferable to seek work by personal contact, word of mouth, networking etc. 
 
Disclaimer. I'm not an expert on Tax or Employment law or any of the topics mentioned in this blog post. These are just the rantings of someone who has lived here for fifteen years and seen the work situation up close and personal!  Nor am I selling anything so I have no skin in the game (which is probably why my postings are a little less 'ra ra' than you might read elsewhere!!)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Getting Old is Rubbish!

OK It's my Birthday. Go Easy With Me!

 

Happy birthday to me! I've reached 58 which is in some regards an admirable milestone. From the Paleolithic era to the days of early modern England, a male commoner like myself would have been considered exceptionally lucky to see out his thirties. Most of the credit for this probably goes to vaccines and antibiotics, though the stable social period through which I've lived has seen little in the way of war and much in the way of an affordable, nutritious diet which has probably helped a lot.

Grateful though I am then, I can't help feeling a little less like celebrating my birthday as each year passes. One doesn't realise it but as a youngster, time appears to pass incredibly slowly. Then, as we age, the years soon start whizzing by faster than a Japanese bullet train. This is due to a phenomenon that I've mentioned before (in Things that wind me up http://andaluciasteve.com/things-that-wind-me-up.aspx ) called Weber's law. Weber noticed that how we humans perceive change, varies in proportion to the thing being measured. Although a year is always the same length, when we are children we compare a year to the total years we have lived, five or six of them or whatever. As we approach retirement, we maybe compare a year to say sixty or sixty five years. We can't but help then, thinking that years are getting shorter. Our perception of the length of a year varies logarithmically as we age. It is quite chilling to extend this notion, as author Anne Rice did in the 1984 Gothic novel 'Interview with a Vampire', to a life-form that has achieved immortality.  The vampire Louis in the book describes the ' terrible tedium of a perpetual earthly existence', as the years become centuries and the detachment from mortals grows, and as the world changes and the vampires do not. Imagine years passing as seconds. What a horrible thought!

OK you might think I'm writing this from the perspective of some grumpy guy who 'got out of the wrong side of the bed' this morning. You would be right. I just got my first spam-email for a funeral plan. That makes me feel more than just old. It makes me feel 'one foot in the grave' old!

It wouldn't be so bad if it was just a case of the years accelerating before our eyes but they seem to do this with such malice. I saw a meme on Facebook the other day which captured this very succinctly. It read "Getting older is just one body part after another saying 'ha ha, you think that's bad, well watch this!"

Temporary Kings is a novel by Anthony Powell, the penultimate in his twelve-volume novel, A Dance to the Music of Time. It was published in 1973 and remains in print as does the rest of the sequence. In the penultimate book of the sequence, Powell describes ageing as like being increasingly penalised for a crime you haven't committed.

It certainly feels like that My first pubic hair scared the hell out of me at aged ten. More recently I discovered my first grey pube which nothing on earth had prepared me for. One wonders what is next? Male-pattern pube-baldness? I hate to even Google it!

Alexander Smith wrote "An essay on an old subject" which captures the mood of ageing far better than I ever could. http://essays.quotidiana.org/smith_a/essay_on_an_old_subject/ He starts with "The discovery of a gray hair when you are brushing out your whiskers of a morning—first-fallen flake of the coming snows of age—is a disagreeable thing. So is the intimation from your old friend and comrade that his eldest daughter is about to be married. So are flying twinges of gout, shortness of breath on the hillside, the fact that even the moderate use of your friend’s wines at dinner upsets you. These things are disagreeable because they tell you that you are no longer young,—that you have passed through youth, are now in middle age, and faring onward to the shadows in which, somewhere, a grave is hid."

Another insightful piece about ageing was in something written by Ernest Hemingway which I read years ago. In fact it was so long ago I can't even remember if it was from a book, an essay or possibly someone else's recollections of him. I've been trying to track it down but without being able to remember any of the key words or phrases other than 'wine' I've had little success, as this is a topic he raises often. Anyway, the general gist was that he considered it a travesty of life that, as one ages, one learns to appreciate more and more the value of a good wine, while at the same time one's body conspires to reduce one's ability to drink the stuff. Having had the odd bout of gout I know what he means. Thank god for Allopurinol. There is a big slice of virtual birthday cake to any wizardly researchers out there who are able to locate the source of the original quote.

Being a bit of an introvert I've never much enjoyed the concept of celebrating my birthday with a party or other get-together. It seems oddly narcissistic to say "This is all about me" and to force my friends to come along, buy me gifts and express their liking of me and sing to me for no other reason than that is what birthdays are supposed to be for, i.e. sucking up to me and kissing my behind. I'm really much happier with a simple message on my Facebook wall, or maybe a valued card from those rare and special people who are not online. The less fuss and the less reminder that I'm getting older, the better I like it!!

How I kept cool during the long hot Spanish summer

Tips on battling the worst of the summer heat

 

OK I'm a tad late with this as the worse heat of summer seems to be behind us now we're in September. So many topics to cover, so little time! You never know though as there is often a last-blast mini-heatwave during September to October. In fact, as I sit here writing this I've just taken off my T-shirt as I'm feeling the warmth of the afternoon. My AccuWeather app is telling me it is 29C RealFeel 30C
 
There are a number of inexpensive things one can do to remain relatively comfortable when the mercury is blowing the top off of the thermometer. The most simple is to keep your doors and windows closed, and shutters down. This is really basic stuff but I've lost count of the Brits I've seen with their windows wide open during the middle of the day when its 35C or over. When you question them about it they say "Oh I'm just letting the breeze in"! No, you're letting air in that is 35C and will warm your house up to 35C too!. The Spanish don't do this. In fact its safe to assume if you walk down the street on such a day, any open windows you see will be houses occupied by Brits! The trick is don't open your windows until the evening when the temperature has fallen sufficiently outside that it will have a cooling effect. Then leave them open all night until the temperature starts to rise the next morning, which at the height of summer might be as early as 8am. Easiest way to know when to do this is to open the window and stick your hand out. If the air outside feels warmer to the touch outside than in, then close the window!
 
If you want a breeze in your house, use a fan. In my experience, larger, slower fans like ceiling fans are more effective than smaller desktop fans at circulating air. If like me you're unable to afford air-conditioning, your next best friend is an aerosol spray. Fill this with water and add a small quantity (2% or so) of surgical spirit (alcohol estetica in Spanish). The alcohol aids evaporation and lubricates the spray-bottle, helps stopping the plastic tube getting gunked up. The evaporation takes heat out of the surface it is escaping from. You will feel this most if you spray it directly on your skin but it also produces a cooling effect if you spray some onto surfaces such as curtains, doors, furniture etc. Obviously if you go mad with it this may generate quite a bit of humidity so it's a good idea to secrete a dehumidifier somewhere in the room to suck up the water. I use the small plastic ones they sell in the supermarket here with replaceable desiccant cartridges. Another trick is to hang ice at the back of the fan to cool the air as it blows. The ice can be held in a plastic bag but as it will melt you need one with no holes in it. Alternatively there are various designs of gizmos and gadgets to hold the ice and to collect the water which are documented in numerous YouTube videos.
 
Another good trick for cooling down in summer is to have a nice hot cup of tea. Really!! The first time I heard this I thought it was crazy but it makes more sense when you think about it. When you consume something hot, the body's reaction is to cool you down which it does by making you sweat. This is the same reason scorching hot chilli is consumed in meals in Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. Hot food and drink helps cool you down. Try it!
 
While on the subject of food, your best gambit is to keep heat generation to a minimum in the kitchen. It might be glaringly obvious, but if you're cooking a roast dinner in the oven you will be generating much more heat than if you were making a tuna salad. That heat will find away to escape the oven and contribute to the rise in temperature of the inside of the house. As a general rule then, stick to cool food like salads, or cook outside on a BBQ or portable grill so the heat doesn't hang around in your house. Also a crock pot is another good choice as they generate far less heat than a conventional oven.
 
Getting to sleep can be really tough in the summer here. Fortunately I don't work a 9 to 5 job so it doesn't matter what time I rise or fall in to the sack, so I tend to stay up late, maybe 3am or so then get up about 8am. Then later I'll have a cheeky siesta in the afternoon. For some reason that I don't understand, I find it really hard to get off to sleep a night when its hot, but during the day when it's sweltering I go out like a light! Again, if you don't have air-conditioning, an upstairs bedroom may be the worse place to get off to sleep as heat rises. You may find sleeping downstairs more agreeable or if you have a quiet roof-terrace, sleeping outside is a good option. I've never had much luck with the latter. I tried it years ago on holiday and heard fruit bats swooping over my head in the dark, which has forever put the kiybosh on the sleeping outside business for me!
 
Another good idea for helping you sleep is to dampen a bedsheet. I find very wet sheets a bit uncomfortable myself but I've had success in the past in putting a dry sheet in the freezer for a few hours. It soon unstiffens and on a really warm night can give just enough relief from the heat to set you off on a good nights sleep!

Andalucia and Murcia compared.

My experience having lived in both parts of Spain

 

Now let me say right off the bat that I'm not going to compare the whole of Andalusia with the whole of Murcia. They're big places which one could spend a lifetime getting to know completely. I'll be mainly focusing on the towns I've lived in and I am familiar with in each respective autonomous community.

I lived for seven years in Cehegin, Murcia which is inland, and about an hour and a half away from the coast by car. I've lived for nearly ten years in Olvera, Cadiz which is also inland and about an hour and a half away from the coast by car. Olvera has a population of just over 8000 and Cehegin has a population of 15,000. Both grew up around a hilltop and have an old town above and a newer part of town below. Both have a 'via verde' built on a disused railway track. Given these apparent similarities one would think that my experience of living in each one would be much the same. My job here today will be to assure you that is not the case.

It's worth mentioning for starters that we foreigners looking at Spain from a bit of a distance, perceive the country to be one homogeneous block painted with a yellow and red striped flag. As you delve into it though, this is anything but the case. Spain has been described as a plurinational state, i.e. one which is comprised of several nations combined into one. As Wikipedia puts it, "The identity of Spain rather accrues of an overlap of different territorial and ethnolinguistic identities than of a sole Spanish identity." I was quite surprised when I arrived in Alicante, to learn that the local language was Valenciano rather than Castilian Spanish, and that Valenciano is spoken in some parts of Murcia. I was even more surprised when I moved to Cadiz province to hear words that were completely alien to me as what forms part of a local dialect called Andaluz. The language in Spain is never easy! Both towns in which I've lived largely use Castilian Spanish, albeit spoken with somewhat different accents.

The most notable visual difference between the two towns is that Olvera is painted white by decree of the town hall. This makes an enormous difference, especially in the old towns. The occasional lick of paint maintains the charm and appearance of the old town in Olvera whereas much of the old town in Cehegin looks quite shabby, though this isn't necessarily reflected in the prices of houses. Perhaps the 'run down' look makes buyers think they're getting something more antique and authentic. Whatever it is, the property in the old town in Cehegin seems slightly better at holding its value.

One thing I found more ingrained in the culture of the North West of Murcia is bullfighting. Cehegin has a permanent bullring as do many of the towns in the area, and those that don't will all have temporary bullrings setup for feria.  Most also have bull-runs through the streets. It is much more common to walk into a bar in Murcia and see bullfighting on the TV - I've never seen that in Olvera. Also, several bars had bullfighting memorabilia on display, one with the heads of famous bulls in plaques on the wall! From what I've seen in Andalusia, bullfighting is seen as more a throwback to a bygone age. It didn't exist in Olvera when I first came to live in the town, but then a few years ago a new mayor resurrected it and so the past couple of ferias have had a temporary bullring much to the anger of animal lovers, of whom there are many. In attitude then, bullfighting in Murcia seemed part of the way of life, where as in Olvera it feels alien and unwanted.

Shortage of water and irrigation is a big difference between the two areas. As in the UK, wet weather comes in from Atlantic systems, hitting Wales and the West of the country first, then depleting as it moves East, so that parts of Essex and Suffolk are often quite dry. It is much the same in the Iberian peninsula. Cities like Sevilla, Malaga and Jerez get over 500mm of rainfall each year, where as Murcia gets around 300. Shortages of water are therefore more common in Murcia, and a campaign 'Agua para todos' was raging when I lived there, with the goal of increasing the community's water supply. This has been a political football for decades with the PP having a plan to divert water from the Ebro that the PSOE cancelled, preferring instead to build desalination plants. As fast as they could be constructed though, the more golf courses were built to siphon off the water being created. The campaign flags no longer fly, and although the development of golf resorts pretty much came to a halt after the 2008 crash, the political wrangling still has not produced a satisfactory solution to the area's water shortage.

Anyway, the relative scarcity of water has been different for centuries and some of the ingenious solutions I saw implemented in Murcia I have not seen here in Andalusia. They may well exist in other areas but not where I am. Murcia has a large network of Acequias, irrigation channels which are overseen by a local office who determine who has water rights and assign days and times when the irrigation water can be accessed. The irrigation channels are in turn connected to many reservoirs and water is pumped around a circuit. It's much cheaper than tap water as it is completely undrinkable, though I've known people fill their pools with it and shock treat it with chlorine.

If you have any hope of growing anything in the arid climate in Murcia you need acequia rights in your property's escritura. Depending on where you are and what time of year it is, the acequia may be full of water all day, or it may only come on for an hour on say, Tuesday evening at 10pm, in which case you'll have to make sure to be out there opening the sluice-gates at just the right time to take advantage of your allocation. Another common practice I don't see so much in Andalucia is that of digging wells around trees to capture the irrigation water. There is a bit of an art to this. One will often see a farmer has dug a series of channels and wells from his sluice-gate in such away as to allow the water into wells around each tree, leaving much of the rest of the land dry. When the gate is opened and the water flows in it is mesmerising to watch the water slosh along its assigned track, like watching a big domino toppling event!

Turning to food, I'm surprised seafood isn't such a big thing in my part of Andalucia. Nearly every bar in Cehegin of a Saturday or Sunday lunch time would reek of prawns, sepia, octopus and many other fruits of the sea. Don't get me wrong, we get all these in Olvera too, but kind of part of a balanced diet. In Murcia it seemed much more of a ritual that folk would spend an hour in the bar for their seafood hit before heading on home for comida! I've long wondered if perhaps this was Mediterranean thing, that the people of Olvera see themselves as Atlantic people, but that argument falls flat on its face when one experiences that wonderful seafood served on the coast in places like Malaga!

Finally let me address the nature of the people in both places I've lived. Neither have been much impressed by my efforts to tempt them with either English or Asian food. They are very happy with themselves in their own respective cultures. Those cultures are slightly different in ethnic roots. Far less moorish influence is apparent in Murcia. Perhaps because the moors were chased out of Murcia much earlier, there is less evidence in terms of place names, food and architecture. In Andalusia one is more likely to stumble across Visigothic arches, or dishes with spices like cumin which are non-existent in Murcia. Also the influence of the Gitano people is in evidence in all the towns I've visited in Seville, Cadiz and Malaga. I didn't realise until researching this article that the Gitano only arrived in the 16th but there influence in Andalusia is great and manifests itself through the music, dance and clothing of flamenco.

I recall during the Cehegin feria, one night is always themed as Seville night where folk would dress up in flamenco outfits and dance to Sevillana music, a sort of watered down flamenco. The flamenco outfits were generally off-the-peg, elasticated to fit a range of sizes. It wasn't until I went to a feria in Olvera that I realised how different it was to see a fitted flamenco dress worn by a girl whose mother had probably spent six months making it, dancing to real flamenco music. The traditional folk music, dancing and folk dress in Murcia is very different indeed, more like something from Eastern Europe. Without wishing to diminish it's value, I got the impression the people of Murcia, although proud of their own folk roots, are rather envious of flamenco culture and see it as we foreigners do, as the real Spain!

A brief sketch of my dad

A tribute to my late father on his birthday

 

My late father would have been celebrating his 112 birthday today were he alive, which is a good excuse for me to relate a few stories about him.
 
When I was a youngster there were no end of people who would take me aside and tell me what a good man my father was. His work colleagues, neighbours, seemingly anyone who knew him, deemed it necessary to point out to me I had a good dad. We moved house when he retired and within months our new neighbours were taking me aside telling me what a good chap he was. I must say I took it for granted. I thought every kid's father must have a similar fan-club! 
 
Then, when I was 17 he died suddenly. It fell to me to sort out his affairs as mother, lovely though she was, could hardly write a cheque. As I went though his papers I came across a big wodge of letters going back thirty years or so. Each was a 'thank you' letter. Most started 'Dear brother Gould, thank you for help with xxx'. It turned out he had been the 'shop steward' for his trade union. Dad was a school caretaker and looked after the interests not only for the people working in his school but many all over the Kingston area. Only then did it dawn on me why so many folk had been keen to point out why father was such a good fellow. He'd spent all his working life defending the interests of common people. I didn't even know. He never talked about it. He was a working class hero, and as John Lennon aptly said, that was something to be.
 
Dad came from inauspicious beginnings. Born one of eight siblings in 1908, his father, who was an itinerant agricultural labour, failed to return one winter. His mother supported the family by taking in washing, but the strain became too great, so dad and his little brother George were sent away to the Farm School in Bisley, a charitable institution run on military lines. Father learned lots of interesting skills there, including, shooting, bee-keeping, cobbling, the rudiments of music and, in the absence of much food other than gruel, the ability to forage in the country. He told me pigeons, rabbits and hedgehogs were common treats that he and his friends would kill and eat after school.
 
He did well in his exams and returned to Surbiton, where after a few casual jobs including a stint as a telegram delivery boy, he secured a job with the Water Board in Kingston. As part of his apprenticeship he had to attend college in north London, a journey he did everyday by bicycle, which would have been a 25 mile round -trip - not bad for the boneshakers of the day. The timeline becomes a little foggy at this point but somewhere along the line in the 1920's to 1930's he became an assistant to a plumber, travelling the country installing coal-fire central heating systems, which were cutting edge at the time, so most of the installations were in grand mansion houses and castles. Clients included George Westinghouse of the Westinghouse Brake company and Lord Nuffield, he of the Morris Motor company. Dad said Nuffield was an insomniac whose mind was always racing far too much for sleep. His fascination for engineering was such that Nuffield spent much time with them, wishing to learn everything possible about the boilers, pipes and radiators they were installing. 
 
I believe dad went independent as a plumber and had his own business in the mid to late 1930s as I used to have business cards and brochures with his name on. I wish I still had them as the Art-Deco influenced artwork of the bathroom suites were a sight to behold. I think the war put an end to that as he enlisted into the Royal Air Force in 1939 and trained as an engineer, spending much time patching up warplanes returning from combat. He was invalided out in 1942 and joined the Home Guard, where ironically he patrolled the water-board in Kingston with a pick-axe handle, the place where he had started his career in engineering. Incidentally, he wasn't a fan of TV or fiction but he loved the show Dad's Army as it mirrored his own time defending London against the invading Hun.
 
After the war, prompted by his first wife, he took a job as a caretaker of Hollyfield School. His wife was lured by the cottage adjacent to the school, though sadly she died not long after they moved in. A decade later he married my mother and remained in the janitorial position until his retirement in 1973.
 
So many things come to mind when I think of my father. His capacity to learn things amazed me. He could communicate in sign language. Most people only learn this to communicate with an afflicted relative. Dad learned it while recuperating in hospital during the war. The matrons were very strict about noise on the ward, so he and a fellow patient taught themselves to sign each other so as to communicate silently. He learned music at school but only clarinet and cornet. Yet he could also play piano quite well. I don't know how he learned this, as he never owned a piano. He just seemed to 'pick it up' whenever he had access to one. I'd also seen him play other instruments like the mouth-organ and the accordion. He was one of those people who seemed to be able to coax a tune out of any instrument he picked up.
 
On one occasion he found a large wasp nest, the size of a cello in one of the school's outbuildings. It was full of wasps and hummed in a scary manner as though the whole thing was alive. Instead of calling in pest controllers, and without much in the way of protective equipment he removed it himself by, as I recall, making a smoke gun from an old paint can and some oily rags. He repaired watches for a hobby. He was always learning new things and instilled in me the idea of being a life-long learner, long before the phrase became commonplace. 
 
He taught me so many crazy but practical things, like to store paint cans upside down once opened so as any skin forms on the bottom. When climbing a ladder the rungs are strongest at the edges, so avoid treading in the middle of the rungs as that's where they're most likely to snap. He taught me to read before I went to school and as a toddler, bounced me on his knee while reciting chemical formulae. He taught me how to avoid 'catch-pennies' and never to trust politicians. He showed me how to change a tap washer without turning off the mains water. He showed me an exciting way to check for leaks with a cigarette lighter when installing a gas fire. He was old skool! He rode a Harley Davidson before it was cool. I once saw him use divining rods to locate a blockage in a drain. To me, everything about him was remarkable and I was convinced my dad had super-powers. I loved him dearly then as I do now. Happy birthday dad!
 
Dad and me cerca 1966
 
 
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An aside

 

Spain News

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