Andalucia Steve the dream


This is the last of my regular weekly postings


It's four in the morning. I've been binge-watching 'Mindhunter' and I just went to the kitchen to check on the sink, which has had problems draining. I boiled another five litres of water and poured it down with a litre of 6% wine vinegar which had been languishing at the back of the cupboard for years but it doesn't seem to make any difference. I'm at that stage in a non-practical man's life where I'm counting the times I buy the namby-pamby drain-cleaner solutions from the supermarket, comparing the cost with biting the bullet and getting Eduardo the plumber in to give a more lasting solution to the blockage. First world problems I know, but if the sink doesn't empty, the dishwasher might overflow and flood the kitchen, and if I can't use the dishwasher then I'll have to wash the plates by hand in the bath, which is a fate too tedious to consider.
Anyway that's my morning so far. Today however is a milestone, as it is the last day of my self-enforced blog publishing time-table. A year ago I made the New Year's resolution that I would draw up a weekly publishing schedule for my blog and spew out an original piece of content each Sunday. Much to my surprise, I've managed to stick to it. This is issue 53. I aimed for each post to be about 1000 words which I stuck to more of less, so that is 53,000 words. That's a lot of words, nearly a book in fact!
The exercise has taught me a lot. Sticking to a time-table has brought me a loyal if small regular reader-ship of about 60 people who take the trouble to read what I write. Some even comment and get involved with discussions which have at times become a little heated, even though I've mostly steered away from politics and religion. I've only marketed the articles on Facebook and Twitter, a single post for each article on each platform. On both, the topics that have had the most traction are Spain and Brexit, probably a reflection of the folk I interact with most on each of these.
I had no idea when I started these regular postings that 2020 would be the year of Covid-19. I had no idea people would be trapped in their homes and that I too would have a vastly different pattern to my daily activities. Looking back on it, the creation of a timetable with deadlines was probably the single best thing I could have done, as it helped me give form to a week where days could otherwise have been indistinguishable from one another, save for the occasional trip to the shops. If you're fortunate to live with other human beings, I can tell you first-hand, that being on your own during the pandemic has been far more trying than in regular times when one can come and go at will. At times it has felt like being in solitary confinement and I for one will be glad to see a return to normality in 2021, even though I'm not personally a very gregarious person. Even now my sleep patterns remain largely divorced from the clock as I'm so used to the feeling that there are no appointments to keep and nobody is going to be knocking on the door. (Hence writing this at four in the morning!)
I suppose, on reflection things could have been worse in 2020. Yellowstone could have erupted. No civilisation-killer asteroids crashed into the earth. Aliens haven't invaded and started shooting up the place. Apart from the pandemic and Brexit I think we've got off quite lightly really!
For those of you who are disappointed that my regular postings end today, I will continue to post sporadically as the mood takes me, however I plan to take the timetable principle and the allotted time to devote to another potentially more lucrative activity. I have not made a final decision as to what that might be. Someone suggested I should weave the Spain related anecdotes into a book which had not occurred to me. I had in mind a couple of other writing-related ideas, so I want to spend some time teasing these out and look at the best one to pursue.
In the mean time, here's a poem wot I wrote. I haven't written a poem since I was at school so don't laugh, but it's just a stream of consciousness thing about the things my nose encounters here on a daily basis, so don't go looking too hard for rhyme!
Of sun-born olive-branch bonfires
Of over-revved two-stroke engines
Of early morning bleached pavements
Of just-baked loaves off the bread-man's van
Of coiffured old women pebble-dashed in talc
Of elderly men dripping in Tabac
Of expresso and tostadas 
Of the secret smell of budding ganja
Of churros and chocolate
Of workman's sweat and builder's dust
Of puros scenting up the street
Of frying squid and boiling octopus
Of brandy, ponche and anis
Of sun-scorched earth and tar then rain, reminding us of life again
These are the things I smell in Spain, of life, of love, of being sane.

Creepy crawlies & other critters.

..and things that go bump, bump bump in the night.


This week I've been caught up in cobwebs a couple of times in my house. It's as though really tiny spiders have been on manoeuvres, abseiling down from the ceiling in random places, setting traps for me to catch the almost invisible threads in my face. In fairness I don't get many bugs here in Olvera, just the occasional cockroach on reconnaissance from the drain in the street, and earwigs, which for some unknown reason are keen to hang out in my bathroom, keeping me company on towels and face-clothes etc.
It was a different story when I first came to Spain, probably because the place I lived was more rural. The agent who sold us the house told us a big lie. She assured us there were no spiders here, well, only the sort of 'gangly' ones that looked like crane flies. Several months later a spider the size of my hand appeared on the ceiling. We had a guest around to witness it. It crossed my mind that the best way to handle the situation was to calmly evacuate, take shelter in a neighbouring province and then implore NATO to make a tactical nuclear strike on my house. Fortunately my guest was less terrified of spiders than I was, and managed to wrangle the beast with a chair and a whip, ushering him in a bucket from whence he was dispatched to the chicken coup. Chickens are your best friend if you dislike creepy crawlies. They relish spiders and I've even seen them eat a baby snake (another critter I'm not keen to share living space with). For the record, a chicken's gullet is capable of grinding glass, so they make swift work of all kinds of bugs.
We had plenty of bugs there for the chickens to get to work on. Being an old property, the house had various nests of long standing. There was a thicket of ivy surrounding the tool shed from which beetles the size of rats would emerge every now and again. These would be redirected to the chicken run for sonderbehandlung. Indoors there was a huge fireplace, the insides of which was fitted with protective sheets of iron. From the gap between the iron and the wall, during the night when nobody was around, a predator would crawl out and prowl the living room. I first noticed this when I came down for a wee one night and, as it was a bright, moonlit night, I didn't bother turning the lights on. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something darting across the floor. It had the length and width of a six inch school ruler, and was galloping at the speed of a race horse. I reached for the light, but as I switched it on I was only able to catch a brief glimpse of the critter as it disappeared into it's lair. It was a giant centipede, or as I later found out when I looked it up, 'Scolopendra cingulata' or Mediterranean banded centipede which is a nasty piece of work. It is an opportunistic carnivore which can eat insects and small lizards, and if suitably provoked, endow you with a painful, toxic bite as well as a lifetime of nightmares. I figured I wasn't brave enough to tackle the nest by removing the iron plates, so instead I invested in an insecticide spray sold here called Zum (which smells truly awful and is probably banned in the rest of the civilized world). This is employed by spraying the floor and walls where it creates a barrier that is toxic to walking insects. I sprayed this all over the room and sure enough, in subsequent mornings I would come down to discover dead centipedes, some even larger than the first specimen I caught a glimpse of. 
Wasps were of course a problem. A Spanish chap give me a good tip. Keep away from them during the day time. If you're planning to disable a wasps nest, do it at night when they are home and asleep.  He demonstrated this in an out-building of his country house one evening on a nest about the size of a fist. He gave it a quick spray of lighter fluid and set it on fire. In seconds it burned to a cinder, wasps and all, without a single angry escapee, though to be fair, I may have missed some of the action as I had, as is my nature, turned and run as far away as was as humanly possible.
Probably the largest insect to have accosted me in those early days was some sort of locust. I was stood admiring a friends garden when I noticed something flying towards me. I didn't have a clue what it was. As is the case at such moments, time seemed to slow to a standstill. As my mind was saying "w h a t  t h e  a b s o l u t e  f u c k" in slow-motion,  the insect coming towards me just kept getting bigger and bigger. Then suddenly there was a thud and it landed on my chest. It must have been four inches long. There it sat, looking up it me as though it was trying to figure out whether I was edible or not. I made the decision for him and flicked it off with the back of my hand. Fortunately these things are tourists from Africa. We don't see them very often, and when we do they are generally on their own, not in crop-stripping plagues. Still it gave me the willies I can tell you.
Bigger still were the eagles, and trust me, these things are big. I was driving in the country one day and an eagle flew across the road, having emerged from a driveway. It flew right across the bonnet of my car, giving me about the best possible view one can get of an eagle in flight without actually riding one! In particular I noticed the talons were not much smaller than my hands. Some months later I saw another one in action. I was pottering about in the garden when an eagle swooped into the vegetable patch, presumably on the hunt for some unfortunate mouse or vole or whatever. The thing that struck me was deadly combination of speed and silence. I was lucky enough to be looking in the right direction at the right time to see the thing dive-bombing, but I could easily imagine that from the position of the prey, there would be no warning, just instant death from a blue sky. I had a pool in a private and secluded walled-garden at the time and was in the habit of doing the odd spot of sun-bathing in the nuddy. Subsequently I always kept my shorts on while catching a few rays in case a more myopic eagle than most mistook my member for a mouse! Imagine having to explain that one in A&E.
I don't get to see so much wildlife now I live in Olvera. There are always big birds flying around, vultures and so forth, though I rarely see them up close. Turtles in the river are about the height of entertainment locally, though further afield I've seen badgers in Ronda. The most puzzling thing I've seen was whilst driving to Ronda early one morning. Something strange was crossing the road near Montecorto. I had to do a double-take because it looked like a self-propelled coffee table. There were, what seemed to be eight legs hanging off a fringed table-top just a few inches off the ground, with a head and a tale that matched like those found on a Viking Longship, and the whole thing had the same hue as a red squirrel. You can tell from my inept description I'm no wildlife expert! I mused for a long while on this and did a fair amount of Googling. My final conclusion was that it was a pair of mongooses (is that mongeese?). They would have been running pretty much one behind the other, hence the eight legs. Given my eyesight though it may well have been a coffee table!
Incidentally, for those who know me or have read the blog post I'm pleased to say I finally got to see the ophthalmologist in Ronda last week (one year and two months after my accident - thanks Covid) and she confirmed there is no permanent damage to my eye.

Units in Spain

How some old units of measure endure to this day.

100 Pesetas

My first souvenir from Spain was a banknote. Back in 1972, my sister's boyfriend at the time had a fortnight in Torremolinos and gifted a One Hundred peseta note to me on his return, knowing that collecting foreign banknotes and coins was my childhood hobby. I remember I was quite taken by the images of the people on each side of the note. They looked so dignified and interesting in a foreign sort of way. Spain abandoned the peseta in 2002 when it joined the Euro (and achieved world-record sales of BMWs and Mercedes as bundles of black money which would otherwise soon be rendered worthless, were quietly withdrawn from under mattresses nationwide and laundered through car dealerships who had never had it so good).
So it came as quite a surprise when I first moved here and started to parlez with the locals, that the value of most assets, houses, cars and so on were still valued in pesetas.
This became a bit of a nuisance when I started working with a Spanish estate agent. Typically I'd be in the middle of a conversation between him and some English speaking clients, translating with my crude command of Spanish.
"How much would it cost to build a pool in this property?" They would ask, and I would translate to the agent.
"Two million pesates" would come the reply.
As a rule of thumb, a million pesetas is 6,000 euros, so I'd translate,  calculate and tell the client 12,000 euros for the pool. A similar process would be required when folk asked me for quotes for kitchens, bathrooms, outbuildings etc. At times it became quite a challenge!
It was interesting though, travelling around the country while working with the estate agent. He had lots of property all over the place, mainly in Murcia but also from Valencia down to Almeria. One thing I'd often see in old houses were mains transformers. Spain used to use a 110V electricity supply, and apparently still does in some places. Although all electrical equipment sold today is designed to run on 220V, there are still houses out there which I have seen that have a mixture of 110V and 220V appliances used in the same house thanks to crude transformers that are often unboxed and look like rusty relics from a bygone age.
It wasn't just the volts and pesetas that gave me a jolt back to the past. Another thing I noticed was that although Spain adopted the metric system in the 1850s, it was still common to hear other units used to described land length and area. The first one of these I came across was the fanega,  which the estate agent would use mainly when talking to farmers about the size of a plot in the country. My Spanish wasn't really up to diving into the conversation between two old guys rabbiting on at ten to the dozen in their thick regional, country accents, so I used to enlist the help of a young girl who worked in the office to figure this stuff out. She told me that a fanega was a unit of land area that was used in Spain in antiquity and that the funny thing about it was there was no consistent standard across the country. So a fanega in Murcia could be a different size altogether to a fanega in Andalucia. The web didn't help me much at the time (this was about 2005) but while researching this article, I came across a conversion chart that confirms this to be the case Just look at the Square Metre column and the wide range of different values across Spain. It's a wonder they managed to do any deals at all!
And the fanega wasn't the only one. Another measure I came across while working there was the  tahúlla which was used more in the north east of Murcia up towards Valencia way. Again, at the time I couldn't find much out about this online but I've just checked and the tahúlla possibly dates back to Islamic times, but is still being used today by some folk in Spain who can't get their heads around hectares. For the record, a tahúlla is equivalent to 1118 metres squared.
I thought I'd write about the units used in Spain as many of them would be unfamiliar to lot of my readers. However one unit used here will be familiar to everyone, even if the word used is different. Like most countries in the world, Spain measures TV screens and monitors in 'pulgadas' which means inches.  You can't keep a good unit down!

Sunday Blackout

How my electricity went down and didn't come back up


Last Sunday was a funny old day. As occasionally happens at this time of year, work was scheduled to upgrade the electricity supply, so it was announced that the power would be off between 8am and 10 or 12 depending on which part of the town you live.
Midday came and went but my electricity remained off. I had some chores to do and visits to make to recycle some bottles and plastics, so I just got on with it, expecting the problem would sort itself out. By the time I finished it was 14:30 and still no electricity. I visited my neighbour across the street and found her electricity had been restored some time previously. Perhaps it was just me.
I tried phoning the number of the electricity company but I butted up against an automated system and none of the available options resulted in a connecting me with human being. Then, for the first time in the two years it has been in my possession, my phone froze. The touch screen wouldn't respond. Phones these days don't have removable batteries and I didn't know how else to turn it off and on again. [I've since learned holding the power button for 20 seconds restarts the thing. Who knew?] All of a sudden with no phone, no computer and my neighbour now apparently repaired for comida, I felt completely out of touch with the world. I felt marooned.
At this point I started to be concerned. Everything in my house is electric except the hot-water boiler. I worried that I'd be eating fruit for dinner by candle-light, unable to heat through any of the meals I had in the freezer.
I thought perhaps the first thing to do is ask the police for help. This is very nearly an emergency, surely they must know what to do? I couldn't phone them, so I trotted off to the police station. It was closed. So then I thought I'd knock on the door of a few friends in the area, hoping they would be able to phone the police mobile number for me. Problem was, it was such a warm, pleasant, sunny day, that nobody was home.
On about the third door I knocked on I finally got a response. It was my old neighbour up in 'La Cilla' in the old town. I explained my plight and she found the mobile number of the police and gave them a call. They told us that if the problem was in the street it was the electricity board's problem but that they wouldn't come out if it was a problem within the property. They recommended getting an electrician first, to determine whether the problem was local or not, then if it was a problem with the supply outside the house, we should get in touch with them again and they would get hold of the electricity company.
So now the problem was how to find a domestic electrician on a sunny Sunday afternoon when Olvera was like a ghost town because so many people had gone off with their families to enjoy their houses in the country. My friend thought for a moment and rang her cousin, who knew an electrician. He was out of town, but her cousin asked if she had thought to try another distant family member, 'Cristobel'. She gave us his number and Cristobel was called. Thankfully he was in town and agreed to come right away.
I hot-footed it back to the house as fast as my over-weight frame would carry me, as I was walking whereas Cristobel would undoubtedly be in a car. As it happened I got back with about five minutes to spare, so was able to get my breath back. Cristobel arrived with another gentleman and started flicking the switches in my circuit-board. Everything in the house was absolutely dead.
Outside the house there was a fuse box. Cristobel requested a chair and he climbed up to test the fuses. I jokingly assured him I'd paid my bills. (When they cut your electricity off here, these fuses are removed by the electricity board!) He tested the supply with his meter but there was no juice. He took the fuses out and tested them but they hadn't blown. He explained they now had to test the next junction box on my neighbour's house to see if current was reaching there. However this box was much higher up on the wall, and since both Cristobel and his mate were quite short, something more than a chair was required. He knocked on my neighbour's door to see if he had some steps but to no avail. Then he had the bright idea of parking his car underneath the junction box and standing on the bonnet. It is a bit of a squeeze to get a big SUV down my road but soon he was on tiptoe peering into view the state of the fuses. He gave one a tap with the handle of his screwdriver as it appeared loose, and banged it back into its housing. Then he tested the supply voltage with his test meter. There was a loud 'bang' and a flash as he had forgotten to change the meter range from continuity testing to volts! Fortunately he didn't fall off the bonnet or otherwise injure himself, but he knew from the shock that current was reaching this junction box so he asked his colleague to check the supply inside the house. He flicked the switch and the lights came on! Yay! Tapping the fuse home had done the job. It was now 16:30 but at least I knew I would have hot food that night!
I asked Cristobel how much I owed him and he said twenty euros. I was more than happy to pay, and as I did so, wondered how many years ago it would have been England to get a pair of electricians out on a Sunday afternoon for the same money!

Driving in Spain

What's it like motoring over here?
On the whole I prefer driving in Spain to the UK. Something about driving on the right-hand side of the road and changing gear with the right hand feels more natural to me. On the occasions I've returned to driving on the left I've found it took me a few days to get used to it, though when I return to Spain I snap back instantly. 
I saw a report recently that named Spain as the 11th safest county to drive in worldwide. This did surprise me a little as there are number of reasons I would have expected to relegate Spain to a much lower position on the list. One of these is the macho boy-racer mentality that seems to take-over normally sensible people as though they had been assimilated by the Borg as soon as they sit behind the wheel. I worked with a chap like this, Manolo, for three years and dreaded every journey. His specific problem was an inability to remain behind other vehicles that weren't travelling at less than supersonic speed. Many of the journeys we took would be on long, straight, single carriage roads between towns and villages in the Murcian interior, a rural area in which we would often find ourselves stuck behind lorries full of sheep or agricultural machinery being moved from one farm to another chaperoned by a flotilla of warning vehicles with flashing lights. Once caught behind something like this he would become agitated and start checking his mirrors and nudging across the line in the in the centre of the road to see if there was anything coming the other way, often darting back quickly when something was. Then the magic moment would come where he would drop a gear and seize the moment to power past his quarry, during which time I would often be slamming my feet down on imaginary brakes in the floor-well of the passenger seat. When life returned to normal he would then throw me a smug grin and say "Fernando Alonso". How I lived to tell this tale is one of the greater mysteries of my life.
Spain's appetite for partying is another reason I'm surprised there are not more deaths than there are. During the September Feria in Cehegin, an English chap I knew found himself driving towards another car on the wrong side of the road, and narrowly avoided a head-on collision.  He turned his car around and chased the other vehicle down. When he pulled the driver out of the car he found him to be blind drunk, having been partying all night at the feria. The drunk driver was laughing! Another town I knew about had three people killed by a drunk driver at their annual feria. For this reason I always look twice when crossing the road during holidays and fiestas in Spain.
It's not just the drivers, but the roads themselves that seem unusually dangerous here. Not long after I moved to Andalucia, the stretch of motorway connecting Murcia and Andalucia, A-92 was damaged by rain. Much of the road was built on a sandy foundation that just washed away! Huge swathes of dual-carriageway were reduced to a single lane for months to effect repairs. Locally too, I had to drive to a house in the countryside near Pruna in the dark one evening. The same rain had washed away a section of road which just came to a cliff-edge drop. It wasn't fenced off, there was just no more road. Had I been travelling a little faster and not stopped in time, that may have been the end of me!
The authorities are notoriously slow to fix issues. Well known accident blackspots can persist for years before anything is done. The artist César Manrique (who deserves a blog post all to himself) campaigned for over 30 years about the dangerous stretch of road near his home in Lanzarote where accidents frequently occurred. Nothing was done and Manrique eventually died in a car accident near the village of Tahíche on the very stretch of road he had been complaining about.
Which reminds me, the first time I drove in Spain was in Lanzarote. I hired a Fiat Panda which rather than having a clutch seem to have an "on/off" switch for changing gear. I was a little nervous having never driven on the opposite side of the road before, and to make things even more complicated, the car was parked perpendicular to the road, meaning I had to back out into traffic on a busy main road. It was a baptism of fire, but I drove all over the island in the brave little Panda during the following two weeks over some rough terrain and perilous mountain tracks but it never let me down. 
I have a poor sense of direction which is not good in Spain as signposts here are invariably misleading. I got lost driving back from Alicante airport one evening and drove merrily along for over an hour before realising my mistake when I saw a sign for Madrid. I don't know if it's just me, but the number of times I got lost driving back from Malaga airport is insane. I take no blame for this. It's all the fault of poorly thought out road-signs that are either too general to be of any help, or are actually lying. I think the folk who design them are taken with those novelty signposts in tourist traps that instruct you that Timbuktu is 2700 miles that way.
Speaking of remote places, I broke down one summer whilst driving on the road between Calasparra and Blanca. The route takes one through a flat, agricultural land in which there are nothing but grapevines as far as the eye can see. Luckily I had a phone signal and was able to phone for roadside recovery. 
"Where are you" the operator asked. Well I looked one way and then the other. There was absolutely nothing I could give to indicate may location. All I could do was say I was halfway between the two towns! I was told it would take a couple of hours to get someone out to me. It was July so it was really hot, about 36C and apart from the car, there was no shade anywhere. I sat in the car, but without the air-conditioning on it soon felt like I was in a bakers oven. I took to standing outside of the car with covering over my head. It took hours for the truck to arrive but it seemed like an eternity. Fortunately I'd stopped at a garage and bought a bottle of water before I'd set out. I was very glad that I did as waiting in that heat without water would have been dangerous. Since that day I've never driven anywhere without a drink in the car, just in case!
Now I don't want to put anybody off driving in Spain. It's a beautiful country and many of the roads are empty even in high season. Some of the roads are so picturesque in this part of the world that the big European motor manufacturers film their advertising here. However I write a "warts and all blog" that tries to tell it like it is as I have nothing to sell and am not promoting anything. I will finish with one more wart and one that drives me crazy (pun intended). That is the sneaky way the police catch you out with speeding tickets over here. Typically there will be a stretch of road near a junction or something that has a reduced speed limit. The police will hide out with their radar guns and catch all the folk who miss the sign and fail to slow down. This is low-hanging fruit and I'm sure they have better things to do, but they take it so seriously. A chap I knew was given an 'on-the-spot' fine in one of these stops. He didn't have any money on him, so they accompanied him in to town and stood over him while he took the money out of a cash machine for them. Quite frankly I think they'd do better to spend their time catching all the Fernando Alonsos and drunk drivers out there.

Language Learning Tips

A few ideas for improving your command of Spanish


It's a bit  cheeky of me to be giving tips about language learning. You might as well ask Donald Trump to teach you how to dance the ballet. I've never been good at languages. It was the only thing I failed at school and after nearly twenty years of speaking Spanish I'm still far from fluent. That part of my brain that processes language just doesn't seem to work very well in me.
However, having tried all sorts of things to improve my Spanish I am perhaps in a good position to say what has worked for me and what hasn't. Classes haven't. I think classes may have been the reason I struggled at school. Classes are the exact opposite of one to one' learning. My mind tends to wander when not engaged. I don't think I'm alone in that. I distinctly remember at school, there came a point after three years of French where there were one or two swats sitting at the front doing all the heavy lifting with the teacher while the rest of us were really just marking time until the next lesson, completely disinterested as to what was going on. I don't really blame the teacher for this, I just don't think a language should be taught to thirty or so people at a time.
Looking back on it, making the decision to learn a language and promising myself I would stick to it was the crucial turning point. I'd had what I'd later heard Tim Ferris describe as a  Harajuku moment, an enlightening self-realisation arrived at by defining a fear rather than a goal. I'd always dreamed of retiring to Spain one day and the fear that I faced up to was that this was unrealistic unless I knew the language, and that learning the language becomes harder as you get older. Therefore I drew a line in the sand and promised myself to do a little language learning every day. This was November 1999. To this day I still engage in a daily activity to increase my knowledge of the language.
I dug around on the Internet and found a few resources. In those days courses were nowhere near as plentiful on the web as they are today but the BBC had a Spanish course as did Manchester University, both of which were free. Neither however were very effective in getting me started on the road to speaking the language. The turning point came when I discovered the Michel Thomas method. 
The Michel Thomas method is an audio course that places you in a conversation between a teacher and two other students. Questions are asked and both you and the students offer your replies. Often the mistakes the other students make help you understand the correct answers. The course relies heavily on pointing out the similarities between English and Spanish, for example drawing your attention to word endings and giving easy to use formulas for converting between one language and the other (a technique that had been pioneered in the books of Margarita Madrigal's Magic key to.. series). The amazing thing about the course is that it enables you to start forming quite advanced sentences comparatively quickly because one learns rules for generating words, rather than lists of words themselves, thus building confidence. After completing the course I felt I'd really turned a corner and became quite thirsty for more Spanish resources.
I was still living in England at the time, though certain Spanish media were available online or via satellite. Euronews was a TV news channel that had audio streams that could be changed to a number of European languages. The stories would rotate every 10 or fifteen minutes or so and I found it useful to watch a story in Spanish, then rewatch in English to see if I had the gist. Spanish football was also available with Spanish commentary, so I started to follow that. Soon I was learning the words for corner, goal, penalty and chants like "estas ciega" when asking the referee if he was blind. The most revered word in football of course is 'goal', which is shouted long and loud by the commentator when someone scores. I was listening to a program on the wireless one day called 'Radio Estadio' that was broadcasting an important game featuring Real Madrid. At six o'clock the programme was interrupted briefly for the evening news and there had been a grave incident somewhere in the north of Spain with loss of life, so Prime Minister Aznar was making a solemn statement to the nation. He'd only managed to get a few sentences out when the commentator interrupted shouting "Gooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal a Real Madrid". Clearly nothing is more important in Spain than a ball hitting the back of the net!
In an attempt to build vocabulary, still back in 1999, I bought a Spanish newspaper and a highlighting pen. Each day I would read a story, highlighting any words I didn't know and looked them up. I found this a valuable way to build vocabulary and one learns a little of the culture and current affairs of the country. Over time I found if I learned about ten new words a day that was about right. More than ten was hard to remember. Less than ten and I felt I wasn't making any progress. Later on I realised there is only a certain vocabulary of reported speech in newspapers that is quite different to how people speak in real life, but it is still a good way to learn words.
I love music so I also sought out Spanish songs. The Columbian artists Shakira and Juanes were popular at the time so I got hold of the lyrics to some of their songs and learned to sing them. This was very good practice for pronunciation, as to be in-time with the music it is often necessary to enunciate faster than one would do by speaking, thus giving the mouth and tongue a workout. It also came in handy years later in Spain when belting out the Gypsy Kings Bamboleo at Karaoke as I'd already learned the words! Learning to speak fast is quite important. Try to plan what your're going to say in your head then say it as quickly as possible. People hearing you speaking slowly start thinking "Oh he's a foreigner, he won't understand me" then freeze like a rabbit in the headlights!
The wife and I finally made the move to Spain in the Autumn of 2003. The town we moved to had only a small number of maybe a few dozen Brits out of a population of 16,000 so my wife argued, quite correctly as it turned out, that we should avoid the English speaking community and only speak Spanish. This we did for over a year, making lots of Spanish friends in the process. It was during this time that I battled to make the transition from speaking textbook Spanish to that uttered by people with local accents, as described in my previous blog post the Gargoyle Folk. It was an important time that cemented everything together. I didn't speak to another English person other than my wife until over a year later, when a woman trying to arrange a delivery in a furniture shop turned to me and asked 'How do you say when in Spanish?' Seeing how far behind me in learning the language she was, I delighted myself in how far I had come.
During our year in isolation we made many Spanish friends. Though we lived in the countryside and some of the owners of the neighbouring properties only visited at weekends, they were nonetheless keen to get to know us and invited us to all sorts of social events, which really helped develop conversational skills. One to one learning is much more effective than a classroom situation. A good way to go is to find a Spanish friend who is keen to learn English, then meet up and do a half hour conversation in each language. 
We also watched Spanish television during our first year, mainly in the afternoon. There was an extended weather forecast was on at 4pm which was great for beginners like us, because the weather uses small vocabulary of words that are repeated most days like cloud, rain, sunshine etc so these soon become imprinted on the brain. We also watched Telenovelas which are like ultra-melodramatic mini-series. In one 'end of series' cliff-hanger I remember there was an evil step-mother who pushed a baby in a pram into the middle of a bull-ring then released the bull! God knows what was going on there!
These days there are so many more online resources than when I started to learn Spanish, many of which are free, ranging from language exchanges to online courses like Duolingo. I won't go into detail about any of these as there are already a million blogs telling you all about them. Instead I'll end with one last tip which helped me a lot in the early days. Don't worry too much about tenses. Tenses confuse beginners and can seem like a mountain of complexity to learn. The fact of it is though, Spanish people are much more accepting of the present tense than we are in English. It's perfectly OK to build a sentence like "I go to the shop tomorrow" where the tense is present but you use the word tomorrow to specify the future. I go to the shop yesterday would also be understood. Being understood is far more important than being correct. This is my motto for getting by in Spanish!

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 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.  (
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 )
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 ( ), 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!

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!!)

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!

Spain's problem with rural depopulation

Solutions for small towns with an exodus of people


I mentioned in a previous blog post (the Gargoyle Folk), that I'd been lucky enough to cadge a ride with a local vet into the wild mountains of Albacete while he visited remote farms to inspect their goat herds. One of the eye-opening revelations of this visit was that one of the farmers offered me a house for 8000 euros. It was a big house and not in a bad state of repair! The problem is that it was so remote it would have been difficult to live there. How folk survived there in the old days before cars is quite a mystery to me. This smallholding was about an hour's drive from the nearest petrol station or anything resembling a shop!
Another town I visited near Hellin was in obvious decline. There were signs that it had once been a bustling place, with a town square, fountains, and some quite impressive public buildings that were now abandoned. There was a general store come grocers but that was about it. My guide explained to me that everything the townspeople need now is brought in on wheels, gas bottles, bread, green-grocers, even a mobile pharmacy visits the town on certain days. All of the public services once enjoyed by the town had gone and the town hall had closed. Even the school had closed since there were no longer any children. Most of the few residents remaining in residence were pensioners. The town was a victim of a phenomenon known as rural depopulation.
This comes about for a number of reasons. Clearly in the past, Spain had a labour-intensive, agrarian economy. With the advent of machinery and modern intensive farming techniques, the demand for labour reduces, so technological unemployment is a factor. Young people are more avaricious than in the past, lured by film and TV their horizons are widened beyond the humble life of agriculture and farming. They are drawn to life in the city with better wages and prospects.  Gradually the population ages, the town hall's ability to raise revenue decreases, and the value of property and land depreciate. There comes a point when the town ceases to function economically. It simply dies. 
While this is not a phenomenon unique to Spain, (parallels can be seen across all of Europe, even the UK), there is something particularly eerie about dead Spanish towns which may be to do with the hot dry weather. As you may have seen with old Spanish farmhouses decaying at the roadside, there is an epic quality to the crumbling ruins which in other countries might be camouflaged into the landscape in a covering of moss and plant growth. Not so here. Ruins tend to stick out like markers in time, poignantly reminding observers of a once-great past. There is a phrase used here to describe such places: La España vaciada – “the hollowed-out Spain”
An article in an online newspaper caught my eye in 2017 which claimed four out of ten villages in Malaga province had experienced such a decline in population over the last decade. Some of these are towns I know. The article doesn't offer any solutions though it does highlight some of the contributing factors as poor communications and inadequate utilities such as electricity supply and water treatment plants that are lacking in towns with small populations. 
Solutions are being investigated at regional and national levels. Spain recently created a new ministry to address the problem which is a growing issue in all parts of the country.  Also, the Guardian recently related a story about an NGO, the Towns with a Future Association, which is working to match depopulated areas with migrants in search of a new life in rural Castilla-La Mancha, citing the arrival of families arriving in the region to escape poverty in Valenzuela.
My feeling is the problem won't be fixed without incentives. As I mentioned in a Facebook post in 2017, if it was up to me I'd give the villages free fibreoptic internet and incentives in the forms of tax relief and grants for local people to create global-reaching cottage industries. The opportunities to sell locally based products of everything from espidrils, leather sandals, wicker baskets and those cute flamenco chairs to sought-after agricultural and religious artefacts remain largely under-exploited in a place and time where such manufacturing skills are dying out through lack of local demand. As someone commented, this should be done 'without  burdening them with a 270 euro 'autonomo' bill before they even pick up a handful of clay or a bodkin'.
Tourism also plays an important role. In the North of England, York is a vibrant, thriving town, in part because it is a popular tourist location. Ten minutes drive down the road there are umpteen towns in decline because they lack the very popularity with tourists that York enjoys. One of the reasons I feel 'safe' living in Olvera is that our 12th century castle and massive 18th century church will always draw tourists. Every village here has in my view, an important duty to make the most of its tourist identity. There are things of interest in every town I've visited in Spain, though sometimes one has to dig deep to reveal their stories. Towns should be shouting these from the roof-tops.
One final thought. Olvera and any other town seeking to attract passing tourists should be doing everything in their power to attract and incentivize the installation of charging stations for electric vehicles. The last time I looked, these are mainly clustered in big cities like Madrid or in coastal towns. There are hardly any in rural locations between say, Madrid and Malaga. If I was a German holiday-maker planning to drive down from Berlin in my Tesla, I wouldn't want to have to drive down through Barcelona and around the Mediterranean coast because my GPS software planned the route according to where the EV charge stations are, I'd want to drive down direct through Madrid to Malaga via the shortest route. However this is barely possible at the moment. If Olvera had a charge-point, the growing number of tourists driving electric cars would be able to choose to make a required stop in our lovely town. 
This sort of thing is not without historical precedent. I was born and bred in a town in the South of London called Surbiton, part of the borough of Kingston Upon Thames. Kingston was a grand old town mentioned in the doomsday book, and it grew as an important stopping point for travelers from London to the naval port of Portsmouth. From the 15th century onward, Kingston built a significant coaching-house industry. During this time Surbiton was little more than a hamlet surrounded by fields. In the early 19th century, a new Railway, the London and Southampton line was proposed to run through Kingston, however, the plan was rejected by Kingston Council, who feared that it would be detrimental to the coaching trade. They really shot themselves in the foot! The line was re-routed to go via Surbiton, where a new station opened in 1838. As a result, Surbiton profited and became one of the first towns in London's commuter belt. Kingston attracted a branch line in 1869 which is all it has to this day whereas Surbiton is a now major mainline station connecting London to the South Coast. This example serves to illustrate why transport infrastructure is crucial to a settlement's growth and why the placement of charging stations for electric vehicles could be a key driver in reviving the fortunes of rural populations in inland Spain.
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