Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

Views on Spanish Cuisine

What's the inside track on the food we eat in Spain
I'm on comfy ground writing about food. I like it. I eat some every day. In fact I'd struggle to live without it. So here I'm going to dispel a few myths about Spanish nosh and probably make myself unpopular with the tourist board into the bargain.
 
Or maybe not. In the village in Murcia where I lived until 2009 there was a chap who worked in the tourist office called Santi, who was born and raised in the Basque country. While chatting one day I asked him what he missed about being so far away from home.
 
"The food" he said. His face was a picture as his mind drifted away in deep culinary reverie. Now I'd heard the reputation of Basque cuisine first hand since my neighbour Manolo and his wife had not long returned from a gastronomic coach trip touring eateries from Galicia to San Sebastian. Santi confirmed what they'd told me, that the food in the North of Spain is a cut above the food in the South. He put forward a bold theory that the high temperature experienced by the South of Spain for much of the year was a deterrent against cooking. Who wants to be stuck in a hot kitchen all day? In fact the kitchen is often purposefully kept away from the house. I'd been working with an estate agent at the time and I'd noticed a trend for houses to have 'summer' kitchens, often in a separate building. One old lady giving me a tour around her property showed me a pristine kitchen that looked as it had been totally unused, and probably it hadn't, because she then took me to another hut four doors up the street where she said she did most of her daily cooking!
 
Another consequence of Santi's conjecture is that simplicity is a common characteristic of the culinary art in the South. Generally the dishes here are prepared with as little fuss as possible, again as a conservation measure in the battle with the heat. I'll cover a few dishes I've encountered while living here, all of which will be noted for their simplicity.
 
The first thing I was taught to cook here (by my neighbour Jose - he of the Swimming Pool Saga post from last week) was chicken in garlic. If you've not had this you must try it. The same process can be used to cook rabbit and works just as well. Fry the chicken in oil on a medium heat for 15 minutes until it is nearly done, then near the end of the cooking process, throw in a handful of chopped garlic. Let the garlic cook for a few more minutes, then just as it threatens to brown, pour in half a cup of vinegar. As if by magic the vinegar boils, taking the garlic flavour into the meat and leaving a dry saucy residue. Plate it up and eat. Couldn't be simpler! I understand this technique was popular in Portugal, and was taken by Portuguese sailors to India during the Age of Discovery where it was adopted and developed into Vindaloo (from Carne de vinha d'alhos meaning meat with wine and garlic).
 
Another friend gave me a good lesson in cooking garlic prawns (Gambas al Ajillo). You can Google the recipe. It's pretty simple and widely available online. Tips I got from her was that she heated the individual sized clay dishes (cazuelitas) on the stove top - I'd always assumed they were heated in the oven. Also she used the cheapest olive oil called suave or refinado. I thought it would be all extra virgin but no, with the strong flavour of the garlic, the prawns and the cayenne pepper pods, you'd be hard pushed to tell the difference between the flavour of the oils so use the cheapest!  
 
Of all the dishes Spain is famous for however, seafood paella must be the best known. Strangely I don't think I've ever had it once since I moved here. This is probably because I live inland. Don't get me wrong, they get the paella pans out here and cook rice in it, but I've rarely seen fishy ingredients. Rabbit yes, vegetables yes, chicken yes, snails oh yes!! Again, it's an easy way to cook and a a rabbit and a kilo of rice will feed ten people from a one metre pan. Rabbit with rice (arroz con conejo) was therefore a popular choice during the summer fiestas of the towns in and around the North West of Murcia. Another popular fiesta treat is tortilla in bread. I found the doubling of carbs in having potatoes in a baguette quite heavy going but they serve them by the hundreds at the local feria. 
 
Tray of chicken straight from the bread oven
 
If you've never been to a Spanish feria, these are local events where a town or part of a city takes three or four days to party, with food and drink forming a big part of the celebrations. My best feria food-fest was in an office I worked in. The boss's extended family turned up in number to the office and on this particular day they brought with them a huge kitchen tray, about a metre wide and a metre and a half long. They filled the tray (pictured) with dozens of chicken quarters, added potatoes, tomatoes, lemons, onions, garlic, oregano and lashings of olive oil. Then half a dozen people ceremoniously picked up the tray and proudly marched it to the local bakers where it was cooked in the bread oven. I don't think I've eaten anything quite so delicious made from such basic ingredients! This has influenced the way I roast a chicken - now I always add the same ingredients and it tastes much better. 
 
One disappointing note about the cuisine in Southern Spain is the lack of vegetables, making it tricky for vegetarians and vegans to eat out. I find many restaurants think of meat/fish first, then add chips and maybe a little salad by way of a garnish. If it's a posh place and you're lucky you might get some goo that consists of a few varieties of seasonal veg boiled to death in tomato sauce for a couple of hours so you can barely identify what you're eating. Bread is served with everything, which together with the obsession with chips and dearth of vegetable makes me very sceptical about the merits of the so called 'Mediterranean Diet'. As someone explained to me recently, the chap who came up with the notion (Ancel Keys) did so after visiting the island of Crete, noting how fit and well-aged the population was. Apparently he visited the island during lent so had a rather skewed view of what was being eaten and he neglected to take into account his visit took place just after WW2, a period of harsh austerity when food was scarce and the population aged artificially because of the younger members of society being killed in the fighting. Untroubled by such facts, Keys got it into his head that the diet was the cause and went back to America creating his famed Seven Nation study to prove his idea, the results of which have since been widely discredited. However the myth that the food in this part of the world is some kind of panacea persists to this day.
 
If however your appetite has been whetted by all this talk of grub, I suppose it would be fitting of me to offer you something for afters to finish with. Many of the desserts in Spain are things you would find elsewhere, ice cream, flans, rice-pudding etc. One that was new to me which I took a liking to was fresh peaches soaked over night in red wine - yum! By experimentation I found this works best by adding a little brandy too and by soaking the peaches in the fridge it makes the perfect supper for a hot summer evening.

The Swimming Pool Saga

This is the story of a swimming pool. Moreover it illustrates how folk work together to get things done in Spain.
 
The missus and I bought an old farm house in the latter part of 2003. One of the things that drew us to the property was a walled courtyard of about 15 metres by 15 metres which afforded us the opportunity to sunbathe in the nuddy. 
 
Towards the end of the following spring it started to get really hot. By the end of May the wife got the unshakeable notion in her head that a swimming pool would be required to get us through the summer. We made enquiries and got the same answer everywhere, that a proper sunken pool starts at two million pesetas (about 12,000 euros). Spain joined the euro on the 1st January 1999 but to this day, many Spanish people evaluate large purchases such as houses and cars in terms of pesetas. Curiously in the run up to the changeover to the euro, Spanish car-dealers did a roaring trade in Mercs and Beamers as panicked savers snapped up luxury cars as a way to launder the black money under their mattresses. I was told Murcia sold more 'Berliners' than anywhere in the world that year, a fact which I've been unable to verify but it sounds highly likely!
 
Anyway getting back to the story, 12,000 euros was way over budget so we looked at alternatives. We hit on the idea that an above-ground pool would not only be a cheaper solution but a quicker and easier one. We could easily fit one into the courtyard and by not having to dig down (which would require re-routing sewage and water pipes) we would make life a lot easier for ourselves. At this point we enlisted the help of our Spanish neighbour Jose who went with us to the shop to choose a pool. Involving Jose turned out to be a fortuitous decision. Although he worked in fruit canning and juicing factory, like all Spanish men he seemed to have innate knowledge of the building trade. What I knew about mixing cement at that time could have been etched on the head of a pin, so I was very glad when it became apparent that we needed a concrete base for the pool, that Jose volunteered to help build it. 
 
My wife unsurprisingly went for the largest pool we could comfortably fit in the space available. I can't remember the exact price but it was in the region of 1500 euros, a far more reasonable figure. It was roughly eight by four metres in size. There was a large steel skirt that went around the perimeter of the pool which was supported by metal buttresses, so we marked out on the ground a kind of 8x4m rectangle with legs every metre or so for the supports. Though the courtyard seemed level to the eye, it dropped by about 30 centimetres from one end to the other. This meant our base was 30 centimetres deep at one end, which required far more concrete than I had expected.
 
Jose led the work, turning up in his van with a cement bath, shovels, hoes and buckets etc. All this was new to me. We began by creating a mould with old bits of wood that followed the design we made on the ground, then Jose showed us how to mix the concrete. If you're not familiar with a cement bath it is a poor man's cement mixer, a metal tray about two metres long and a metre wide having the depth and appearance of a squared-off bathtub. The idea is to mix the concrete by using a hoe, pulling it backwards a forwards to bring all the ingredients together. We soon found it was back-breaking work, especially since it was already reaching 30 degrees at nine in the morning.
 
We all took turns mixing the bath and carrying bucket after bucket to fill the mould in the yard. It took the three of us the best part of a day but we finally had a base to be proud of. As we surveyed our work, Jose said he would return at the weekend with his family to erect the structure of the pool. It didn't sink in when he said 'the family' but because the steel skirt was so heavy it would take more than the three of us to manhandle it into place.
 
The Saturday came and several cars pulled up in the drive. Sons, brothers, sisters, in-laws, aunties and uncles teamed out of the vehicles, many of whom we'd never met despite having been to many social events at Jose's country house. There must have been twenty or thirty people, all cheerfully helping the foreigners build a pool. We trooped into the courtyard and unrolled the massive metal skirt. Even with Jose's skillful direction it took a good half an hour to manoeuvre the huge steel structure into place, with everyone holding their section and shuffling back and forth to get the perfect fit. Then we started to bolt on the side supports. It took a couple of hours until everyone could tentatively let go of the skirt and start the other tricky task of fitting the giant pool liner. The thing that most struck me throughout this process was how all these people, some of them complete strangers, were not only volunteering their time, but all the while they were happy, joking and generally having fun! I've since come to love this feature of the Spanish people. There should be a word for it but I can't think of one. What's a word for the joy shared in the co-operation with others? Answers on a postcard!
 
As soon as the job was done they all disappeared. I was frantically thanking them, offering beer and money but they were having none of it. They just smiled, waved goodbye jumped in their cars and left, completely without ceremony. It was this kind of event that often causes me to reflect on why I'm so extraordinarily fortunate to live in Spain. They are truly remarkable people!
 
Jose had one more gift of knowledge to impart. He said if we just turned on the tap and filled the pool it would cost a fortune. 32 cubic meters of water would take us over the limit of our monthly quota. I didn't even realise we had a monthly quota, but the way the water company prices the water is based on volume tiers, so as long as you keep consumption within the lowest tier the water is cheapest. Jump a tier and the price doubles. Jump another tier and it doubles again. His advice was that since it was near the end of the month, half fill the pool, then wait until the next month to top it up. I later checked the small print on the back of a water bill and he was correct, so we had to wait a week before the pool was finally full but then we were off to the races.
 
I offered to pay Jose for his help but he of course declined. I later repaid him with favours such as videoing his son's wedding and converting his old family videos of previous weddings and communions from VHS to DVD . This is the way things work in Spain, sort of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours", though one is never made to feel obligated or be in anyone's debt. It's a great way to live!

Why I prefer cats to dogs!

Relax, it's just a personal opinion!
 
I'll probably get slaughtered for saying it but I much prefer cats to dogs!
 
Not that I dislike dogs. Far from it. Some of my best friends etc... I see the pleasure people get from them but to me they're kind of like groupies hanging around rock stars. The relationship is a bit too easy and one-sided. Getting a dog to dislike you is really hard but cats can take umbridge with you for any number of trivial reasons, from buying them Salmon & Shrimp flavoured food instead of Oceanfish Entrée to being squidged along the couch a few millimetres to make room for you to sit there. This makes it all the more rewarding when they do deign to be your friend and approach you for a head scratch. Learning to speak cat is also a more fascinating challenge because cats can make about 100 vocal sounds compared to a dog's measly 10. 
 
There's also a weird gender fluidity issue with cats and dogs. I'm generalising a little here but I'd venture that a female dog appears more masculine and male cats seem slightly more feminine. I'm not saying there is anything sexual in my preference to cats, but I do look at a dog and, regardless of its biological sex I think 'muddy male roughty-toughty rugger player', where as without knowing whether a cat is male or female, I tend to think 'graceful artistic ballerina'. Aesthetically I'm just more drawn to the latter. Dogs strut about like British lager-louts abroad doing the 'we won the war' walk while cats clearly speak fluent French and seem to have done a term or two at a Swiss finishing school. It's a question of culture and deportment!
 
I never had a cat until I was in my twenties, nor can I remember too many from my childhood. My sister had one. The only thing I remember about her (the cat, not my sister) was giving her a tickle one day revealed a large flea crawling about amid her fur, which perhaps, given my previously discussed entomophobia, should have frightened me off felines for life. For some reason it didn't.
 
I had a couple of cats while still in the UK. The first was a rescue kitten from Battersea Dog's home. (Yes, they re-home cats too - imagine the fights!). The second was a local tabby called Sapphire. She belonged to a family down our street that had several young children. I think what happened was, as the kids got older and more rowdy, the ageing cat thought 'blow this for a game of soldiers' and started following my wife and I home from work in search of a less frenetic life. Often she would be waiting on our front-door step when we arrived home, meowing to be let in. We took her back to her original home several times, but she persevered until in the end her owner said it would be OK to keep her! She played nicely with Coco our rescue cat and I remember noticing that she was 'left-handed'. She was able to pull open a door with her left paw but if the door was hinged the other way she just couldn't do it, though not for want of trying! So cute!
 
Unfortunately Sapphire soon died. She was already quite elderly when we got her and after a few years her kidneys failed and the vet almost insisted we put her out of her misery. I was gutted. She was my friend.
 
Coco made the move with my wife and I to Spain. We got her paperwork sorted out at the vets and British Airways assured us she would be looked after on the plane and met by a specialist pet handler at San Javier airport. When we landed however, the pet handler was nowhere to be seen. I heard a bit of a kerfuffle at the carousel as I approached to collect our luggage and there was Coco on the conveyor belt going round and round in her pet-carrier, meowing her little heart out while all the passengers were going 'aww' and cooing over her!
 
Our new home was in the Spanish countryside, deliberately chosen so as not to be near any busy roads as Coco didn't do traffic. We 'inherited' two more cats and a mature German Shepherd called Leon. Leon wasn't a house dog.  He was a security guard with stripes on his arm and didn't take kindly to Coco when they first met (the fight was spectacular - Leon came close to losing an eye), so we made a firm rule - Leon outside only - Coco inside only. It was for the best. 
 
The other two cats got on fine with Leon and lived in the pigeon shed. These were farm cats and were excellent at their job. I lost count of how many times I went in for the morning feed and would find bits of rat, usually little more than a tale. Any vermin intent on trying to steal my chicken-feed were doomed to a grizzly fate.
 
Since we had the space we allowed one of the cats to have a litter, then did a bulk deal with the local vet to get all the animals sterilised. My wife had the idea of naming the cats after beverages. The two original cats were named Mocha and Java, then the litter became Expresso, Cappuccino,  Americano, Solo and Tea! I didn't realise how different their little personalities could be until I was surrounded by an army of cats. Some noticeably smarter than others, some lazy, some energetic. Expresso stuck out a mile as the best hunter and would be forever diving into the undergrowth and returning with grasshoppers, beetles, mice etc which he would munch away at in a shady spot under a tree somewhere. 
 
As they got older, numbers depleted. Some of the males went off never to return. I understand this is not uncommon with males cats, something to do with owning territory. One poor chap, Solo, a huge black panther of a cat and probably the alpha-male, was the victim of a hit-and-run. He didn't seem in pain, just unusually inactive, so we took him to the vet and an X-ray showed his pelvis was shattered, so we had him put down. Some died of natural causes. 
 
One day though we came home from shopping to find a tiny kitten squaring up to Leon. We assume she was 'donated' by someone local who knew we would take care of her. She was so cute and plucky, standing up to such a big aggressive dog that she immediately captured our hearts. We called her Decaf. She turned out to be a great mother though she only had the one kitten, Latte.
 
Years went by. The 2008 crash happened and my relationship broke down. I had to leave the house in Murcia and the remaining cats behind when I moved to Olvera. I'm not able to keep pets where I am living at the moment which is a bit of a shame but I often think back to my herd of felines and their unique characters. If money were no object I'd open a cat-rescue centre of my own, but meanwhile I amuse myself by following the cats of Instagram, of which there are many. My favourite trio by a whisker are Negrito, Merzouga and Tétouan, rescue cats in the care of a lady called Martina Bisaz, a travel blogger living in the mountains of Switzerland. Seeing her going for walks with her charges in the backdrop of snow-capped alpine mountains is a sight to behold. Her main insta-handle is @kitcat_ch and there are separate accounts for her black cat @negrito.the.kitcat and her Moroccan twins @poo.fighters. Follow these accounts at your own risk as they are a ridiculously addictive wastes of time!! 

A tale of two wasted Ronda hospital visits

Getting seen by a specialist isn't so easy in 2020 lockdown Spain

 

I wanna tell you a story. Trouble is, I have a split audience. Most folk who actually bother to read my trivial weekly musings probably do so because they know me, so they'll know some of the back-story of my life that puts this tale in context. If you're one of those then feel free to skip the next paragraph. If not, here comes the exposition.
 
I live in Spain on a low income, basically a pension I took early. I don't own a car and I live in quite a remote little village called Olvera. Olvera has a medical centre where I can visit a GP, but for more specialist medical treatment I need to go to a regional hospital, such as the one in Ronda which is featured in this story, which is about an hours drive away. There is only one bus that leaves Olvera at seven in the morning and returns from the hospital at two in the afternoon.
 
Back in September 2019 I had a fall, nothing serious but I managed to land on my eye-ball, which became bloodshot and rather uncomfortable. I visited A&E who kindly patched me up. Then I made an appointment to see my GP who referred me to the ophthalmologist in Ronda. I waited a few months and was assigned an appointment at the end of January. My vision had still not returned to normal. I was seeing floaters and each time I blinked I briefly saw a pattern in the manner of a Rorschach test, which was less entertaining than it sounds, so I was quite eager to get the problem looked at.
 
The day finally came. I'm an anxious traveller at the best of times, but the big worry here is, with only one return bus, I knew if I missed it I'd probably be sleeping rough until the next day, as I couldn't afford a taxi or temporary accommodation. I don't mind living on a low income on a day-to-day basis (it's good for both my dietary health and carbon footprint), but unforeseen expenses can force difficult choices.
 
So with some trepidation, I boarded the bus on a brisk winter's morning and headed off to the hospital. My appointment was 11:25 so arriving at eight gave me time to kill. I walked around the hospital to familiarise myself with it. This was a fairly new building which only opened in 2017 and this was my first time there. I noted there was a mortuary around the back a bit too near to the rubbish bins for my liking, but otherwise everything seemed clean and new. I just wished they'ed painted it a jollier colour rather than choosing the very depressing battleship grey.
 
I made my way inside and found the ophthalmology department. Many people were already waiting. If you know nothing of Spanish culture, one thing a person rarely does here is visit a hospital alone. These are deeply family oriented people and a hospital visit will rarely be conducted without a pack of three or four folk from several generations, often with an advanced party to reconnoitre the layout of the building, locate vending machines and to grab the best seats like Germans putting their towels on the sun-loungers. I'm not mocking this behaviour, well perhaps just a tad. I'm actually rather envious of it. A English lady of my acquaintance found herself in a dual room with a Spanish patient some years back, and the Spanish patient's family were so horrified that the poor English lady had nobody visiting her at all hours of the day, that they adopted her and brought her food and gifts, holding her hand and generally treating her as part of the family. This is one of the many tales that I've heard over the years that speaks volumes about the best qualities of ordinary Spanish society.
 
I sat down and pulled out a book. As the hours rolled by, the people milling about soon outnumbered the chairs, of which there were many. I reckon that more than a hundred people must have come and gone.  The Coronavirus threat was still a distant problem exclusive to China at this point. Everyone was on top of everyone else, many with seasonal coughs and splutters. How I didn't pick up something nasty that day I'll never know.
 
The time of my appointment came and went. Then another hour went by. I attracted the attention of a nurse who double-checked I was in the right place and reassured me that they were very busy and that my time would soon come. Finally at ten minutes to two I still hadn't been called so I made the decision to bail. I went to the reception and asked to have my appointment rescheduled, then jumped on the bus back home.
 
Some months went by then I got a phone call saying a new appointment was available if I still wanted it. Then a letter arrived confirming the date of Monday 6th of April, an earlier appointment at 9:25 which should give me a better chance of being seen - yay! By this time of course, the world had changed thanks to a virus called COVID-19. Olvera was in lock-down. There was a one person per car rule and police were monitoring who came in and out of town.
 
Bus services had been reduced or in some cases scratched altogether. There was a lot of misinformation online as to which busses were running, whether one could still pay in cash or had to buy a ticket online or in advance from a ticket office. I spent a sizeable amount of time researching this in the week prior to the appointment. The bus company website had a link to a timetable that was dead, and the option to buy an advance ticket didn't work properly. I resorted to ringing the two phone numbers given on the website, and neither worked!!
 
Finally on the Friday I happened upon an obscure article in a Spanish newspaper saying the local 'urbano' busses in Ronda had to be pre-booked, and said that folk using Olvera busses that connect with them should ring in advance too. It seemed crazy but due to the lock-down, so few people are using the bus that they only run them if someone rings at least an hour before, signalling an intention to ride. I dialled the number and surprisingly it worked! I spoke to a chap who sounded equally as surprised as I was. I heard kids playing in the background suggesting it might be his home number. I explained my circumstances and he confirmed me a place on the Olvera/Ronda bus at 7 a.m. Monday 6th April returning at 2 p.m. He didn't express the need to take my name but this is Spain. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind donkey.
 
So Monday came and with the bus largely to myself I cruised majestically into the Ronda hospital car park, alighting at 8 a.m. I took my place in the waiting area. This time, the chairs, which were in banks of three, had the middle one labelled with a message saying "Don't use due to social distancing". I was the only one there. It was deathly quiet. I sat there reading my book and hardly a soul stirred save a grumpy looking chap riding a floor-washing machine. Then a masked nurse emerged from the surgery area.
 
"What are you doing here" she said, sounding so surprised she set my alarm bells off.
 
"I have an appointment this morning", I said and triumphantly thrust my document proving the fact into her rubber-gloved hand.
 
"All consultations were cancelled. You should have received a message last week. We will send you another one."
 
My heart sank as I recall those missed calls from an unknown number on my phone last Friday which I didn't see until the next day because I'd stupidly forgotten to turn off 'aeroplane mode' after my siesta.
 
"Bugger" I said, slipping back into English, and skulked off to find a dark corner in which to weep and spend five hours to wait for the only bus back home. Ronda is a pretty town, but it's not as though I could have gone for a nice walk and taken in the sights as the police would probably arrest me for tourism, such is the strangeness of the times. I finished my book, a cheerful tome (#ironyalert) called 'Feast of the Goat' by Mario Vargas Llosa, a novel about the final dark days of the Dominican Republic's fascist leader Rafael Trujillo. I pitted my wits against my phone and beat the little shit at Monopoly and Chess. I had a stroll around the hospital grounds and struck up a conversation with the gardener, who coincidentally, as I discovered, was born in Olvera. (Seemingly tending a hospital's gardens is an essential occupation conferring on him the right to escape lock-down. Who knew?) He turned out to be a conspiracy theorist who spent ten minutes solemnly confiding in me his view that Coronavirus was created in a Chinese weapons-grade bio-lab with the ultimate goal of destroying the Western economy.
 
Eventually two o'clock came and my driver arrived with the bus, which again I had all to myself. As we headed back, storm clouds were gathering, the sky over the sierras becoming black as pitch. Francisco the driver, whom I now considered my personal chauffeur, delivered me to Olvera just as the rain began to fall. It had to really. It had been that sort of day! 
 
My wait to see the eye specialist continues, as does the lock-down. In both cases and in more ways than one, I'm unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel!

The Gargoyle Folk

Second blog in a row about one of my shortcomings, this time, language!

While I did pretty well in most academic subjects at school, languages were not my strong suit. The comment on my report card for French 'Stephen gave up trying' pretty much summed it up and stings to this day. I'm not quite sure why I failed so badly, but I think that while some people have a dyslexia associated with vision, I seem to have a similar thing that confuses my ears brain and mouth! My voice just seemed incapable of making the sounds I command it to, and no amount of practice seemed to be able to remedy that.

A few years back, while failing dismally to learn Spanish, a big stumbling block was that I couldn't roll my 'Rs'. A native speaker gave me a drill that Spanish children use when they have this problem. 'Tres tristres tigres, tragaban trigo en un trigal, en tres tristes trasto, tragaban trigo tres tristes tigres. Un tigre, dos tigres, tres tigres'. I recited it dozens of times a day for weeks but it didn't seem to help me one iota.

Similarly, I seem to have more problems than most in making out words, not just in a foreign language. Even in English, I often have trouble understanding what people are saying, especially in crowded situations, if they are talking quickly or they have an accent. I recall buying a Mars bar in the Shell garage in Kensington, and the Asian chap at the counter seemed to be calling me Pedro.

"Pedro?" I replied, "no I'm Steve".

No he replied "Petrol, petrol, gas?"

"Oh no, just the Mars bar" I said, pulling the hood of my anorak over my head in an attempt to hide in shame. This sort of thing has always happened to me. Back when I worked in the Department of Employment a chap in a turban was in the queue one day. I asked him his name and proceeded to look him up on the system.

"Sorry" I said, "I can't find a Mr Paddle here"

"Not Paddle" he said, "Patel, P-A-T-E-L".

"Oh, Pat-el, sorry", I said, unconciously and rudely re-pronouncing his name for him, having just made a complete arse of myself in front of a queue of a few dozen people who already hated me just for being a civil servant and therefore part of the enemy. I still have nightmares about that one.

Note: I'm not making fun of these people nor belittling their linguistic abilities. These errors are all my fault.
 

“Never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

So despite much effort to learn the language, when I moved to Spain and started conversing with the natives I was probably at a bit of a handicap to start with, but nothing could have prepared me for the next big problem. People in the village I relocated to don't speak the sort of Spanish one learns on a Michel Thomas CD. I later learned their accent in Spain has a position similar to Geordie in the UK. It is regarded by the rest of the Spanish speaking world as pretty unintelligble!

My wife and I were very fortunate to purchase a house in a place with fantastic neighbours who quickly adopted us and included us in their social gatherings. We immediately felt at home and took advantage of the opportunity to chat and improve our Spanish. God it was hard.

To give you an idea, one morning there had been a frost which was unusual. My immediate neighbour, Manolo came up to the fence and held out something in his hand, repeating a word over and over again expressing his obvious distress.

"Sellow sellow" is what it sounded like to me. I called out to the wife, whose Spanish was already far superior to mine, and she was equally puzzled.

We quizzed him as best we could and started to put the pieces together. He was apparently showing us a young almond kernel. The kernel had been frozen by the frost. Working backwards from there we found that the word for frozen was helado. The 'h' is silent in Spanish  and in Murcia they don't pronounce the 'd', collapsing it instead to an 'ow' sound. the final touch was this was a reflexive verb and he was saying it had frozen itself so there is the word 'se' on the front. So after a bit of a battle we figured he was saying 'se helado, se elao' - 'sellow sellow'! My wife was triumphant having figured this out but I knew in my heart I was losing the battle to learn Spanish. But worse was to come.

I befriended the local vet who took me out on his house-calls one day. The way it works is that farmers with herds of pigs or goats or whatever would take out insurance with him. In order to minimise his exposure to claims, he would visit the animals from time to time to carry out inoculations and inspections to look out for signs of infections and so forth. These actually took him quite far afield, which is why I was unusually eager to awaken at stupid-o'clock one cold winters morning, to jump into his 4x4 and bounce a long an ever deteriorating series of tracks that led to the mountains of Albacete. As the altitude increased so the temperature fell. I don't know how cold it got but I saw a frozen waterfall. This is a remote part of Spain, pockmarked by empty villages that had been abandoned as the children obviously made a choice between a propsperous life in the big city they saw on TV or a remote, freezing, impoverished life in the hills as a goat farmer and thought to themselves "blow this for a game of soldiers".  We visited several farms on the trip and on the way back I confessed to my veterinarian friend that I hadn't understood much of what had been said. He grinned and said he didn't either! Apparently the towns up in the hills are so spread out and isolated that the accents have diverged to such an extent that they were half unintelligible to a native Spanish speaker.

God rolled his dice and a few years later I started a new life, moving to a town in the inland of Andalusia, in Olvera, Cadiz province, the 'white village' I'm living in at the moment. Just as I'd been getting the hang of the accent in Murcia I found myself back in the deep-end trying to figure out what in God's name the Andalusians were talking about. Not only is the accent different again but the Andalusians speak Andaluz which is a combination of a heavy accent and a local lexicon of colloquialisms unique to the area. The bigger problem with Andaluz however is there seems to be a long standing campaign to kill off consonants altogether and reduce language to the lowest possible combination of vowel sounds.

The first word that foxed me when I moved here is a local term meaning mate or kid. I've never seen it written down but I'd have a stab at spelling it 'chaqillo'. When you hear this on the street however, typically one guy calling out of a car window, it is compressed into something resembling 'yo' where the 'je' of the 'y' is almost silent.  Another phrase common in Spanish is when two people greet they might say "¿Que haces?", meaning what's happening/what's up. Well that's how they say it in Spanish text books. Here they say "eh ah ee" though not as three separate syllables as I've presented here (for intelligibility?) but more like 'eai'.

I asked a local friend of mine about this and he said yes, that's the way in Andalusia - we eat our consonants! He went on to ask,

"Do you know how we say yes in Andalusia?"

"Si?" I suggested, wincing at the prospect that the real answer would be far worse.

"No, we say  eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee". He didn't even need to change his mouth shape to reward himself with a lingering grin!

Soon after, I visited one of the smaller town here south of Ronda. It only had about 200 inhabitants and I learned later that it only got its first fridge in 1983. There I was introduced to a jolly Spanish fellow whose name escapes me, but in entering is house I saw he had a fine collections of CD's.

"You like music", I said "what is your favourite kind?"

"aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa", he said.

I looked blankly at the person who had introduced us.

"Jazz" she translated, half smiling apologetically. At this point I felt so out of my depth I could see fish with lights on their heads!

I just pinched the 'lights on their heads' gag from my favourite comic author, Terry Pratchett and I think what the Andaluz accent most reminds me of is his story in 'Men at Arms" where Captain Vimes starts a conversation with a Gargoyle:

'What's your name, friend?'
' 'ornice-oggerooking-Oardway.'
Vimes' lips moved as he mentally inserted all those sounds unobtainable to a creature whose
mouth was stuck permanently open. Cornice-overlooking-Broad-way?
'Egg'.

The best way then to try to understand the local accent in Andalusia is to imagine them as people who don't close their mouths very much, somewhat like Pratchett's gargoyle folk.
 

That would have been the end of this blog post but I had a more serious afterthought. While I'm on the subject of my trouble dealing with the language here (and at least, I try) another thing  that I found to be a real challenge are automated telephone answering systems. If you try to ring many of the major utilities in Spain such as Telefonica or Vodafone you will be greeted by a mechanical voice asking questions about the nature of your enquiry. In an effort to steer you towards an answer with as little costly human intervention as possible, the questions may include speaking/spelling your name or contract number or even worse, repeating the answer of a multiple choice question.


Now the tricky thing here is that the phone software will be attuned to the accent of a natural Spanish speaker. When I try to respond to these questions in my best Spanish, the system must sniff out my South London accent and raise a red flag, as I can never, EVER, EVER manage to make the machine understand what I'm saying!! Often I'll run against a brick wall and a human operator will eventually come on to find out what is going on. Sometimes though - and this winds me up - the automated system will say it can't understand me and terminate the call. This has happened several times with Telefonica - and I've stood there for several seconds looking at the dead phone with complete incredulity. What else can you do other than get a Spanish friend to make the call for you?


IMHO there should be a law that stops them being able to do this. Non native speakers should have a right to access basic utilities through mutli-national phone answering systems using buttons only. My only consolation is a private chuckle when I think of the amount of business they must loose as a result of this sort of practice. Right now I need a second phone but I'll end up getting it from the highstreet shop of another company as my existing mobile operator can't be bothered to talk to me - stuff them!!