Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

Making money in Spain

The hardest thing about moving here is the income problem.
 

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

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

Getting Old is Rubbish!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I kept cool during the long hot Spanish summer

Tips on battling the worst of the summer heat

 

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

Andalucia and Murcia compared.

My experience having lived in both parts of Spain

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief sketch of my dad

A tribute to my late father on his birthday

 

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

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.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Spanish Weather is Amazing

Thoughts on the capricious nature of Spanish weather

 

It is purely a personal observation but I'm aware of no other nation who talk more than the British about the weather than the Spanish people do. 
 
Before I came to live here, I, like many folk unfamiliar with the climate, thought it was all going to be "Scorchio" (If you don't get the reference, Google ' Meteorologikos mit Poula!').  How wrong I was. During my first August in Spain, the stifling heat was punctuated by a summer storm, the like of which I'd not seen before or since. Huge globules of water the size of a fist exploded on the pavement in a bombardment that lasted about ten minutes. It was as if the children of the Gods were amusing themselves by throwing water-filled balloons at us rudely invasive holiday-makers. The street outside my hotel became a temporary river. Then suddenly it was over. Twenty minutes later the water was gone, the last traces having evaporated into the thick summer air. It was as though nothing had happened.
 
Such is the capricious nature of Spanish weather. On another occasion I was driving back from Murcia city on the autovia, heading for home in Cehegin, when I was caught in a shower. It had been a bright day, but a big rain cloud appeared out of nowhere and really started chucking it down. My windscreen wipers were soon unable to cope, so I and all the rest of the motorists on the road slowed to a crawl and finally a stop. The sound of the rain beating on the roof was becoming scary. This particular section of the motorway was in a steep-sided cutting, the sides of which were plain earth. The rain was so powerful it started to wash the earth away, and a wave of mud started to slide downhill towards us. For a few terrifying moments, my car and those around me started to move sideways. It was like a disaster movie. Again though, a few moments later the rain stopped and we were soon on our way.
 
One word I hear over and over again when people describe the storms in Spain is 'biblical', as often the torrential rain is accompanied by the sort of thunder and lightning Cecil B DeMille would have given his right arm for. During one particularly windy storm, my aluminium door blew open sending papers and other items airborne in my living room. It wasn't until I tried to close the door that I realised it had been locked - I had to unlock it to get it to close! On another occasion, the amount of water running down the main street was so great it flooded the drains to the extent that I saw rats crawling out of the gratings to avoid drowning. I don't wish to put anybody off coming to Spain by recounting these anecdotes. As I say, the weather soon springs back to normal. I wish merely to point out that we have seasons here with a much greater variety of weather than a non-resident might suppose.
 
Talking of storms, an early word I learned in Spain was 'rambla' which loosely means creek. The first time I heard the word was walking with a friend through a dried-out river bed. He explained to me that every now and again, the Iberian Peninsula experiences a weather system called the 'gota fria' during which a large volume of water gets dumped in a very short period of time. Though the 'rambla' we were walking through had walls reaching several metres above our heads, when the 'gota fria' hit, this would fill with water. Therefore they shouldn't be built on as they perform an essential if rare function as storm drains. Some years later the word appeared again in the context of construction. Some people I knew had purchased houses in a small cluster (I think there were three separate properties in all) that had been built illegally/in-advisedly, at the foot of a hill, which acted as a run-off when it rained. The owners didn't know there houses had been built on a rambla until one fateful stormy day. Two of the three houses were flooded, and one of these started to move, its foundations gradually sliding down the hill and ended up needed underpinning at great expense. Make sure you don't buy a house built on a rambla!
 
Over the years I've also been surprised how chilly it can get in the winter here, and how much snow I've seen. This is entirely dependent on where you live. I've always lived inland at an altitude greater than 500m, so have experienced much colder weather than one would expect on the Southern coast of Spain. In my second winter here I had a burst water pipe which caught me by surprise. The maximum/minimum thermometer advised me that it was caused by a temperature drop that went down to -9C, which was as cold as anything I remember from the UK. The same week it snowed leaving eight-inches on the ground.
 
Fortunately, the village I live in now is generally milder than that. I've only seen snow once in my ten years living in Olvera and the temperature rarely dips below zero in winter here. I've noticed that villages like mine with few frosts tend to have an abundance of citrus fruits growing in the streets and peoples gardens, whereas in towns that do get hit by frosts one rarely sees oranges and lemons, which is a tip prospective buyers would do well to be aware of. 
 
 
 

Ex-pat cravings

The crazy things I miss from blighty

 

For my first visit to Spain my wife and I were lucky enough to be invited over by a friend who had moved over to Alicante in the previous year. He kindly offered to shows us a few locations up and down the Costa Blanca. One thing stuck in my mind from that visit. One day we popped into an English grocers shop and my friend happened to spot a box of cornflakes. These weren't ordinary cornflakes but the fruity ones with added strawberries. What happened next left quite an impression. My friend retired to the car, opened the box of cornflakes and started cupping handfuls of the dry cereal into his mouth with tears of joy coming down his face. He explained these were his favourite brand and that he had not had them for a year or so since he was last in the UK!
 
Now that I'm a Spanish resident myself I completely understand how he felt. While I never get homesick for England, every now and again, a flavour or a smell can trigger an unusual response in the brain. Like Proust's Madeleines dipped in tea, they can open a neural pathway with surprising efficacy, transporting one back to a different place and time. Sometimes though it happens the other way. One imagines the place and the time which in turn reminds one of the taste or smell which stimulates the craving. I've lost count of the number of times this has happened to me. Typically I'll think of an event like a Christmas celebration, which will remind my of a beverage like ginger wine. Once the flavour and smell of the ginger wine gets in my head I'll be unable to shake it off. I'll trawl around the supermarkets here to see if there is anything similar. Then when inevitably I find that there isn't I'll go online to shop for some, only to be defeated by exorbitant delivery charges. Then I'll hit up YouTube and start typing "how to make ginger wine"...
 
The first big bump in the road after first moving to Spain was that I found myself living in a remote village that was far, far away from a decent curry house. Not only that but I was really surprised by the paucity of spices used in Spanish cuisine. They just don't do hot and spicy food over here. So a process began of teaching myself how to cook Indian food and sourcing ingredients. I'd brought some dried chillies and coriander seeds with me and surprised myself by successfully planting and growing these. I discovered cardamoms were available through a local health-food shop. Also, I came across a Moroccan bric-à-brac shop which had a small shelf of spices from which I was able to source a few things. Bit by bit I was able to get everything together, and using the invaluable book, 'The Curry Secret' by Kris Dhillon, I was able to recreate the good old-fashioned British Indian restaurant experience in my own home. I shed a tear myself when I cooked my first perfect Chicken Tikka Massala!
 
This was over fifteen years ago and things have moved on. My local supermarket carries fresh coriander and ginger these days. However there are still many items that obsess my senses from time to time. Fresh cream seems to be unknown here. They only do the UHT stuff or horrible squirty cream. Clotted cream is pure fantasy. I often dream of kippers, smoked mackerel fillets, custard powder, Colman's mustard, instant desserts like Angel Delight, pickled onions, Vesta Chow Mein with crispy noodles, the list is endless! Most of this is crap, processed food, but such is the way my brain is wired, these happen to be the ones that take me back to the past most effectively.
 
When I moved to Andalusia a decade ago I found the situation little different. There are places near the coast where British and Asian groceries can be sourced. As I don't have a car, and the bus ride would be a round trip of about 25 euros, I rarely bother to make the journey.
 
Fortunately online purchasing has gradually made the availability of many items possible, though some online retailers either won't ship to Spain or charge a lot for postage. Even Amazon didn't have an online store in Spain until as late as 2011 but now it is possible to order some items through them at a lower cost of delivery than getting them sent from the UK.
 
A better solution over the years has been to inconvenience friends of mine to bring stuff over when they come to stay. Fortunately I've known many folk with holiday homes here who have volunteered their services as my spice mules, squeezing all sorts of things from poppadoms to tamarind paste into their luggage. My most trusty trafficker, Lynda has brought hundreds of items over for me in the past, but alas she is retiring this year, having made the sensible decision to base herself over here permanently. Respect and many thanks for your years of loyal service!
 
Really she couldn't have picked a better time to hang up the shopping bag, since this year I've discovered a couple of online Asian grocers specialising in the Spanish market, carrying a much wider range of items than I've ever seen before, and with reasonable delivery charges. For the first time in almost two decades I can order everything from rasmalai to frozen samosas with more spices available than you could shake a cinnamon stick at!
 
In case these websites are of interest to my fellow ex-pat sensation-seekers, here are the addresses:
 
 
 

The fallen. People who have moved to Spain and later returned to the UK.

What makes the difference between those who stick it out and those who don't.
 
A few thoughts this week on 'The Fallen' (no I'm not talking about contestants who didn't make it in the Hunger Games, though sometimes it feels like that) I refer to those expats who moved to Spain later to give up and return to Britain. Sorry if it is a bit of a gloomy post but it's not all sun, sea and sangria over here!
 
This is a topic that has hounded me as I've known quite a few folk over the years, many of whom were good friends who have upped-sticks and moved back to blighty. Some of them have seemed really committed to Spain and have really surprised me with their decisions to return whereas with others, I've known they wouldn't stay the course as soon as I met them. Anyway, no names no pack drill but I'll outline a few case studies here to try and dig into the reasons people join the ranks of 'The Fallen'.
 
Certainly in the case of the ones I've known immediately that are not suited for expat life, one group that sticks out are the spenders. These are people who sell their property in the UK and find themselves with more money than they've ever had in their lives but instead of investing wisely, just 'spend spend spend'. One family I knew burned through their savings in one mad year, eating and drinking out every night and filling a rented house with a ton of things they didn't need from ridiculously expensive TVs to quad bikes. They seemed to reach a tipping point where they realised they need to work but couldn't find anything to do because they didn't know the language and ended up flying back home with their tale between their legs.
 
The language barrier manifests itself in other ways than making work hard to find. Several elderly couples I've known had an imbalance where one partner knew the language really well and the other couldn't pick it up at all, leading to the linguaphile acting as a translator for his or her partner. In the instance that this partner dies, it can make it much more difficult for the remaining partner to cope. Several people I knew that found themselves in this position gave up and returned to Britain.
 
Family ties are often behind people's decision to bail out on their lives in Spain. It's quite common for parents to undertake the move to Spain after their children have grown up and all they're leaving behind is an empty nest. The problem arises when grandchildren start to appear. The desire to be close to the grandchildren so as not to miss out on their growing up is clearly a strong draw, but also the grandparents seem to feel a renewed sense of purpose, a feeling that they should be helping out and baby-sitting etc. This suddenly makes a life in in a deck chair sipping sundowners seem a selfish waste of one's life.
 
I've long held the view that there is a knack to emigrating successfully which is to get the goal right in the first place. I seriously think a lot of people imagine living in Spain is going to be a endless holiday, which is completely the wrong mindset. Unless you are of retiring age, few of us are lucky enough to be sufficiently financially secure to avoid the need to work. Yet on message boards and forums I often see questions from folk of working age with kids planning to move over with little or no idea of what they are going to do to support themselves. A classic fantasy-fallacy I've seen is from people with zero experience of the pub trade saying they are thinking of opening a bar, with no idea of what hard work and little reward this entails. One bar owner here told me he was afraid to open his letter box for fear of receiving yet another unexpected bill, such as the one from the council demanding payment for the health inspectors that are required by law to inspect his kitchen! Folk who come over here without having a strong income strategy are generally doomed to give up and go home at some point.
 
Even with a work plan, I think its prudent to lower one's expectations here compared with Britain. Wages are generally lower here and demand for goods and services are smaller. Spain was hit very hard by the 2008 crash and there is no social security net to fall back on. Property sales came to a halt in 2008 putting many real estate agents immediately out of work and the construction trade, albeit slower, came to a similar collapse. With less work to go around the competition forced wages down, particularly in black money which forced many trades people to repatriate. One competent plumber told me his reason for returning was 'he was fed up of being poor' a phrase you would rarely hear from a plumber working in the UK even in the midst of a recession.
 
While I've seen a lot of people rushing to escape the UK for Spain before the January 31st 2021 deadline, curiously I've known several people who have returned to the UK because of Brexit. While I've asked several of them what has prompted this decision, I'm not sure the answers they have given me are completely satisfactory. One chap expressed concerns that the healthcare cost would rise for him, which is fair enough I suppose, but other reasons people have given me have been less convincing. I suspect some people were just living 'under the radar' and would have to become registered tax-payers if they stayed.
 
Finally one thing I've seen many times is that couples with relationship problems often move to Spain thinking it will be a new start that will magically fix everything. At some point down the line however it becomes clear that far from being a remedy, the battle of coming to terms with the new environment, making new social contacts and probably spending more time together than they ever had in the UK puts more stress on their relationship. Invariably a split happens and one or both partners end up on the plane home.
 
My advice then for people looking to make the move to Spain is look before you leap!

Climate Change Lightblub

We are warming, but more locally than we think.
 
I struggle to to understand certain aspects of the global warming debate. Climate change deniers generally admit that the global temperature is warming as we're coming out of an ice-age. Their denial is that human activity is accelerating that process. This has always seemed silly point of view to me, I mean if you were standing on a railway line with a train coming towards you, you would take action and get out of the way, not stand there arguing about whether the train was accelerating or travelling with constant velocity. Similarly then I don't see why we don't take action to avoid the consequences of a change in climate that is inevitable, rather than bickering about carbon taxes (or even more dangerous IMHO, plans to 'reverse' global warming). Common sense never prevails however, so conservatives will continue to allow folk to build houses on flood plains and crumbling cliff edges!
 
Anyway, the main point of this post is a modest lightbulb moment I had a few years back that I'd like to share.
 
My friend Mike works in Seville, Spain as an English teacher. He said he was cycling to work one evening at about 5:30pm and, finding it difficult to breath, noticed the temperature was a staggering 57 degrees Celsius. He explained that Seville is like a cauldron and heat just collects there and sits during the day, which is worse in summer as everyone uses air-conditioning which pumps more hot air in the street.
 
I live in Spain too, and I learned the trick years ago that to cool myself down, I run my wrists under the tap for a few minutes. Since all the blood passes through the wrist and the veins are near the surface, the cool water takes the heat away quite efficiently. This is the point where the light-bulb went off. It struck me that Seville was on a river and that the river must be acting like the tap water, taking some of the heat away with it as the water flowed through it. Furthermore, apart from a few sparsely populated mining towns, just about every human settlement was built on a river or near the sea. The thought crossed my mind 'what if we humans are acting like radiators for the worlds air and water. Summer and air-conditioning aside, even in the coldest winters our cities are still pumping heat into the environment when we run a bath or turn on our central heating. Billions of humans make heat and we do it by and large in our cities.
 
The notion might have drifted into obscurity if I hadn't come across an article on climate change which shared the Web address of the NASA GISS database containing records of world surface temperature. Out of curiosity I started to look at the data. I was struck by how temperature increases correlate closely with population density. Where ever I looked, temperatures had been rising in the worlds cities more than anywhere else. In fact, looking in comparison at some sparsely areas, places like Alaska and Mongolia had actually fallen in temperature at the same time temperature in cities had been rising.
 
Now if the most densely populated areas of the planet are near water, and the temperature is rising more profoundly in these areas, the impact on the worlds weather could be starker than previously imagined. Weather is governed by fluid dynamics of water and air. If these flows were being affected evenly by a global change in temperature by a degree or so, the effect on the world's weather would probably be negligible. The problem is, if that one degree in temperature is concentrated locally in coastal areas, the effect is bound to be more pronounced. Taking this further, we could see a situation where the global temperature of the earth remained stable, or even fell overall, but local heating could continue to have a devastating effect on the worlds weather systems.
 
Another thought experiment has a chilling consequence. If magically we were able to flip a switch tomorrow that transformed all the energy that powered our heating, lighting, A/C and domestic equipment from a fossil fuel source to solar, heat generated in cities will continue to have a disproportionately large effect on global weather, and the heat in our cities will continue to rise in tandem with population increases.
 
Up until this point these ideas were the merely the musings of a pretty ignorant layman with no expertise at all in the field. Then a few weeks ago I stumbled across an article from 2016 which went some way to confirm what I'd been thinking.
 
 
The article goes on to explain that the effect, know as the Urban Heat Island (UHI) had been know about for a long time, so I was surprised I'd not read about it before.
 
My point here is that while we mostly talk about man-made or 'Anthropomorphic' global warming, the real killer is the man-made local warming we all contribute to by our never-ending desire to congregate in cities. I'm not claiming that CO2 emissions are irrelevant. These too exacerbate local warming effects, though carbon emissions should not be singled out as the sole culprit here. Man's tendency to aggregate in to ever larger conurbations is a much larger factor than previously thought. 
Page 1 of 4 1 2 3 4 > >>

An aside

Spain News

Saturday, September 26, 2020 10:14:55 AM
Daily life in Barcelona, Spain - Xinhua | English.news.cn Xinhua
Friday, September 25, 2020 11:54:59 PM
A visit to Spain’s Alhambra fortress Ledger Independent
Friday, September 25, 2020 10:10:00 PM
Latest Spain rules, FCO advice and if it could be added to list of 'air bridge' countries iNews
Friday, September 25, 2020 8:58:00 PM
Covid figures prompt French and Dutch warnings, and deepening row in Spain The GuardianDespite pressure from Spain's national leaders, Madrid will not expand lockdown to include the whole city MarketWatchSpain says 'tough weeks' ahead as Madrid hit...
Friday, September 25, 2020 6:08:00 PM
Macoupin County man volunteered to fight in Spain Jacksonville Journal-Courier
Page 1 of 4 1 2 3 4 > >>