Thursday, September 14, 2023

A Short Break in Foreign Parts

 Well, there's an experience: I’ve just been to the UK for a few days.

Since almost everyone who reads my Business over Tapas (a weekly review of Spanish news) will know the United Kingdom better than I do with my modest current score of just thirty days there in the last forty years, there’s probably not much I can add about the place, beyond noting that I never saw a single electric scooter in the local towns and villages in West Sussex - although I did notice that there are lots of expensive cars around, if not enough road for them all to share. I spent much of our time with my host on the country lanes stuck in long and tedious traffic jams.

That’s Conservatism for you, I thought. A fancy car in a queue.

I was staying in a place near Chichester: a genteel sea-village with a pebbled beach and a few fishermen dotted about selling dressed crab, and where some batty old dear knits woolen cosies and puts them on the lids of the letter boxes. To keep them warm, I suppose. The photograph of me posting a letter into one of these wholesome treasures unfortunately didn’t come out (due to the ill-placing of my chum’s thumb).

I did, however, pick up a joke:

A high court judge and his wife are returning from a very jolly dinner-party when they are stopped by the police.

‘Who are you, sir, and where are you from?’

‘I’m a high-court judge and I’m from Bognor’ said that worthy gentleman.

The policeman let them continue on their way.

‘But darling, we live in Chichester’ said his wife.

‘I know’, he answered, ‘but try and say that when you’re pissed’.

My old school friend and I had some distant memories to recall, a few local sites to explore, a decent curry to enjoy and a pint or two of local brew to quaff. Apparently, they hadn’t had any summer this year until I showed up. I expect they were glad to see me arrive. The temperature was high and the sky was sunny the five days I was there, but now it’s gone back to overcast with a chance of hail.

There are things about Blighty, you know, that never change.

Some travellers – the non-aggressive British word for gypsies, and I believe that’s now out-of-date as well – were occupying a field by the beach in the village and the local bars had all promptly closed with ‘gas-leaks’ and other tiresome issues, no doubt to remain firmly shuttered until the group had been moved on to pastures new by the local constabulary.  

They do like their doggies, the Brits. We had a meal in a Turkish tapa-bar (sic!), with the next table’s two customers in charge of no less than three dogs, the table behind with two more dogs and another table nearby with yet another pooch. All fulsomely excited, as only the canine-race can be, to meet new friends.

That wouldn’t happen in Spain – but then I suppose, neither would a Turkish tapa-bar.  

Of course, I had a good time munching pork pies and once a scotch egg in an otherwise rather boring art museum and, now returned home and suitably refreshed, I’m quite ready for una caña de cerveza and a decent tapa.

Saturday, September 02, 2023

The Pueblo Home

 During the fiesta in the small pueblo of Tahal in Almería, which falls in the early part of October, many local people who have moved away over the years to the City in search of jobs, wealth, comforts, distraction and a decent restaurant will return to the family home for a few days. They will be a bit better dressed, probably not wearing those ubiquitous carpet slippers, and will politely park their Mercedes down near the fountain to not unduly upset the locals with their old Renaults.

The pueblerinos will feel a little uncomfortable by their richer cousins but then they will reflect that – Bueno, they’ll soon be gone once again.

And so it is. Those villages more than an hour away from nowhere will have a small population, but a far larger number of maintained homes. The folk who moved to the city will keep an eye on the old property, fix the roof maybe, put in a proper cooker and a TV, and will visit once or twice a year (probably bring a hamper with them). There will be no tourism and the shop, if there is one, will be in the back of the bar. A van will regularly drive up the hill and honk its horn – the fish-man is here!

These villages are technically moribund, and there should be houses for sale there for those who crave a quiet and lonely life.

But few people want to buy, and the villages stay quiet – except for the annual fiesta with its enthusiastic band, its tin bar with tapas and draft beer set up in the square and the fireworks to round things off.

Those in the City will tell you of their home in the pueblo and enthuse about the tomates or the higos which can be found there.

The prettier pueblos nearer to the coast may count on foreigners buying property there, but again won’t see much tourism. A couple of shops and a bar or two, but most of the remaining Spanish population will be living on pensions.

Other pueblos, happily located nearer to Civilization, will have become dormer-towns and Goodness knows, they might have become perhaps a little funky over the years, but they’ll be full nonetheless.  

The Covid evidently brought about a modest renaissance in the pueblos, after all no one wants to get sick and if one owns a place to keep one’s head down, then why not – but that’s over with for now. Maybe, to extend that thought, they’ve been joined – in the harder to reach ones – by a few survivalists turning their backs on modern life.

But when you can’t get decent coverage on your Internet, then being a hermit begins to lose its shine.  

Friday, September 01, 2023

The Snails of Palomares (reworked)


A USAF B52 was taking on fuel from a flying tanker somewhere over Vera (Almería) on January 21st 1966 when something went wrong – the two aircraft touched, and exploded. Debris rained down on the fields and coastline below, including four unarmed nuclear bombs.

I mean, ‘four bombs which hadn’t been armed’, rather than ‘four defenceless bombs’. That would have been cruel.

The gerfuffle as the remains of the aircraft, blobs of raw plutonium and the four bombs were re-secured by the Americans are well known. Two bombs landed on the ground in Palomares (‘falling open and melting everything in their path’ according to unverifiable reports) and the other two fell in the sea, where one was soon found while the forth was finally located in a deep trench off the coast several months later by Alvin, that cute little mini-sub that starred in the National Geographic magazines of the period. Antonio the wise old fisherman with the 150-metre ice-blue stare suggesting fully-fledged insanity may have helped. He was certainly cheaper to fuel.

Franco was on board the Fifth Fleet American destroyer for a brief visit and toying with a complimentary Easter bunny as the bomb was fortuitously hauled aboard.

A suggestion from the time was that the last bomb was in a very deep hole in the sea and was impossible to extract, so a plastic reproduction had been lowered off the other side of the ship to be triumphantly raised in front of the mad Caudillo to cheer him up.

Fraga Irribarne the Minister of Tourism, perhaps unaware of this sleight of hand, famously took a dip in the sea with the American ambassador at the time to show there was no radiation. On the other hand, they carefully enjoyed their frolic in front of the Mojácar Parador, some ten kilometres down the coast.

The Marines removed 800,000 tons of topsoil, fertile and safe, and took it to South Carolina, because, you see, there was no radiation.

It's now used to grow terbacca.

Roberto Puig, an eccentric architect, was meanwhile putting the finishing touches to his Hotel Mojácar located in the village of the same name (many, many years later, Pedro Sánchez, the future president, bought an apartment within the since-converted hotel). Roberto hired a van and drove over to Palomares and managed to secure part of a wing from the bomber, which he proudly affixed to the wall in the cave-bar under his hotel. The local wags said it had an unearthly glow.

A small desalination plant was built in Palomares by the Americans for thirty million dollars as a kind gesture (it was quickly closed down after the resident engineer moved to Mojácar to open a beach bar and, seeing that he wasn't coming back, the Catalan caretaker sold the guts of the building for scrap). A few rusting Geiger counters were left to record the ambient radiation level – if there was any – and new construction extending from Vera Playa into Palomares and Villaricos was given the go-ahead by forward thinking planners (see, I could have written ‘greedy capitalists’).

A recent test on Palomares snails (please pay attention here if you count gastropods in your carefully balanced diet) has shown a higher than normal level of radiation. Their stomach is their foot, so what they walk on, so to speak, they eat. Snail poop, we read somewhere, might spread radioactive dust.

Of course, a light wind, common in that corner of dusty Spain, will spread a lot more dust, radioactive or otherwise.

But one has to start somewhere.

The American Department of Energy, together with the CIEMAT Spanish atomic agency, eventually bought ten hectares of land which had been previously cleared by speculators ready for some building, although the dust already raised and blown to the heavens by the tractors and… no, I’m not going there.

Local ecologists have reacted to the news by saying that a much larger area needs to be sanitised.

The half-life of plutonium is a lot longer than ours.

For the meantime, my advice is, don’t eat the snails.

Friday, August 18, 2023

The Quiet Life, Free from Tourism


I always wanted to go to visit Machu Picchu.

And just stand on that hill.

The famous picture, rendered for once in black and white, occupied a wall in a Peruvian restaurant in Madrid that I used to go to. Unfortunately, the Pisco Sours were so damn good, that it was hard, after enjoying two or three of them, to remember if one had eaten yet. The crestfallen face of the owner as we asked for the bill just as the chupe de camarones was arriving…  

While I didn’t remember eating much there, I still remember that photo – the one of the bent mountain high in the Andes, with the abandoned Inca settlement tumbled down below.

I travelled a lot as a young ’un in the seventies, at dollar-a-night places in Mexico and Central America, a few bucks more in the USA, and so on, as one could. The Americas, unlike Spain, hadn’t quite caught on to the idea of foreign money (except Yankee-green) in those far-off times and it was hard switching a ten pound note or a thousand pesetas into the local currency.

The thing was, there weren’t many travellers, or tourists, much beyond the crowds heading for Disneyland, Chichen Itza and Key West.

Now, of course, there are.

I missed my chance to visit Machu Picchu and now I'm told that it’s so full of visitors that I couldn’t imagine going there. Like the inspiring Mezquita in Córdoba or the Alhambra in Granada, their time as places to visit has passed. Santiago de Compostela or the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Don’t go. They are done; cooked; crammed; despoiled.

There are too many of us, all wanting to take a picture as we finally, after a long and impatient queue, make it through the doors. We talk, we crowd, we flash, we hold our souvenir pamphlet and we smile at the Japanese tourists with their extendable selfie-sticks.

Next time, try Jaén or Ciudad Real. They may not be much, but they’ll be more enjoyable. By far.

In Mallorca, the locals have put up signs in English saying ‘Don’t bathe here, it’s dangerous’ and underneath, in the local tongue: ‘Don’t worry, we’re just fooling the guiris’.

Well fine, don’t live in a place with lots of tourists, why don’t you?

Forget Florence, or Venice, or Barcelona, or Benidorm, or Marbella or Mojácar – buy a house somewhere quiet, with little or no tourist potential.

Because if there is one, the temptation is high: rack up those rents and open a souvenir shop.

Now my town is on the coast, it’s a suburb of Almería City. It’s ugly and has no tourism whatsoever – frankly, there’s nothing to see and the beaches aren’t worth visiting. Which means that I rarely have to take a picture, except once a year when the local saint, looking a little pale, is hauled along the main  drag on a waggon pulled by a pair of bulls (relieved, no doubt to be spared other more onerous duties).

So, I was lucky. I got my travelling in early. Nowadays, I can see the world for a few pennies, from the comfort of my own armchair and with a pile of second-hand books from the charity store.   

Wednesday, August 02, 2023

Pop Goes the Walter

It was a hot and steamy night - they always are, aren't they? - and I was wondering where the Jack in the Box came from. Perhaps I was asleep after all. Maybe I'll look it up when I get up in the morning.

Google was a trifle disappointing, as it only seemed to know about a cheap American fast-food chain operating under that name. Perhaps your hamburger is delivered to the table within a box, and when you unfasten the lid, the whole thing is abruptly lifted, bun, tomaydo and patty, to all go flying across the joint with a satisfying ¡Splatt!

I do like a novelty meal.

I later find, and thanks to The Cambridge Dictionary, that this artifice is defined as ‘a children's toy consisting of a box with a model of a person inside it that jumps out and gives you a surprise when the top of the box is raised’.

Which reminds me of a birthday I once attended in Dallas, where the figure inside the cake was not only real, but was found to be wearing just half of a bikini.

No doubt the top bit had gotten caught in the icing during her dramatic entrance.

It’s bound to be a popular thing, surprise visits from somebody are invariably interesting – if refined a bit by my fellow countrymen, who have ingeniously taken the concept one step further, as Facebook regularly tells us.

See, the Brits are always 'popping' into some place or other.

I imagine we are all sat around a table, chugging a beer, when, de repente, a small bubble appears on the floor to expand quickly and then, 'pop!', there's a Brit standing there, just like something out of Harry Potter.

We popped into Joe’s, they write, and we had a sandwich.

The half a pound of tupenny rice doggerel ends with ‘pop goes the weasel’, which, on further application to Google, tells me that the meaning of this Cockney song is to ‘pop’ (pawn) granddad’s ‘whistle and flute’ (suit) to pay for the groceries.

Which is what will allegedly happen to some of the Brits here if they don’t pull out their finger in Westminster and put up the pensions.

Those imported Bakewells don't grow on trees you know.

In Spain, the nearest thing to a Jack in the Box is a Caja Sorpresa, a similarly explosive receptacle, if only to be used once, to fire confetti into the air. Which sounds like we're at a wedding.

Maybe they could put someone inside the cake, make it even more of an event to remember.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Everything That’s Runny Contains Water (except my wife’s gravy)

 I saw a billboard today while driving along the main road towards the playa on my way for a swim – it was the local ice-cube company advertising its product and it said: ‘Probably the best ice-cubes in the world’.

I’m pretty sure that a couple of examples from Señor Freezer are rattling around in my iced-tea right now, gently melting and turning my beverage into watery-iced-tea.

Which is doubly refreshing.

Come to think of it, I suppose all the drinks we enjoy are made pretty much from water. Which they are always telling us we must drink lots of. So, are all drinks, essentially, just water with flavouring?

Starting of course with water itself (flavoured with salts and minerals), and finishing, by a circuitous route, with beer, which is after all merely bubbly water with some boiled hops and barley along with a judicious squirt of alcohol (don’t tell the Germans I wrote that). Indeed, the sober answer is this:According to The Brewer's Handbook, most beer contains about 95% water, and the remaining 5% is alcohol. Beer, in short, is mostly water but this is barely noticeable because of the flavour of other ingredients’.

The taste though, whether in beer or in whisky, depends on the water, so a distilled H2O won’t give much taste to the finished product, whereas a nice ‘fresh mountain stream’ might be just the ticket.  

Let’s see. Sweet sticky soda drinks are 90% water (we know what most of the rest is). Milk is about the same. Tomato ketchup is about 70%. Wine has 85% water and soda water is 90%, while sparkling water is 99% made up of our old friend agua, with a bubble or two added to help make us burp.

With all of the above, it’s clear that whatever one drinks (or sloshes on one’s chips), it’s all mainly down to water.

So, and sorry for asking, but why is beer cheaper than water in most bars? And with a free tapa thrown in for good measure!

Of all of these endless libations, only the stuff commercialised by the plastic water-bottle companies has a breakdown of the water and its minerals and salts printed on the label. No beer ever said ‘this brew has calcium, magnesium and sulphates’.

So, what is water?

Well, lessee, it takes two haitches and one oh, or two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen. A simple formula we all learned in school.

But with all of the free hydrogen and endless amount of oxygen in gas filling up the space around us – why doesn’t it all club together and turn into water? It’s no doubt just as well that it doesn’t, otherwise I’d be writing this piece while wearing some manly-looking water-wings.

The reason, apparently, is that most of the hydrogen around is already in the water anyway. The other reason is metastability (here if you insist), but I’m sorry I asked now.

Another puzzler about water – if it’s made up of inflammable oxygen and explosive hydrogen – why doesn’t it detonate every now and then?

It would certainly keep us on our toes if it did.

Mind you, you can always nuke it for an interesting reaction. Of course, rather than playing with steam-engines, I boil mine for a nice cup of tea twice a day. Boiling your water is a good idea as it kills anything that shouldn’t be there anyway.

Which I suspect is how we did so well in India.

Returning to the plastic-water-bottling industry (Motto: We do Our Bit for Pollution), an estimated 6,500 million emptied litre water-bottles will be obligingly cast into dustbins or chucked out of car windows or left on the beach or in the countryside this year in Spain (up 3% from last year, says the pwbi proudly). I don’t know how much of that is recycled, the plastic I mean (don’t worry about the water, it will return all by itself).

The good thing about beer (and the reason I drink it) is that it comes in either cans or in bottles made of glass, never plastic. Or better still, on draught.

Although I suppose it’s a pity that they can’t make beer-bottles out of cardboard.

The ice has now dissolved in my drink, adding its own secret chemical make-up to my beverage. I think I’ll chuck the dregs and go and get a brewski from the fridge.

Friday, July 14, 2023

It's Not Unusual

 Have you noticed how many people have taken to recording every scene with their telephone-camera? I suppose it's one thing taking a video of your baby to send to your family, or a short of you on your horse, or your new bicycle, but to record Tom Jones live... when you're there at the concert-arena... having just paid eighty euros? 

C'mon, you know you are not going to watch it later, curled up in bed with the squinty picture and tinny sound from your phone.

What would be the point of not enjoying it at the time, in full and glorious presence-vision, when you are part of the gigantic crowd of fans? Where's the drama, where's the excitement?

Many of your fellow concert-goers, admittedly, are spoiling your view of the event by waving their blasted iPhones in the air in front of you. 

You know (don't you?) that no one is going to watch your amateur and wobbly twenty-second cut on Facebook, and if you want to tell us about how marvelous is Tom Jones or whoever, then send us to YouTube (I've chosen Tom Jones here, because I have no idea what most of today's pop singers are called).

I could have written instead about Córdoba and its astonishing mosque (converted into a Catholic church a number of centuries ago). It's full of people all taking pictures with their phones - instead of feeling, for just a moment, the majesty of The Creator. 

I travelled a lot at a tender age, and have a few boxes of slides from here and there to show for it; and even went to a few pop-concerts (not Tom Jones, thankfully), but I was lucky: there was no social media (or mobile phones, or even a land-line at home in Spain) in those times. In fact, no one besides me knew where I was unless they happened to receive a surprise post-card out of the blue.

Dear Mum and Dad, having a wonderful time. Send money. Besos.  

A good memory should be treasured, not peered at over the years. Besides which, how many photos, clips, archives and scrap-books have been lost or mislaid since they came back from the camera-shop, or since I moved digs? Yes, I know I've forgotten lots of things I've seen or done, but I'm all the richer for still having the memories (I think) of the important events.

And anyway, life is about collecting experiences, not 'likes'.