Friday, July 31, 2009

Property solutions in Sight, Maybe

Almería is suffering at the moment, with the famous ‘crisis’ beating down hard on the province. Unemployment is over 25% and house-sales, as we know, are non-existent. Although the Government (in the shape of us, the taxpayers) has bailed out the banks, the banks are quite determined not to lend us – or return back to us if you prefer – as much as a penny. So, don’t count on me for investment in the near future.
While we are probably all sick of the subject of ‘illegal houses’ which has catapulted this province to worldwide fame, I was disturbed to read the other day that the so-called six thousand illegal houses, after some counting by those who claim to speak in our name, has now been re-adjusted upwards to 11,000. No doubt, many of these homes – each one owned by an understandably concerned family – can be legalised by the same authorities that have deemed them ‘in an irregular situation’ in the first place. It may cost a bit to fix them, but, what are the banks for?
Oh, right.
Then there are those homes, a mere five per cent, which are – presumably – even more irregular than the house built by the Priors in Vera a few years back and which, like the Priors house, will all need to be flattened. Five per cent of 11,000? That’s 550 houses. They are probably right about some of them, like the ones that were built in a dry-river bed in Cantoria practically in view from the mayor’s window.
But, how will this play on the televisions of the world? Will this ‘putting our house (ahem) in order’ encourage the foreign investors to return to Almería, bristling with cheque-books, credit cards, euros, pounds and roubles?
The ‘Paradise Lost’ show, which features Cantoria, was apparently seen on British TV on June 28th by 3,820,000 viewers who will most likely not be buying a home in this province in the near future, or creating jobs for that matter, and, to add fuel to Almería’s falling reputation, the ‘Homes in Hell’, featuring the Prior’s house getting nuked, was once again shown the following week, presumably to similar numbers of couch-potatoes, who may well be thinking of leaving Britain for good, but would be quite as happy living in Cyprus as in Spain.
To battle this, there is an association of foreign property owners – not one of those groups of people who actually own homes at risk, or are foreign, but an official one, run by the building cartels. I’m not making this up. It’s the authority to whom one turns when one wants to know about the Brits for example. The group is called ‘Live in Spain’ (even the name is ambiguous) and they claim that ‘The prospects predict that, in the next five years, 800,000 new foreign families will establish their second home in Spain’. The association has a preferred slogan ‘España destino golf’ and indeed prefers to call the Malaga coastline the ‘Costa del Golf’. The president of ‘Live in Spain’, Manuel Gandarias, who used to preside over the controversial ‘Puerto Sherry’ (home of the prestigious ‘Hotel Yath Club Puerto Sherry’), told the El País newspaper recently that, to bring back the foreign buyers, ‘…one would need to create a platform between companies and banks to better present the Spanish product in the countries where buyers can be found, especially those in recuperation. Such an initiative should also have the direct support of the Spanish state’.
So, let’s spend our way out of the housing crisis with some more tax money. Don’t fix the problem, ignore it! It would be a lot cheaper, it goes without saying, and a lot more useful for Almería, if the ‘Spanish State’ just coughed up the appropriate compensation (and a grovelling apology) to the Priors. But no one knows about such a thing. Those television shows haven’t been screened here.
Another solution is to criticise those who ‘are rocking the boat’ as it is making things harder for the presumably unrepentant promoters. A group of this type, based in Albox, was briefly active making fools of themselves before they threw in the towel sometime last autumn.
More usefully, there was a meeting in Turre the other day between some representatives of the local home-owners groups, like the AULAN, the AUAN, the Cantoria Residents Association, the AVEP, Levante Sin Cables, the Ecologistas en Acción and a senior Junta de Andalucía politician from the opposition Izquierda Unida who appeared willing to take note of the problem. He will raise a motion on the issue of the illegal homes when parliament reconvenes in Seville in early September and he promised to fight for at least the first three points in the ‘Decalogue’ (produced in the spirit of the Auken Report) of demands and recommendations from the property groups. These are:
COMMISSION OF INVESTIGATION: A national commission of investigation be established, with representatives of the administration and citizens’ groups (including those for the protection of homeowners’ rights and the ecologists), to investigate the existing grave planning and environmental problems, to draw up a report on the causes of said problems and their possible solutions, as well as recommendations for the future.
ARBITRATION: The creation of a special administrative commission that includes a provincial public ombudsman, advised by independent investigation services, including representatives from the administration and from citizens’ groups (including those for the defence of individual property owners and ecology groups), and with arbitration powers in relation to disputes concerning these problems, available to affected parties free of charge.
RESPONSIBILITY: The liability of developers, the administration and pertinent third parties, for having given rise to the grave planning and environmental problems which exist, must be made enforceable and real. Any process of regularisation should, as far as possible, include binding agreements (including adequate guarantees) between those who have caused the irregularities and the administration, and these must include the opportune measures so that those who caused the irregularities compensate for the damage caused.
The politico, José Antonio Castro, also took away a dubbed-into-Spanish copy of the Cantoria section of the ‘Paradise Lost’ video (linked here to YouTube).
Meanwhile, we hear that the different property-owners associations spread across Spain, led by the notorious AUN from Valencia, have morphed into (take a deep breath) ‘La Federación Española de Asociaciones en Defensa de los Derechos Humanos y en contra de los Atropellos Urbanísticos y Medioambientales’. The acronym is the easier to use ‘FAUN’. We wish them every success.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mojácar on Fire

Picture by Adrian.

A fire started yesterday in the hills above Turre and, with a strong wind, it crashed down through Mojácar. We slept on the beach in a friend's house. Our own home was engulfed but, on inspection today, the house seems to have survived although everything else looks like the Seventh Circle of Hell.
The fire by late last night was on three sides of where I was staying. Inland and east and west.
We had been at the house, watching the red sky and worrying. Fiddling with the hose. Making vague plans.
It comes down on you like a train. We had perhaps a minute's warning from the police to GET OUT GET OUT before the trees were on fire. We went down into the dry riverbed nearby and watched the mountain behind our house go up like a volcano. The air was hot and dry. Local people came past with their stories. Others on their phones shouting news.
We had a neighbour with us who had been burned when her car caught fire and exploded. We took her to emergency on the beach - fighting against the current on thousands of cars making for Garrucha. She seems OK this morning.
Mojácar doesn't.

Now there is talk of some fire-bug having started the blaze and, they say, experts are coming down from Madrid with their kits to investigate. The real concern must be towards building fire breaks (!) rather than chasing some phantom lunatic with a mechero. The city-based environmental weenies can't run the countryside. Well, they've proved that.

Updates, by the way, on The Entertainer Online

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Camel Train

Well, I'm going to go with the majority on this one. Oh, look, what a good idea! Camel rides along the Rio de Aguas on Mojácar Playa... or... Are you freakin' nuts? Next thing they'll remember that Walt Disney was born here and have Mickey Mouse havin' at ya.
The camel caravans - seven in a nose to tail lope around the beach, with two nice gentlemen from North Africa - is the brainchild of Ursula, a German veterinarian who has been working the dromedaries in Lanzarote for the past few years.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Café Con Leche

Spain has always had an interest in milk, even if, until recently, you couldn’t find a cold glass of it anywhere.
The old milk was a definite bluish colour and came in a 1.5l glass bottle with a short and narrow neck and a metal cramp, like a coke bottle. This stuff could sit in the sun for weeks without losing its taste and often did. The blue colour came, apocryphally, from the formaldehyde that kept the mixture quiet. It didn’t taste good, which probably explains why breakfast cereal came late to Spain.
Pour that stuff over your Frosties – the milk would eat ‘em up before you could….
Later UHT milks from different companies, now in the tetrabrik box, became acceptable for coffees and so on. An English tea-bag, smuggled out in the carry-on luggage by someone coming-to-stay, would be pretty badly shaken by being diluted by this stuff, but you can get used to anything. Nowadays, we even have sippin’ milk in the supermarkets. Tastes pretty good, too.
While milk has never been considered a serious drink (despite the best efforts of some of the producers to tell us different in the usual kids adverts), it has certainly spawned a whole slew of versions. We have milk with vitamins, milk with calcium, skimmed milk, partially skimmed milk, milk with royal jelly, milk with acidophilus (a handy bacteria apparently found in drool), milks with Omega three, phosphorus, folic b and fibre, specially flavoured chocolate, vanilla and strawberry milks, rice milk and soya veggy milk. All competing for your attention on the shelf. How many times have you brought home the ‘wrong’ one? Bertha, what the hell’s this stuff?
The hardest one of the entire lot to find on the shelf of the supermarket seems to be ‘full bog-standard milk’. It’s like ordering Vanilla in an Italian ice cream shop.
In point of fact, I doubt any of those UHT milks (with additives or indeed subtractatives) ever loitered under a cow. Certainly Mrs Rambeau’s pet calf, Petit Suisse, refused point blank to drink one particular brand, the Valencian-produced ‘Leche Ram’, a sort of ‘can’t believe it’s not milk’ product. I see it’s since gone pear-shaped. Perhaps the calf knew something.
At the same time, yoghurt has done just fine. I think I first tried yoghurts here in Spain as a child. The Danone people (a company from Barcelona), were putting out their early flavours by the time I first arrived here in 1966 (they actually started in 1919, selling the stuff in farmacias) and apart from the plain one (add jam and sugar), there was at least a strawberry one going strong. A strapping young fellow called Danon, after whom the product was named, died the other day at the impressive age of 102, so the stuff can’t be all that bad for you.
Forget dithering between the strawberry and the banana varieties: in these modern times, there are an untold number of flavours clogging up the nation’s cold-shelves, with anything that grew on a tree or a stalk being processed into a yoghurt cup. You can now even get ‘Greek yoghurt’ (thicker than the usual stuff). Currently in three flavours and sales, by all accounts, growing through the roof.
Spain is not, with this notable exception, very kind to Greece, preferring for some odd reason to pretend that it doesn’t exist (try and find a Greek restaurant, a pair of crapcatchers or a decent bottle of ouzo).
Together with yoghurt, another milk-based little number on the shelves is guajada, rennet made from sheep’s milk. It comes in a little stone pot. With a squirt of honey, it’s pretty good in an ‘ummm, this tastes healthy’ sort of way.

Ice Cream

Spain triumphs with its ice creams. The main area for ‘artesanal’ ices is the interior of Alicante and Valencia provinces, notably Jijona (also famous for its nougat). Across the country, heladerías dot the main streets and offer dozens of alternative flavours. They (thank goodness) are all licensed, so you can always put a shot of whisky on top of your tart. In fact, tarta al guisgüi is one of the best and most august of Spain’s postres, together with the traditional old block of hard ice-cream with two or three flavours (vanilla, strawberry and chocolate) that you make a sticky sandwich out of. In regular Spanish bars across the nation, there is usually a deep freeze full of cornets and lollies together with one of those large cardboard signs on the wall above advertising the different flavours, shapes and styles of ice cream, available or not.
In the milky dessert range, we find the crema catalana (a custardy thing with a crunchy topping of burnt sugar), arroz con leche (an oversweet rice pudding), the natilla (another custardy thing) and the ubiquitous flan, the crème caramel. Then, there’s leche frita, or ‘fried milk’ – it comes in caramel covered chewy lumps – to try as well.
The cheeses available in the past used to either be that dreadful Dutch bola – a large red ball of tasteless dry queso, or a thin slice of cream cheese in silver foil from those fine people at (I hope appropriately called) The Laughing Cow, or the remarkably good Manchego, made from a mixture of milks from goat, cow and sheep. No doubt in the old days topped up with a drop of formaldehyde. More recently, we can add blue cheese, processed slices of industrial pseudo-queso, babybelle and cheddar, plus a few shy home-made Spanish cheeses from the north (Idiazabal for example) edging onto the shelves.
The butter used to come in a sturdy round can from Morocco. Probably started out as camel’s milk. You needed a tin-opener to gain entry. Which explains why we still mainly use margarines for our pieces of toast.
Before the fridge came along, and those fat blue bottles of Puleva were still being used for arcane cooking reasons, Spaniards would often put condensed milk (which I think came from Holland) in their coffee. They still do, and as a ‘bonbón’, one of over a hundred different types of café you can order from the bar, your ‘black n’ white’ coffee will give you a pretty good kick-start in the morning.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

No Straight Lines

There’s an exhibition of sculptures by Bruce Cameron, a Londoner who now lives in Oria in north eastern Almería, in the nearby town of Olula del Río. Olula del Río (there’s an Olula del Campo nearby) turns out to be a bit of a dump, although it has one of the most astonishing art museums, the Museo Casa Ibañez, where the exhibition is being held. Bruce is a spry 70 year old and has been working with wood, ceramics and metal – here driftwood from a 1987 flood in Dorset – since his first exhibition in 1975.
The exhibition is being held in the Museo Casa Ibañez, which is a large private museum owned by Andrés García Ibañez who, as the pictures here show, can’t half paint! He has an international following and favours grotesque portraits of curas, policias and politicos (and sometimes royalty as here) together with delicate portraits of women. The twelve room museum also houses a collection of XIX and XX Century Spanish art, including Sorolla, Villegas and Fortuny.

In the presentation (first picture above) Bruce is on the left. The woman, second from left, is the councillor for culture from the diputación de Almería (the county council). On the right is Andrés García Ibañez, who in his speech, noted that the public authorities spend almost nothing on culture and the arts. García Ibañez actually covers most of the cost of the museum himself.
The exhibition and museum are open to the public evenings from 7.00pm - 9.00pm Tuesday through Sunday. Mornings (with a guide) call 950 441 000 (español).

Monday, July 06, 2009

Wall of Sound

It was a noisy week, between the fiestas from our village, starting at 11.30pm the other Friday and running through to the Sunday evening, and those celebrated in the town next door, which managed to raise five nights of music and party-time from the Saturday until the final bonfires of San Juan the following Wednesday, whence, I must add, our village returned to the fray, hung-over but defiant.
We had undergone the Moors and Christians bash, an annual tradition stretching back all the way to 1988 when someone thought of a merry way to attract some extra tourism, and to loose off the town-hall’s collection of fireworks while getting everyone to dress up as Moors (granny’s night-shirt), or Christians (old army clothes).
Or rather, it was the time to rent some expensive and amazing costumes from those places in Alicante that stock the different outfits and to try not to get beer or pinchito-juice all over them. It was a chance to remember, or indeed to re-invent, the story of Mojácar’s fall to the invaders in 1488.
The town was taken by the idea and enthusiastically divided itself up into supporters of the two faiths. The socialists donned Moorish garb and the conservatives went with the Christian outfits. The town’s under-employed pyro-technician, who until then had scampered about on the church’s roof on New Year’s Eve, blasting powder off to celebrate the occasion, or during the fiestas in August blowing tens of thousands of euros in thunder-flashes and other delights of the ancient art of keeping everyone awake, was naturally ecstatic. Moors and Christians means flashes, crashes, explosions, bombs, booms and bangs. Powder under the fingernails as he and his acolytes fire great chains of fireworks that will light up the sky (traditionally from the glowing nub of a cigar), or launch those ear-splitting rockets so beloved by fiesta-goers in Andalucía.
There are six bands or record-thumping lunatic DJs in the six barracks plus another band in the main square during this particular fiesta, together with the disco-bars with their terraces and open windows. More explosions. In all, a cacophony of sound that shrivels the soul. In Andalucía – or probably for that matter in the rest of Spain – a party that begins at 10.30pm, or half past one in the morning, won’t stop until ‘late’ – which usually means ‘sometime the following afternoon’.
That was on the right hand. On the left, Garrucha was enjoying its five-day run up to San Juan (the fireworks and bonfire on the beach with a sandy and agreeably raw sardine as the excuse - another modern festival designed, once again, more for the visitors and their fat purses than for the residents). Five days of ‘battle of the DJs’. Our house is located somewhere equidistant between these two towns, in an area described by the previous owner as ‘quiet and bucolic’.
So, I had to stay in with the windows closed and a clattering fan from that strange shop on the beach attempting to cool things down, tormented by some erratic but persistent explosions and the bass-beat from a hundred discos passing easily through the doors and down the chimney; the dogs going nuts, barking and throwing themselves at the door or whimpering under the bed as I curled up on the soaking mattress munching sleeping pills, or then there was the Plan B: a breathless walk up to the main square following the ‘if you can’t beat them’ philosophy. What's a person going to do?
The idea of Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ must have come from a fiesta. It’s to keep the spirits away. Or, if your spirits come in a bottle, then judiciously mixed and drained repeatedly. Only the Spanish can claim a ‘hangover’ as a reasonable excuse to miss the following day’s work.

Down in the Bar

Now, I’m the type who can normally hear a pin drop – well, a fairly large pin, a rolling pin for example – but once there at the bar having pantomimed for a beer, with music coming from one side, a specially loud coffee grinder in action on the other, several televisions with different football matches going on, or a bullfight, together with a dozen different conversations typically held in high bellows, roars of motorbikes outside and a few explosions across the street to help wash things down, I find that my directional hearing is starting to falter, either that or I always end up having my drink with someone like Whispering Dave.
Have you ever grinned, nodded, grimaced and twitched at somebody in a loud bar without having a clue as to what is being said? This is, in fact, a popular pastime (despite the raised voices) and, to encourage this, bars have tile floors, hard surfaces, and walls and ceiling with as little decoration (which might in some way ‘eat’ or deflect the sound) as possible. Since everyone knows that the only interesting person in a bar is oneself, it’s not worth wasting too much time attempting to listen to other people’s views. Anyway, there’s a really good show about fireworks just started up on one of the tellies.
It is said that Spain is the second noisiest country in the world, after Japan. The only reason that Japan manages to be noisier, and this is something which Spain feels is a bit unfair, is because of the paper walls used in construction by Japanese builders and promoters. An intriguing idea indeed: the Murcians are said to be making tests. That and people shouting ‘banzai’ at odd hours. It all adds up.
But we have much to be proud of. The children here are encouraged to stay up late and really let rip with their lungs. Most of the people dancing in the square the other night at three in the morning when I got there were under nine. A small child’s bellow, given full and frank encouragement, is a wonder to behold and it is here, as the kids attempt to accompany the over-dressed singer’s stellar version of ‘Pajaritos por aquí’, that the citizens of the world’s second noisiest country begin to lose their hearing – and, come to think of it, their taste in music.
Which is why, to truly communicate in Spain, one needs to gesticulate heavily. It helps the flow.
The cinemas – especially the summer open-air ones with their open bars and loud conversation – are good places for guests to this country to learn the language and catch up with incipient hearing loss. Lip-reading doesn’t work, since the characters on the screen have been dubbed. They’re also probably saying something more interesting than the original script-writers ever imagined anyway.
I’m not complaining, having now lost most of my hearing from living here so long, I suppose that I would feel completely isolated in Switzerland, where everybody whispers.
To really get the best out of Spain, you must speak up!

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sticky n' Steamy

It's hot here in Southern Spain. The electricity bill has just gone up (again) and we can't afford, and don't have, aircon in the house. So, we get up early and we have a good siesta during the afternoon. We drink lots of fluids, including cold beers, and move slowly, except when transfering ourselves from one piece of shade to another. We are in Orange Alert, although, contemplating the tourists on the beach yesterday, I think it should be better known as 'Pink Alert'.
So, early each morning, before the day starts in earnest, I check the Internet. Just like you do. I see the Spanish news sites, I answer my e-mails and I check the forums, blogs and other interesing sites about Spain - all available on my The Entertainer Online, updated daily.
Dang, wouldya look at that - suckered in on an advert!