Friday, August 28, 2009

The Trouble with Towels

It’s the simple things that catch you out.
Like towels.
We had spent a couple of nights after the Mojácar fire camped in the office on the beach. There’s a small pied-à-terre up in the tower above the office – connected by a twisty climb of around sixty steps – a room equipped with a superb view of the sea, the mountains and, on a clear day, Gibraltar. There’s a fold-away bed and a tiny bathroom with a cold-water shower. Perfect.
The tiny apartment has probably been the host to all sorts of excitement in previous years (although my lips are sealed) and a cold shower is no doubt just the answer after a long climb up all those steps. It hits you when you are out of condition – slogging up sixty steps, then having to go straight back down again for supplies. Yoghurt, beer, smokes, shampoo and towels: the usual iron rations. Unfortunately the towels that I bought from the supermarket a considerable distance below were those highly coloured ones designed for the beach which, being made of polyester, are guaranteed to be one hundred percent non-absorbent. You would do better trying to dry off (after that cold shower mentioned above) by rubbing yourself with a sheet of glass.
What is the point in that? A towel that might look the goods, but doesn’t dry! It’s like a friend of ours who once came out from England to stay with us. Pork sausages and tea-bags scattered among his valises. He had rented one of those old fashioned bathing costumes you are likely to see on Blackpool Pier naughty postcards. A sort of vest and shorts in red and white stripes. I believe it even had a belt. The label from the costume shop said ‘don’t get wet’.
In the end, we left him on the nudist beach.
Our new towels each have a label on them with the ‘ingredients’ listed, in their case, in the ten languages of the ten EU countries (and no doubt a few other places outside the control of the Brussels demons) where these remarkable articles can be bought. A non-absorbent towel, despite its unarguably good-looks, would probably be a non-starter in any cold northern country. You’re not going to sell many of them to the Finns, it seems to me. So the polyester content was merely written in those ten languages: same, same, same, one with an accent, same, something in Greek that no doubt sounds like polyester (come to think of it – it probably comes from the Greek anyway), polyester again and then, the Romanian maybe, to be a bit different, with polyesther. All, as noted, lovingly written on the little white (polyester) label. Think about it, it’s a truly international word! Ugly perhaps, but even the Hungarians have thrown away the opportunity to introduce a completely different Magyar word which meant the same thing. And you know how important it is to keep the language pure – and safe from foreigners.
It’s the biggest difference between the United States of America and the (one day) United States of Europe (plus Turkey and, with a bit of luck, Serbia). Language. Well, and towels. In the USA, everyone speaks some form or other of English. There’s a bit of French in Louisiana and some Spanish in Texas and New Mexico, but essentially, everyone speaks English – even when they don’t. The immigrants to the USA want to join in, to become ‘Merkens. Not the same over here in Europe at all. Half the people just in England don’t even speak English. If there are currently twenty seven countries in the European Union, there are a lot more official languages than that. All supported by different kinds of dim-witted bigoted regionalists busily and angrily pushing their own confusing (but frightfully old, antique, practically millennial) languages. A generous chunk of the Spanish flat-out refuse to speak the language of the motherland, unless, of course, they’re talking to someone from another weird bit of the country… they’ll use Spanish as a lingua franca.
I says: ‘Uggh’.
So thank goodness for polyester, a word that cuts to the quick of our confused linguistic mishmash; unlike cotton – a useful ingredient, I would have thought, to put in towels and other articles of clothing. Baumwölle, algodón, coton, bumbac, pamut etc.
I rang up the manufacturer. ‘’, said a voice. ‘’ I answered back playfully. There was no ‘Yes, good morning, Consuelo at the phone, Plastic Towels and Underwear Incorporated. How may I help you?’ Consuelo, a Spanish girl’s name that ends, confusingly, in ‘O’. No wonder we can’t get a handle on the language. Sheesh!
‘Listen here,’ I say, ‘why don’t you use a bit of cotton in your towels?’
‘Well’, she answers, ‘we could, but there wouldn’t be any room on the label’.
‘But they don’t absorb’, I say, the water pooling round my feet. ‘They’re no bloody use’…
The first towel, the one I got, a simple design in red… yellow, green, puce, pink, orange, mustard and ochre, would have been just the thing to tie to a flagpole on a low-lying island in the Pacific. How ever much Global Warming helped the ocean wash over the land, that flag would always be there, defiant, colourful… and bone-dry.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Last Days

Somehow, August is the month where it finally dawns on us that the heat has gone on for far too long, where we’ve been battered and bowed by too much tourism, where the nights have been too noisy and where everyone who we need to see for some pressing reason – lawyers, doctors or politicos – have closed their offices and gone off somewhere on holiday on our shilling: like the Seychelles or the Dominican Republic.
In August, many of our local cosmopolitans return ‘home’ to Britain or Germany to see their families, escape the heat (we are on ‘Alerta Naranja’ today) and to have a decent pint of beer. So there’s no one about who we know except for the restaurant and bar owners, who are all far too busy to stop and talk to us anyway.
August is a good month to stay in. Use the pool and send the kids out to do the shopping. Read, watch the telly. Swim again.
In my town, August ends with its fiesta popular. The local saint, in our case one Agustín (patron saint of sangria, ugly buildings and bad haircuts), is celebrated with a noisy piss-up. In Spain, a patron saint’s day is extended, according to the size and wealth of the town, to several days or more. Almería City (currently in its fiestas) used to have a ten day thrash (where everything was essentially closed and one dressed up every evening in flamenco costumes or a clean shirt and jacket and went out and ate gambas and got rat-arsed). Now, with the current crisis, it has been reduced to a mere eight days. Naturally, everyone is hysterical about this, although at least the top name bullfights and a few major concerts and a shit load of fireworks are still de rigueur.
Here in Mojácar, we have just four days of fiesta, starting this coming Thursday and running through Sunday August 30th. No bullfights, no name-bands but, of course, plenty of things that go bang. Late, late nights and lots of volume. Dancing in the square. You won’t be sleeping much later on this week…
But, right after the last string of paper flags has been cleared up on the following day, August takes its bow and we enter into September, the very best month of the year.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Strength in Numbers

There’s a new service on our local radio: it re-broadcasts a three-hour program from London put out, apparently, by the Sun newspaper. So now, those of us who live here can keep up to date with what’s going on ‘at home’. The latest gossip about those sterling characters that are too important to appear on such a channel, as re-told to the breathless costa-dwellers. The frothy mixture interspersed with bits of news, the weather forecast (for the Thames Valley no doubt), some pop songs, some politics-lite together with other wholesome and instructive entertainment.
Sometimes, living here is a bit like what one can imagine must occur on Pitcairn Island, the tiny and unapproachable island in the south Pacific, taken over 150 years ago by the mutineers from the Bounty.
‘Ahoy there Mr Christian, any news from London?’
‘No Mr Christian …’
Of course, there is one clear and obvious difference. Each year, crisis notwithstanding, our group is growing larger. More and more people are re-locating here, anxious to join in. Our children have often moved to Spain to be with us: in some cases, they’ve been born here. We may be grafting here, or we may be retired, but we will have worked hard in our past lives from wherever it was we left behind, to come here and to call this home.
We have many skills and countless experience and we are prepared to offer our help and advice to improve our new neighbourhood. So why don’t they ever ask us?
The longer we live here, the less important our old country of residence becomes. The less urgent to catch up on the latest activities of shallow and plastic characters that we only know of anyway from watching Sky television. How much future each of us has is down to fate, but there’s no doubt but that our future is here.
To be fully comfortable living here, we must know our way about. Not just the geographical constraints of our pueblo and indeed our province, but we must find out how things tick. The culture of Spain, the kitchen, the traditions, the history, its society and, as far as possible, its language. These are all crucial elements to living here in comfort and in peace.
But there is more, we must be satisfied with our own society. To describe ourselves as ‘Brits’ or ‘Expats’ or ‘ingleses’ or ‘guiris’ or some other slightly insecure or perhaps negative term, is a weakness. To think of ourselves as ‘colonials’ or ‘exiles’ (like our interbred friends on Pitcairn) or ‘immigrants’ or even as ‘future Spaniards’ are all wrong and perhaps even slightly absurd. The colonial works to become wealthy with the intention of returning home; the exile has his nose pressed to the glass, anxious yet unable to return inside. An immigrant is here to better his lot: to find work and dignity. As for us becoming future Spaniards, even those of our children who are born here will tell you that such a thing is not easy. We are, perhaps, ‘émigrés’, living here because we can.
Our lives here are fine. We live well. As long as nothing goes wrong, we have nothing to fear. We live almost in a different or shifted dimension from the Spaniards. We walk past them, but sometimes we suspect that we could walk right through them as if through a ghost. They are here and we are here, but we are not, quite, here together. We tolerate them, they tolerate us.
Which must be our fault. Our mistake. We say we must try harder.
In fact, the problem which our group faces is a different one. We have yet to create a ‘society’, or ‘an entity’. Being an ‘Expat’ doesn’t quite make the grade – it’s as if we used to be ‘a Pat’, but got demoted somehow. We need, it seems to me, to become proud of ourselves, of our group. In fact, we need to become a group. Believe me, the local people would not only understand, they’d treat us better.
There’s a word which a friend, Christine, brought to my attention which could work. Cosmopolitan. It would make things a lot easier. We could dispense with ungainly terms like ‘Europeans’ (does that include Spaniards, what about Americans?), the ‘Brits’ (what about the Germans, the Dutch and so on?) or even the ‘Extranjeros’? I am sure that the local Spaniards and the political institutions would respect us more, if we could leave aside the apathy and unite as a proud group, with fresh ideas, enthusiasms and energies for our towns and parishes.
Locally, society is divided not between the Spanish and the Foreigners, so much as between the Local Spanish and everybody else. The town halls are run exclusively by local people (with a few rare exceptions) and they are staffed exclusively by local people. In my town (Mojácar), we have well over 50% Cosmopolitans (I’m using that word now), yet all the public jobs go to the local, ethnic people. This is because we have been happy, in our majority, to allow this to happen.
In the old days, when there were but a few foreigners living here, we would look out for each other. The British embassy was never going to move a finger (its job is to promote British industry abroad) and the Consulate’s only obligation is to sell us another passport or extend some ‘home’ benefits to us abroad. When there were only a few of us, we would help each other out: drive those in need to hospital, translate for them, wine and dine them (as necessary) and join together when the chips were down to buy them a ticket out. Now, we are too many and we lack an identity. For this reason, perhaps, we have associations, clubs and circles. But, precisely because we are weak, apolitical and inert, we are picked upon. We are a powerful group. All the money that circulates here is (or rather was) ours. It came from elsewhere. We have homesteaded here because we love it, because we find it beautiful and peaceful. Yet, when some threat looms, we shrug our shoulders and, unbelievably, we put up with it.
Imagine what we could do, those of us who have the intelligence and the experience, whether we are Britons, Germans, Norwegians, Americans or Madrileños, if we became, truly, Cosmopolitans.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Stuck at Home

I've been stuck at home for the past week, after breaking my foot in some odd and pointless way. After the Mojácar fire went through the estate back on July 23 - 24, cornering for me the local charcoal market, I had been obliged to buy a whole lot of garden-hose and to tell the local water company that their hook-up was all burnt and melted. They fixed their pipe, but didn't replace the meter (free water while the sun shines!). So, with a hundred metres of hose and a wheelbarrow, I went on up to the top of the land to hook up the set for a good flushing. Maybe some of the five hundred trees planted by my dad back in 1969 would only be singed. So, first thing, I put my foot down wrong and fractured a bone somewhere. I went to the emergencia in town and then off to Vera for X-rays. Got wrapped up tight and sent to bed.
My wife has had to take over the squirting and soaking. Poor Barbara - no help either!
Yesterday I was lugged off to see Miguel, the chap in charge of taking note of losses incurred by the local landowners. I had prepared a list which didn't fit the proper reclamación so together we bashed out another one. This is for the Junta de Andalucía: sign here and here... and here.
Say, Miguel, how much is a forty year old pine tree worth anyway?