Monday, November 30, 2009

Re-inventing Water

Life was so much easier before someone invented 'inventing'. In those far-off days, if there was something useful to hand, you grabbed it and used it. Take the humble wine-bottle. They've been stripping off their shoes and socks and hopping up and down in a large bathtub full of grapes since the first ever drinking song was introduced ('I belong to Lorca') and putting the resulting liquid into wine bottles. Which are, whichever way you look at them, bottles for storing and serving wine.
Now, if such a thing had of been introduced since someone invented 'inventing', and copyright, and trademarks and patent registration and, well, a legal framework for greed, each winery would have needed to market a different bottle: round, square or oblong; fat, skinny or wobbly; white, brown or green. Yet. all wine bottles – except those cheap cartons of dubious plonk which Mrs Hardy at Number Six still insists on storing upside-down – are interchangeable until you come to the label.
Unlike, say, water-bottles. Now water has been around for as long as wine, but here in Spain, the idea of actually drinking it in a genteel sort of way is comparatively new. It dates, in fact, from the times that the good people of Lanjarón in Granada (ghastly town, by the way, don't bother to visit) decided to put some of their product, which springs out of the rocks there, into bottles to sell to the people on the Costa del Sol to pour into their whiskies. They probably considered using wine-bottles to start with, but then decided on their own, watery design. With a nice label that said: 'Lanjarón, Water!' Whoever it was, Paco el Aguero or some-such, promptly made himself a fortune and had soon ordered himself a dozen donkeys from the Corte Inglés. It was bound to be only a short time before others followed his trail. I mean, said the envious neighbour, the damn stuff comes out of mountains and all I need to do is stick it in a bottle.
Not with my bottle, said Paco. Get your own.
Now look at us, there must be a hundred different types of water in the supermarket, each and every one in a different shape of bottle. I have to say, of all of those designs, ridges, spouts and fasteners, the silliest comes from Paco el Aguero's descendants, who obviously haven't followed the Old Boy's flair for simplicity. It's got a special top that pours the water in two different ways. Enough said.
Returning to wine and its associated paraphenalia for just a moment, imagine that whoever first introduced the corkscrew had the far brighter idea of registering it as a patent. We would be reduced to either paying through the nose, or pushing in the cork with the wrong end of a fork, or bashing the bottom of the wine-bottle against the bar to avail ourselves of its contents. Come to think of it, been there.
Water, in whatever strange container it is served, either an old weeping cántaro, or a jug, or a gaily designed plastic bottle or, as I saw the other day, in an incredibly expensive 'designer' flask at a euro a sip, is still pretty much water. It is still diluted with somebody else's ice, or is merely a junior and un-respected ingredient in somebody else's beverage like beer or Orange Fizz. When the manufacturer gets all fancy with his giant list of ingredients, sodiums, minerals and whatnots, it's still just water to me. A laboratory has taken a cup-full from the spring, lugged it away to Barcelona, and established its chemical breakdown to a nicety. Whatever for? Tastes good, Paco old sausage, but could do with a bit more aluminium silicate.
This aqueous treasure is honoured by all right-thinking Spaniards. Have you ever had to stop on the side of a road next to some healthy looking nettles to try some miracle 'fuente' which is ummhum, good? ('That's OK', says your bucolic friend gesturing towards your shirt, 'it'll soon dry off in the car'). Eight pints a day keeps the doctor away, and, if those eight pints, listed in the ingredients merely as 'agua' (I mean, who cares), are just there to make up the 99% by weight of a beer bottle, which in most bars works out cheaper anyway, then make mine a Mahou.
You see all those different water bottles spread across the shelves at the supermarket, and then you see them again at the public fountain as cars stop and the different sized and shaped plastic containers (good for several hundred years according to my ecologist friends) are topped up with agua de la fuente. Good water... and cheap! This stuff is good for making ice, boiling up for tea and, unlike the stuff that comes out of the tap, is reasonably tasty.
The stuff from the tap, reputed to kill garden flowers – to say nothing of most household germs – is all right for doing the dishes, flushing the loo, squirting the cat, or even showering and bathing, and that's why in most homes around here, Sr Roca's sundry bathroom articles come as standard.
So, we are agreed, I think? Keep it simple. Water from the fuente and wine from the store – unless you plan to make your own. Tell you what, I'll design the bottle.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Office/Apartment for Sale

That's the tower at the Parque Comercial, the shopping centre on Mojácar Playa. It's fitted out as a radio station at the moment. The top floor is a small apartment with bathroom. Fine views! The mid-floor is an office, with a circular metal stairway up to the top. Downstairs, the main part of the set-up (that's on the third floor of the Parque), there are five rooms, a bathroom and a large terrace (on the left of the picture).
Here's the view from the terrace:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Red-Eye Flight

Sat in the car at the airport, doing a swing past the guards every so and along so as not to get stuck in the park and queue to pay and lug the suitcases across and up the steps. It’s worse inside with huge hangers full of marble and Germans. I park on the flowerbed for a piece. They arrive. The girl looks nice. We leave with the windows down and papers blowing around and out. No air-con in this old car.
With friends staying you want to show them around and impress. That’s right. It’s too early though. I was once in there having a drink, you know, and Dennis Hopper came in so I pretended I didn’t know who he was then we bought each other beers and stuff, and laughed at the girls, then it turned out it wasn’t him anyway.
Right, come on, they’re a lot cheaper than on the coast than here and the company is nicer.
Sandwiched between a tour-bus and a cement truck, we pull off the road at the first opportunity. A few houses stand around, looking unconcerned. The car cools down over another flowerbed, this one rather tatty, as we enter a building through an enormous barn-door. We’ll have a couple of beers and tapas. I’m all knowing as the host; role-playing as a tour-guide with witty answers to all the queries.
‘…That’s right, donkeys!’
Some blond fellow watches us from the far end of the bar. He probably works down at the cowboy town film-set. A young girl with a bruised face works the beers and the customers. The blond looks like he wants to start something. The residents here have an easy way to measure themselves against each other: how long you bin living here? You have to watch their eyes when you face up for this one. It’s a kind of pissing contest where there can only be one winner. I try and avoid this, as the loser can get sore.
My friends are looking at the sad range of entrails lying under the glass counter.
Sí, una ronda de cañas. ¡Oiga!’ The little barmaid brings the specie and goes ‘t’ree beer?’ and I’m deflating like a spare tyre on a Renault. Kinda place is this anyway? ‘Thank you dear child. And where are you from?’
Rumania. Well I’ll be buggered. All these years living here, trying to blend in with the locals and to pick up a few words, and do you know, I can’t even say: I am a secret policeman, where is your sister?

A Rumanian friend had been telling me about his work permit and the paperwork he’d given in. He’d prepared and written up the document himself on a sheet from a Bucharest cigarette company with fancy headed-paper and had covered it with stamps made with ceiling wax and the metal top from a Chivas Regal bottle. We need people like this in Spain.
We’re into some of those beers in dark glass and feeling the kick. The blond fellow has joined us. It’s too hot to take an attitude.
From the terrace you can see a piece of a wide, sandy riverbed. It was here that they shot the film Lawrence of Arabia in 1966. Well, a small piece of it. A Welshman, cashiered from the Horseguards, once told me the story of how the producer, Sam Spiegel, had obtained a thousand horses and camels to attack the papier mâché town of Aquaba on the Carboneras coast. The Welshman led the charge dressed in suitable togs but for some reason, with no saddle. One mistake and I would have been trampled to death noted the Welshman sadly as I solicitously bought him another drink. It is told that, after the shoot, they asked Sam Spiegel what was to be done with the camels and horses. He answered laconically: ‘Can ‘em!’
A machine gunner shot the whole herd. Some reward for being in an Oscar film.

My friend notices that the bar has a sign to say that This Establishement has Complaining Sheets. We order a few to take away with us.
A man in a string vest comes through a door behind the bar. He’s scratching himself with a kind of reserved enthusiasm. ‘You boys look like you would like the coast. You ever been there?’

It’s about an hour’s driving to get to my place. I reckon it’s going to take us a little longer.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Barefoot in America

I was visiting my daughter in the USA during the early part of this month, when the fine town that she had chosen to live was experiencing a heatwave; what might be known as an Indian Summer, if I'm not stepping on any Native American toes by using that expression. You see, I'm from England, where the weather is always foul and the automobiles are tiny. I was having a great time, marveling at the farmland and the generous rate of exchange. So, what with one thing and another, I was putting in a good deal of walking, whether through the aisles of some of the larger commercial establishments over on the Miracle Mile, or up and down the High Street known there as Muskogee Avenue, or borrowing my daughter's enormous car and trailing off into the surrounding countryside for walks to admire the changing and autumnal colours of the trees together with the rich and varied local animal and bird-life. Man, I love those armadillos. They are like small tanks with the digging strength of a Spanish wild boar.
One creature that fails to induce a rush of friendly emotion in my breast is my daughter's dog, Dawg, who is a large and tiresome black puppy that gambols around your feet in an irritating way.
I had nevertheless managed to forget about him one afternoon as I lay out on the deck with a beer and a book. Catch a little sun. My shoes were tossed nonchalantly under my seat.
I was thinking about a visit the day before to one of the town's finest bars where I had caused a small sensation amongst the habitual clientele by sitting on a stool near the door and putting a bright pink 'Breast Cancer Awareness Month' bag with some laundry in it onto the bar while asking in a fruity English voice for a lager and lime. Guaranteed to make friends, experiences like that, once the misunderstandings have been cleared up.
I awoke to find that Dawg had eaten my shoes.
Now, before leaving for America, my wife had packed my suitcase with the usual tea-bags, brightly coloured beads, malaria tablets and alka-seltzer pills, along with the special polar outfits that she thinks are appropriate for all my trips wherever they may be - from Canada to Kansas to the Sahara desert. All this, together with some string-vests, y-fronts, socks and other 'smalls' packed firmly yet lovingly into my case meant that there wasn't any room left for inessentials like, for example, some spare footwear.
That evening passed with some television: me in socks.
The next morning, I borrowed the car to go and buy some shoes. The warm and dry weather had spectacularly changed overnight to a heavy rainstorm and my daughter had got up early to take off for work. I was barefoot in charge of a heavy vehicle, which, and Bless my American friends, is not something you are allowed to do in Spain. Terrorists, you know.
The lady greeter at the big store told me I couldn't come in. No shoes, no shirt, no service.
'No, but I've come to buy some shoes. You have them there over in the back'.
No shoes...
I could sort of understand her concern. Despite my particular emergency, it is true that those sweaty Brit tourists who walk around the supermarkets of Mojacar and Turre during the summer in nothing except their Speedos and flip-flops, showing off their flab and tats, are hardly an advertisement for our country's dubious charms and, although I was wearing a jacket and tie, I was nevertheless decidedly and blatantly unshod.
I drove back to the house to think this through. I threw a cushion at Dawg who began to tear it to shreds and I had an idea. I opened up my case and put on three pairs of socks, one after and over the other – to give my feet some bulk and maybe even keep them dry. Back to the gigantic store, park near the front and... hah! - in through the other entrance.
I ambled over to the shoe isle secure that my footwear would look 'natural', if a trifle European. I had just chosen a likely looking pair of brogues when my nemesis happened by. I must have inadvertently left a damp trail across the store.
'Feet like that', she said, 'you'll need a sixteen'.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poppy Day

We had spent an uncomfortable yet amusing few days in clink and were now out on bail. My mother, who had been supportive during the ordeal, smuggling in Casera bottles full of vodka, while we lounged about reading books and listening to the World Service, was now angry with us about the whole experience and my ever-so-slightly contrite dad was ready to ‘put things right’.
We had been spotted sawing down four of Mojácar’s first-ever billboards in a late-night drunken spree – this was in 1971 – and, a mere three months later, the Guardia Civil had told us to report to the Vera hoosegow and to bring a change of clothes.
When we got there, early and excited, the cop told us to go and have a drink in the bar while ‘our beds were being made’. On our return, we bumped into the carpenter just coming out, while brushing some sawdust off his trousers. ‘They’re ready now’, he said brightly.
But, five days down the line and with an uncomfortable interrogation with the judge behind us, we were now out and reinserting ourselves back into society as hard as we could in the bar opposite the town hall while my mother gave me some parental grief about ‘being an old lag at seventeen’.
She had borrowed the money from friends to make our bail and we were able to go home, with some vague threat of a court-case hanging over us in the future. It appeared that we could get three months in the old Almería prison, a thing that looked like a fortress from a foreign legion film. Things were, indeed, beginning to get a bit ‘serious’.
My dad called the embassy in Madrid and they began the process of smoothing things over (ah – the good old days!). I don’t know how far they had gotten with this – I mean, they still hadn’t Asked a Question in the House – when General Franco surprised us all by declaring a general amnesty on everyone except ‘politicals’ to celebrate his thirty-fifth year in power. We were free.
For some reason, the ambassador considered that it was a propitious time for him to visit the far-flung corners of his empire and so he wrote to my father telling him to put him up in the Parador and to entertain him and his wife when they arrived. A jealous friend of my father, a retired air-vice marshal and Rex Harrison look-alike with a withering sense of humour and a nasal accent, heard the news and rushed down to our house to see us. ‘I’ve brought you a present’, he whinnied, clutching a plant in his hands, ‘it’s a type of yellow creeper’.
The ambassador and his tweedy wife were duly shown around the pueblo (there wasn’t much on the playa in those days) and were gamely patient with some of the odd people who lived here then, including a very drunk and alarmingly homosexual American called Sammy who surprised the ambassador, who had clearly dealt with a few odd types himself, by saying that he wanted asylum together with a British passport, preferably a pink one.
The ambassadorial entourage had departed, the charges against us had been dropped, the ambassador’s influence had caused the judge in Vera to be transferred to a less agreeable destination (Algeciras), the billboards were back up on the beach and all was well.
Until, a month later, a package arrived from Madrid with a covering letter from the consulate. ‘The Ambassador has recommended you to be in charge of the Poppy collection’ began the note. The box, of course, was full of Poppies and pins.
The Poppy, a red paper flower with a plastic hook, is used by the British and many other nations to remember those fallen in the different armed conflicts of the past hundred years. It is worn on the left lapel to remember ‘the field of poppies’ (‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row…’ from a poem written by a Canadian from the times of ‘the Great War’) and services are held throughout the Commonwealth on Armistice Day, which is on November 11th.
The box, unfortunately, had arrived in the Mojácar post office sometime in mid November, and there was little chance of catching up. My dad threw the box into a drawer somewhere and sent a cheque for ten thousand pesetas and a covering note back to the Consulate explaining that everyone had been thrilled to buy a poppy.
The next year, another box arrived, and poppies found their way into a couple of bars, where, without too much exaggeration on my part, they gathered dust. In due course, a second cheque was sent out. This continued for some time, with the cheques sometimes a bit more and other times (when the pound was down) perhaps a little less.
Some years later, when my father was ill, the package somehow found its way to me. Despite having, in those days, a lively reputation for handing out cheques to all-comers, I instead left tins in various bars and discovered, the hard way, that if you want donations, you have to go and ask for them. I do remember Charlie Braun, a large German from the seventies and eighties, once taking a Poppy from some box and putting in a few coins. ‘If it wasn’t for us’, he explained, ‘you vouldn’t have a Poppy Day’.
Luckily, somewhere around that time, the British Legion formed a much-needed chapter in Mojácar and, much to my relief, the key word ‘efficiency’ came to the Poppy collection.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Advancing with a Suitcase

Now, all we need is a taxi
They say that traveling broadens the mind. Certainly, having lived abroad since I was thirteen besides fingering the old bucket and spade a few times even before moving to Spain, I have never been at a loss when in the company of foreigners.
It probably helped that I came from an area which has no particular tradition of either superiority or paranoia; an area best known for being flat and cold: somewhere in the east. Our most famous son, you’ll want to sit down for this, being the Singing Postman. They say his guitar picking wasn’t up to much, but that he was known for his First Class Delivery.
There weren’t any foreigners in Norfolk in those days (‘them days’) except, of course, for the odd Londoner that had got lost. This was probably, along with the flatness, the cold and the terrible music, just another good reason for leaving. Years later, when driving my new wife along a Norfolk lane (a rare visit to England), we came round a corner and bumped into a troop of Nazi soldiers with their collars loosened, having a fag. While my wife wrestled with the possibility that the English were odder than she had originally thought, I asked an amiable-looking feldwebel the way to Downham Market as we were lost.
‘Somebody hass removed all zer signs’, he agreed, pointing vaguely East.
It turned out that they were shooting a piece from ‘Allo Allo’.
Living abroad, you need to be flexible with your language, your ideas, your culture and your understanding. People, you soon discover, are pretty much as friendly (or as disagreeable) regardless of where you happen to be: despite their sex, race, age and golf handicap.
We all pretty much know this by experience, so there’s not much point in banging on about it.
Traveling, for me, has a purpose. Usually it means that I am going to see someone for some fairly solid reason. The days of going on vacation with a rucksack and a copy of Lonely Planet seem to have passed and the opportunity to go on a group-holiday - a package - has, in my case, yet to arrive. Then again, I doubt you learn much from this latter kind of experience beyond knowing to watch out for the Shepherd’s Pie.
And the people in the room next door.
I live in a traveler destination anyway: making sure that I’m not taken for a tripper by mistake. I go around stoutly wearing sweaters when the tourists are in tee-shirts – which is bloody uncomfortable I can tell you during August. Hell, I’ve been here so long I need a holiday.
Travel might be good for you, it may remove some of your day-to-day stress and it can be agreeable, exciting or instructive. It is no doubt wonderful once you’ve got there and taken your boots off with a satisfied groan; but for me, the actual process of traveling has become increasingly arduous. I don’t mind driving the two kilometres or so to the beach, but driving to Madrid has lost its charm. Nowadays, the stress of having one eye on the speedo, one on the mirror and none left to look out of the forward porthole is beginning to take its toll. The thought of driving all the way across Europe quite undoes me (and it’s not because of the French, who I get on well with). It’s more to do with my back.
The headaches.
That disgusting motorway coffee.
Those friggin’ lorries!
Flying is, of course, uncomfortable, violent and embarrassing (ohmigod, I forgot to put on fresh socks and they’re going to think it’s a Nerve Agent). If you are flying to the UK, you are certain to be searched by some pimply redheaded bastard from Slough. I’ll grant you that, while the flight is cramped, it is, at least, cheap. Somebody told me they flew to Heathrow for 99 pence the other day - plus airport taxes and an extra pound for the lavatory. This, of course, doesn’t include the interminable waiting, or the last bit - the taxi or train to your final destination. Don’t forget the two-mile walk as well, lugging a heavy suitcase and a bulging plastic bag.
Why do prices never make the least bit of sense? Are the airline accountants drunk the whole time? The girls at the Vera travel agency told me that the flight from Almería to Madrid can cost 600 euros return ‘but there are special offers for just 75’. Well, I’d rather pay the 75 euros but, what is it going to cost me? The Americans make the joke about obtaining cheap tickets or ‘upgrades’ that means you have to ‘wear a purple leisure suit’ which is, presumably, something of an imposition. When I can, I’ll take the train.
One day, there will be a high speed train that will take one in comfort from the Vera train station to Madrid in the blink of an eye. It all sounds very exciting and novel. Until then, there’s the Murcia/Madrid Talgo which will do. Some time in the bar, plus a few turns walking up and down through the carriages as the train deposits you, after four hours, in the middle of the Nation’s capital. Ver’ civilized, yes. Ah, the hurly burley of the city, where the finest sights and Man’s most noble attractions can be enjoyed while swivelling the wire postcard stand in your comfortably appointed hotel!
So - these days I prefer a good armchair, a reading light and a small side-table, upon which the very best travel awaits me between cardboard covers. The characters and guides in the books piled on the table besides me are guaranteed to always be stimulating, refreshing and different. They will take me to the very best places, place me firmly into the most remarkable situations, introduce me to quite the most peculiar people and, in short, show me everything. They will know to offend, impress or attract me and they will have the good sense to leave me alone when the mood has passed.
I have made a lot of friends that way.