Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cold and Wet

Cold and wet as I write this. It is colder inside the house than out, for some reason, perhaps because I’m hardly sitting still when I’m in the garden, cutting down some wood. Our house is quite old and far too large, well-built with thick walls, high ceilings, small windows and tile floors which all work to keep it cool in the summer, but this tactic is rather less successful in the winter. The wooden doors and windows have a small but inevitable gap between themselves and the lintels or the frame and a merry gale shoots through these various weaknesses in our defence. There’s a window that must be kept open for the cat, only this often changes from one window (the one in my study) to another (the one in the sitting-room) according to who is doing what and where. The cat will, of course, make his own arrangements if he can’t get outside for a pee.
It’s a large house – for sale if you are interested – and among other sundry attractions, we have three fireplaces. But no electric chainsaw. This means that we may have as much as one fire burning, hopefully somewhere near where I am shiv- I mean sitting, depending on whether anyone has been out sawing and gathering…
There are other solutions to keeping warm like the handy Spanish gas fire thingy on wheels that follows me about on a piece of string wherever I go, producing what it insists is something called ‘black heat’; the electric fire bought in an unthinking moment from Lopez a few years ago which the children unfailingly leave ‘on’ when they are out; and the heat from the ‘cocina’ which leaks from our enormous French oven and mixes with the tantalizing smell of dinner, keeping us all sat in the kitchen around the breakfast table for a genteel and civilized amount of time.
Any other solution to staying warm in our house during the winter snap is either to do with eiderdowns, wool, a hot bath, booze, cuddles or some passing physical exertion. We manage. A handful of crumpled up newspapers, a few twigs, a lump or two of orange-tree or pine root, close all the windows and Bob’s your uncle.
And, as long as it’s outside, I say to hell with the cat!
It is true to say that, if it’s cold in Mojácar, with its warm Mediterranean microclimate, then it will definitely be colder everywhere else. From my house I can see that there is snow on those high hills of the Filabres, no doubt great drifts of the stuff blocking the roads and covering the trees. I don’t think I’ll bother to go and look. The mayor of Vélez Blanco – which is still in Almería, you must visit their castle one day, and try the trout at the restaurant up there – was obliged to get his bright red tractor out over Christmas and put a snow-plow scoop on the front of it to help free some villagers in the nether parts of his pueblo. Their front doors and windows were buried under two metres of snow. Their wails of terror echoing up through their chimneys. I look forward to reporting an anecdote one day of our own intrepid mayoress doing something similar.
We are only a few hours from the Sierra Nevada (apparently only 55 minutes once they build the AVE route to Granada) where there is snow five months of the year. It’s a great place for skiing and drinking hot rum. I once went out walking with my father while staying in a hotel up there and we got quite lost. There was a blizzard and the road had disappeared. We were seriously contemplating the condition of our souls when, suddenly, a fellow carrying a wedding cake loomed out of the darkness coming from the other direction and we followed him several kilometers to a large and rather merry bar where we stayed the rest of the night.
Spain is famously a warm country, now even more so thanks to the disappointing results of the Copenhagen talks on CO2 controls, and it is always a surprise just how cold it regularly gets. This is primarily because most of the country is on a high plateau and somebody cut down all the trees several hundred years back while planning an invasion of England so there’s the wind-chill factor to consider as well. Icy city views appear on the television together with some old lady being interviewed and laughing ruefully about the cold. Mountain passes are often closed for a day or two at a time. Even the A4 motorway out of Madrid heading south was cut a few days ago because of the snow.
Rain is another thing you don’t expect to see much of in Spain, apart from Galicia where of course it rains every single day. We have a few clouds here and there, a rare damp afternoon in Roquetas de Mar, reports of a sprinkle in Lubrín, and then one night there’s a blue moon shining over Albox and suddenly we have a really good gully-washer.
So, despite the adverse weather patterns, every now and again, it rains. The garden needs it. The farmers need it. The roof-repair people need it. Especially in Mojácar where, for esthetic reasons, our roofs are, by law, entirely flat. But, come-on, who in their right mind is going to build a flat roof? Tilted ones with tiles stop the rain coming in and help insulate the house. I think it’s because our early builders here weren’t great shakes. So leaks are commonplace. Small pools of accumulated water on the roof. Eventually a trail of water drips menacingly through some weakened spot. Those nights of sloshing about in the guest-bedroom in one’s pajamas and slippers trying to move the bookshelf. Ah, happy memories!
Not any more though, no more leaks or drips. I had the roof fixed a couple of years ago.

It rained in every town
Except Mojácar,
A very damp and soggy
Thing to do.
It rained in every town
Except Mojácar
And then one day,
It rained in Mojácar too!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Old Glories

I started a newspaper here - 'The Entertainer' - in 1985. It built its way up to three editions and 40,000 copies weekly, plus a Spanish monthly edition ('Entertainer en Español') until, in 1999, I signed a ... (*removed by court order*)... well, it all ended in tears. At least, for me.
Anyway... checking through old web-editions of The Entertainer (I started the first web-edition of an English-language paper in Spain in 1998), I found this:

'Living in Spain, the Foreign residents' (November 1998)
While figures for the foreigners living in Spain are hopelessly inexact, it is known that 1,200,000 properties are registered in Spain as belonging to foreigners. This figure gives an approximation of 3.6 million foreigners, at three per property, with some relationship with the country. Surprisingly, the Spanish authorities themselves appear to be indifferent to the numbers, and even to the income derived from this group. If we accept the low figure of 600,000 English speaking residents on the Costa Blanca and in Andalucia, who each spend £1,000 per month - a not unlikely figure which includes a percentage of their house and car price, their taxes and purchases - their annual spending power would come to £7,200 million (1.5 billion Pesetas). All brought in as foreign exchange.The Spanish authorities would be well advised to consider this form of 'tourism' and to encourage its growth. For a foreigner, living in Spain is now far easier than in the past, particularly for EU citizens. 'Work permits' and 'residence permits' are now just a formality, since all Europeans have the right to live and work where they will inside the European Union. However, the majority of foreigners who live in Spain are, of course, retired. They have lived a full and fruitful life elsewhere and have decided to retire to what can only be described as the warmest, safest and most comfortable part of Europe - the Mediterranean coast of Spain and her islands. They live in or near the small towns dotted along the coast, away from the cities, and evince little interest in returning 'home' again. Those that do eventually move, move inland into the 'real Spain' - to the Andalucian hinterland or elsewhere. The Mediterranean coast of Spain could be likened to southern Florida twenty years ago - a place of opportunity, beauty and tranquillity (well, it's a lot prettier!). Many foreign-run businesses now operate along the coast and in the islands with everything from dentists and doctors to English food supermarkets, realtors, builders and, um, newspapers. There are theatre and choral groups, clubs, associations, golf, bowls, water sports... life need never be dull. Spain itself is a fascinating and beautiful country to get to know, and residents make keen travellers. Certain foreigners have already voted in local elections, and by May 1999 - the time of the next local vote - all European citizens resident in Spain, and possibly all non-Europeans as well, will be able to vote. This will give the foreign residents a greater say in how their community is maintained and developed, as well as better protection from the occasional town hall 'excess'. Communications in Spain have improved dramatically in the past few years, and there is now a coastal motorway that runs from the French border, down through Barcelona and Valencia, and along the Costa Blanca and Costa de Almeria. This motorway will soon be completed on down to the Costa del Sol and Gibraltar. A second motorway through Granada currently connects with Malaga and continues to 'the Rock'. The rail-system is adequate, but slow, with the exception of the high-speed AVE link between Madrid and Seville (and on to Cadiz). Air-links are good, with airports in every main city, plus Gibraltar, although it must be said that the Almeria airport is a 'horror'. Prices in Spain are average, with both housing and labour rather cheaper than elsewhere, and clothing, cars and gasoline rather higher. The weather, however, is better here than anywhere else, and that's the main thing.

Not bad - eleven years later I'd only make a few minor adjustments to the above.
It's still warm.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Demolitions, Demonstrations, Democracies.

It’s a funny place, Spain. There are now so many levels of authority, with so many public servants (‘funcionarios’ as they are amusingly called), that no one is ever quite aware of what to do, scared of ‘doing the wrong thing’, panicked by those situations which are not covered in the ever-changing handbook (ever more of us are said to be ‘en situación irregular’) and, in short, the country appears to limp along from one crisis to the next, with no firm judicial or political presence anywhere in evidence.
Let’s look at our local problems, and leave the country’s larger conundrums, like whether a maverick judge should try and sue Franco for genocide, or the attempts to re-open the wounds of the Civil War, or whether the Catalonians should secede from the rest of Spain and have a glorious non-bullfighting cava-swilling Catalan speaking mini-state all of their own, or even if our best-of-the-year sportsman plays on an American team in a game practically unknown here in this country (the NBA), all for another time.
Two years ago, the ‘delegado provincial de la Consejería de Vivienda y Ordenación del Territorio de la Junta de Andalucía en Almería’ – the Junta’s homes and council house poobah – apparently waiting until the normal judge (who ‘has never signed a demolition order and never will’) was away on holiday and a substitute judge was in charge, obtained a fast-track demolition order on a home in Vera. This killed two birds with one stone. Or maybe three.
First of all, Vera is a town run by a small political party at odds with the ruling PSOE. The mayor has been in power there for some time and, well, politics is a dirty business. Then, the house in question belonged to a retired British couple, Len and Helen Prior. Britons aren’t likely to turn around and bite. They will have no useful cousins in politics, relatives in the judiciary or immediate family in the Spanish media. No one will know, or care, if something happens to such an unimportant family, especially if the action is legal.
But was it legal?
Spain’s mayors have always exercised the ultimate power in their towns. You could argue that they are the stewards or representatives of the just and rightful aspirations of their townsfolk (and we shall all fall over laughing while you do), but it could be argued that they would best know their way around locally and precisely what their community needs most.
Then, with the advent of the ‘autonomies’ in 1979 (Almería was the only province in Spain that voted against its proposed autonomy of Andalucía with Seville at six hours away as its capital and master), new powers and centres of interest were created.
So, as a mayor allows building in his municipality, bringing in much needed taxes to help pay the ever-growing number of ‘funcionarios’ working flat-out in his town hall (and remembering, together with their families, who put them there during election times), the autonomous government begins to discover an interest in these activities and, ahem, opportunities.
On the one side – and we shall leave corruption or special interests or politics out of the equation – we have the limits of water, space, ecology, the number of school-teachers, local police, health-workers and so on to consider. Can the town expand and in which direction? On the other hand, as we are talking about small moribund pueblos generally (in this case) in the interior of Almería, towns which have little or no agriculture, industry or tourism, where the old are dying off and the young are leaving, then what could be better than an influx of apparently wealthy foreign retirees who not only buy a house (and a car and a washing machine and a sofa and a television) but continue to bring in money from abroad twelve months of the year, keeping local businesses afloat and creating jobs.
Almería currently enjoys 30% unemployment.
What is a mayor to do?
While Vera, the town of the Priors, is close to the playas and can aspire to some seasonal tourism, the interior towns of the Almanzora Valley have serious concerns to address.
So now, as our friend the gauleiter from Seville declares 11,000 properties in the eastern part of the province to be illegal (the Junta’s delegado provincial is actually from Oria, a small town in Almería), putting many economies at risk and rubbishing Almería’s name abroad, another eight British homeowners in Albox are told, over Christmas, that their houses are to be demolished.
Did the cops carry candles and wassail them before they handed over the demolition papers? Perhaps not.
How can you build 11,000 illegal houses? Somebody? You there at the back?
Are these people mad?
A house, with all its papers from the town hall in order, is nevertheless arbitrarily demolished. So where is the compensation? Well, we have the courts for that. Len and Helen Prior actually had their case in the Constitutional Court in Madrid when the bulldozers went in. Eighteen months after the fact, the court ruled in their favour. Now the Junta de Andalucía is appealing. After that is all sorted out, the Priors are free to sue either the Junta de Andalucía, or the town hall of Vera. Depending.
This will take the rest of their life. They are, after all, elderly retired foreigners. European. But, alas, foreign.
They have no heroes: no representatives, no ombudsman, no MP or MEP. Only a local foreign home-owners association, the AUAN, to do what it can – demonstrate, write letters, hold candle-lit sit-ins. The British media will often cover these stories, but it naturally has its own agenda; the Spanish press won’t touch the subject with a bargepole. It’s politics.
The problems regarding compensation are, in fact, far worse than the agony of going through the Spanish legal system. Many building companies and promoters have limited liability of just 3,000 euros and the ‘president’ is, as often as not, someone without patrimony to chase after.
It is clear that some houses need to be demolished. They have been built in flood areas, dry river beds or other dangerous or unsustainable places – and, yes, of course the town hall knew about them. But these homeowners must be compensated fully. This modern European country, ultimate destination for many hundreds of thousands of Northern Europeans, needs an agency to protect, advise, inform and defend the foreign property buyers – precisely because it is in everyone’s interest to do so.
Meanwhile, the Priors, two years on, are living in a garage.
Nice one, Spain.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Day in the Life of Lenox Lenoxovitch

Zzzz. I slowly discover that my dream has once again taken me to a strange bathroom. I wake up with the pressure on my bladder and stumble slowly and carefully – there’s a large dog asleep on the floor somewhere – to our en-suite to siphon the python. My wife wakes up as I fall over Ginger on the way back and switches on the light.
‘What time is it?’ She asks.
I have a rule. If it’s four o’clock I try and get back to sleep. If it’s six, I’ll get up and make a coffee. I used to have a very good internal clock which could tell me the time to the minute, which is why I’ve never had to wear a watch. These days, it just clanks gently on the hour somewhere in my brain like an old but well-wound railway clock.
Unfortunately, it’s five.
Since it will be six long before it’ll be four again, I decide to make an early start to the day. Coffee, a slice of toast and some orange juice squeezed from the in-law’s fruit.
Well, at least we have water this morning. The other day, fresh – or not so fresh, come to think of it – from our drive home from the Madrid airport, we found that the water had been cut. So, the following morning I drove down to the water company’s headquarters in Vera – across a track and following a road-works gang, and in to sort the thing out.
My first remark, there was an audience of Spaniards waiting their turn behind me, went down well. ‘Lady’, I said, ‘I’ve come to take a shower. Where do I change?’
The water had been cut, it turned out, because they had found an old bill from 2004 and (apparently anxious to cash it before the statute of limitations ran out) had gone to my bank only to discover that I had failed to budget for this eventuality and, despite being a regular customer who wasn’t particularly going anywhere – apart from a well-earned holiday after the Great Fire of Mojácar last summer – decided to cut the precious life-giving fluid to my finca. The result – whatever hadn’t died in the farm the first time round was shriveled up and dry by the time I was sat in the water company’s office coughing up not just the 230 odd euros they wanted, but another fifty reconnection charge.
Bastards! I got my own back though. I think my audience were appreciative as I noisily filled out my first ever ‘complaining sheet’.
But today, no water problem, no bucket by the loo. All friends again. Instead, a quick and violent shower, followed by me mopping the floor where I’d made a poorly judged squirt.
I went to the shop this morning to get in some food and drinks. The choice was between my usual supermarket, which, since December 1st, has taken to playing a grotesque collection of muzak Christmas songs and ‘villancicos’ (high-pitched whiney children’s songs for Navidad and, don’t forget, the Three Kings) and the other, larger one where the shop assistants interrupt one’s shopping experience by periodically bellowing instructions over the in-house tannoy system like something out of a Butlins holiday-camp. Normally, I’ll shop with an iPod stuffed into each ear.
I had made my way to the queue at the front (I’m in the bellowing shop-girls supermarket) and was waved past this fellow. ‘You go ahead’, he said in Spanish. ‘Why, thank you’, I answered politely. ‘I’ve just been having a drink with Jacky Mankewitz’, I added, under the impression that I knew this fellow, who looked faintly like the Postman, ‘and, do you know, at his age, he’s still playing tennis’, I finished.
No, on closer inspection, definitely not the Postman.
Now I have to queue for another five minutes as the lady in front of me pays for her trolley in patiently counted out pennies, all the while aware that the Spanish bloke behind me is convinced that I’m barking mad. I’m not really; it’s just that, in a tourist town, everyone starts to look alike.
I drive home with my shopping, including a rather suspicious English fish pie which I am already regretting having purchased. Some chap in Pieland has spent millions making this thing, doing the packaging, the design, the flakes of – one hopes – fish wrapped in monosodium glutamate and so on and, lo! There’s a box of it in a supermarket in Spain. The picture looks like Captain Nemo wrestling with a deep-Atlantic squid. I nuked it in the microwave and it was, indeed, horrible. Again I remind myself to eat Spanish stuff in Spain.
Thanks in part to our water-company-induced drought that followed the summer conflagration, we have lots of firewood. Blackened, sooty and dead. It just needs scooping up, cutting, breaking or uprooting and the chimney is stuffed to bursting for the evening. Our house is a country-house, nice in the summer, cold and drafty in the winter. A good fire in the bedroom to keep everything toasty.
So I get down and dirty with a saw. There’s a lot of work to do. Some of the trees are beyond me: I’ll have to get the neighbour and his chain-saw over. Perhaps I could invite him to some spare fish-pie. There, a wheelbarrow load should do it. I down tools and head for the house; my hands black with soot, my shoes full of ash.
Sometimes, it’s like living in one’s own junior plague. Heaven forbid that I ever see a proper one.
Inside, there’s a message on the phone. Our phone number is, unfortunately, very similar to a popular local restaurant. I discover that I’m having a party of six at 8.30.
The fire warms us as it slowly gets late, and the book falls to the floor. We lie in bed; a stray hair from the cat tickles my nose. The dog growls at some dream-figure and a gecko stirs and stretches quietly behind a painting.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Forums

Hello Lenox, sqwerlie has just replied to a thread you have subscribed to entitled - loadabollocks. - in the XYZ forum. This thread is located at …. There may be other replies also, but you will not receive any more notifications until you visit the forum again.
That’s right, a message on the email to go and check the forum.
The idea of a forum is sound enough, especially for those living some similar kind of life, whether its musicians, scientists or, in our case, people who’ve moved or moving – by and large – from Northern Europe to come and live in Spain. The ‘expats’, ‘Europeans’, ‘Brits’ or what have you. We could start a thread on the correct nomenclature if you like.
The forums, or ‘fora’ I suppose would be more correct, offer the chance for people with generally silly nicknames to ask questions, make announcements or comments, to complain or criticize or to support or disagree with threads which, in theory at least, are something to do with Spain.
Usually, this falls down pretty fast.
The first line of defence against the ‘trolls’, people who write – at best – mischievous comments, disingenuous arguments or provocations, are the moderators. They can erase threads or comments and, one can only suppose, they must be dedicated to reading everything that comes along on their ‘watch’ before things get out of hand. The only time that I have been pressed into this particular service, things were quiet enough until some foul porn-linking Russian tosser found his way to the site – posting maybe forty or fifty rather terrible pictures every day and so on with me solemnly removing them again – before the site-owner managed to fix the problem once and for all by closing the forum to new subscribers, which didn’t do much for the whole enterprise. Moderators on larger sites (this was a small specialist one) must have quite a job. We sometimes criticize them for their actions – or lack of them – but they need to be ‘eternally vigilant’. Well done, Ahana!
Moderators also need to know their subject. One site about Spain I sometimes post on has a ‘mod’ and enthusiastic poster who is so dumb that she flies all through an argument, missing the point, adding trite remarks, brainless gushes and regular doses of solipsism as if she was more a troll than a moderator.
There are around twenty forums I’ve linked to on The Entertainer Online (a site I maintain with notes and items about Spain) and these vary in quality from ‘busy’ and ‘useful’ to vague, unvisited and clumsy. One popular site, which served Almería foreigners well enough for some time, was so thoroughly tweaked to death by its webmaster last year, the inevitable result was that visitors fell away. Currently it has little ‘snowflakes’ coursing down the screen. No one, at least among the expat population of Almería, who are probably on average in their fifties or so, likes change.
While some threads or sections seem concerned with ‘life back home’, with generally negative comments about the foreigners who are moving to England (!) or how the British ‘need to pull up their socks’ for some reason or another which the writer would be only to happy to contribute towards if only he hadn’t chosen a life – apparently – of exile, most threads are to do with living in Spain. These divide into the good and the bad and, with the issue of ‘illegal homes’ to spur us on, they may move into white-hot agitprop and (usually poorly informed) politics. One very active forum, based in the Almanzora Valley, got so heated on the subject of ‘capitulation or confrontation’ regarding these illegal homes (the Seville government, who has chosen to describe those foreign-owned homes in Eastern Almería as ‘ilegal’ puts the number arbitrarily at 11,000), that the forum eventually took a particular position of what might be sententiously described as ‘working within the system’ while those in disagreement with this policy started a new one. These two forums sum up how the Europeans think: they are locally known as the ‘blues’ and the ‘purples’.
Forums can have much to say and they offer the opportunity to say it. Some take this chance to fool about, write meaningless patter, post endless ‘smileys’ or even write in ‘fool’s English’ using misspellings and poor grammar for some peculiar reason of their own.
Most if not all threads are eventually ‘hijacked’. A thread that starts about ‘smoking in bars’ will, by the third page, probably be about the price of salt, or bullfighting, or how some ‘forum character’ was once a sea-captain.
But, it’s the numbers which work against the forums. Check out a thread and you will see the number of visitors, or readers. You can then divide that by the number of posters to give you an idea of how far some subject has actually dissolved into the expat consciousness.
Sadly perhaps, it won’t be many.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Spanish Maid Service

It’s a standard conversational piece at any get-together: a chance to show one’s true worth at the negotiating table, an opportunity to display one’s in-depth arrival into local society.
The hourly price of a maid.
And no matter how wealthy you are, anyone who pays fifty cents more an hour than you do wants their head examined; and as for anyone who pays fifty cents less... Jeez Louise!
Every morning, except Sundays, thousands of maids make their way across the Spanish landscape. Poor things. They arrive by bus or on foot. Some few are long-sufferingly picked up by the patron from their apartment on the other side of town, and then there are a small number of them that arrive in a better looking car than the house-owner has.
These are the unsung heroes of Spain. They make the bed, they wash the dishes, they polish the silver, they do the laundry and they wipe the baby’s ass. They sometimes get into the gin.
They don’t dress up for the occasion, however, like the French ones do. Oo la la.
There are two schools of thought about the preparation of one’s house for the domestic onslaught. The first type has it that the maid should never suspect what a scruff they are dealing with, and so these proud home-owners will set to with a will to make the bed, dust, wash up and hide the empties and all the rest of it leaving the bewildered maid when she arrives with nothing much to do at all. Perhaps they are right – after all, maids gossip freely about their employers.
Then there is the second type, which is impervious to criticism and figures to get their money’s worth. They will leave everything in complete chaos.
Good Lord, I’ve just described myself.
Spanish maids are useful for teaching ‘kitchen Spanish’. There is many a foreign housewife whose command of Spanish might best be described as ‘inadequate’ and who has learnt just a hand-full of useful words and yet at the same time, and with the modest help of a dictionary, knows the name of more different vegetables in Spanish than the green-grocer himself.
In Madrid, the fancier establishments will have a live-in maid from the Philippines (for no reason that I can fathom) and, if there are children present in the menagerie, then there will be a nanny from Dublin. Furthermore, a ‘lady companion’ for abuela (Granny) will visit every day and will need to speak proper Spanish (and be immensely patient as she takes her out for walks). Ideally, she should be the same height as well. She’ll almost certainly come from Ecuador.

Here in Almería, you might discover after a few months that you in fact have a Romanian maid: but then come to think of it, you might have a Romanian green-grocer, so be sure to check your dictionary.
As one’s Spanish (or Romanian) improves – it can take a while for recent arrivals to discover which language they are in fact learning from the kitchen staff – the maid – or ‘the cleaner’ as they are sometimes called these days – can also fill you out on the ins and outs of life in the pueblo, as a sort of ambulatory and knowledgeable Who’s Who. When you have finally mastered the history, intrigues and relationships between everyone from your Spanish maid’s barrio, you will be ready to enter into polite society, local-style. Your maid, needless to say, will by this point have become your master.

Maids often come from extensive families. Their joint estates, pieces of land or tumbled down cortijos way to hell and gone in the hills, inevitably coveted by adventurous foreigners, can make them potentially more wealthy than the Duke of Wellington. The social history of Spain is wrapped up in that land and your maid knows the stories.
Spanish maids are often very useful as babysitters, too. The kids disappear with her for the weekend while the liberated parents go off for a trip or to a party. The children will be returned, spotlessly clean, on the Sunday night having taken part in some particularly bloodthirsty pig-killing at the farm of old ‘Tío Antonio’ and clutching a small packet of oil paper wrapped sausage as a souvenir.
Christmas can be tricky. Your domestic will expect an extra month’s pay and a day off and you’ll probably end up with an expertly wrapped humorous ashtray from that new Chinese emporium. Decency prohibits you from accidentally breaking such an item until Lent. You will also need to budget for saints days, fiestas and other dates in the calendar when no one, maids included, show up for work. On those festive occasions, stick to sandwiches is my advice.
But these are small concerns.
So, aside from the potential problem of language which, as we have seen, can sooner or later be straightened out, the only remaining hurdle is a decent cup of tea. Tricky. While much could be forgiven of a maid back in the United Kingdom (assuming you could afford one there) as long as she could come up with the goods in the char department, here you will just have to make it yourself. Come to think of it, tea doesn’t go down to well with a piping-hot tortilla, which a Spanish maid will happily prepare for you and serve... therefore, for refreshment, you should probably stick to a nice glass of wine.
So, as you climb into your bed tonight, brushing off the chocolate mint from your pillow, consider how lucky you are to have found a teacher, a cleaner, a chum and a companion.
Who doesn’t snore.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

El Mundo Está a Nuestro Alcance

Another old article from the vaults - this one in Spanish.

-Buenas tardes. Me llamo Josefina. Quisiera hablar con el abonado de este número, señor…
-Buenas tardes…
Son las tres y media de la tarde, pero de buenas, nada. Estaba envuelto en una sábana mojada, intentado pegarme una siesta, cuando el máldito teléfono no dejaba de sonar.
-Mire, Alberta, no queremos nada. Estamos enormemente satisfechos con su servicio, así que…
-…con el abonado de este número.
-Oiga Penélope, está de viaje.
-¿Cuándo puedo habl..
-Mire usted Genoveva, está presa en la Torre de Londres. ¿Por qué no vuelve a llamar cuando esté libre, dentro de diez años?
Lo difícil que es dormir una siesta. Los mosquitos están tranquilos por las tardes, probablemente gozando de sus digestiones de la velada anterior, y solamente tengo que luchar con las inoportunas moscas que se matan entre ellas por el placer de frotar sus patas sentadas en la punta de mi nariz, y, de vez en cuando, con algún listo que pretende hablarme.
Desconecto el aparato antes de que Josefina busque refuerzos y, envuelto en una nube de amables moscas, me voy a la cocina a prepararme una taza de té.
El telemarketing es peor que el spam - los mensajes basura - que recibimos diariamente en el ordenador. Llaman en el momento menos oportuno (lo mismo que hace el director del banco) y exigen o suponen que les debemos recibir con cortesía. Aún cuando se trata de una causa obviamente perdida como lo del otro día, cuando pretendían venderme un cursillo de inglés (”sí, señor, pero usted podría mejorar su idioma”). En los Estados Unidos, el gobierno ha abierto un registro para los que no quieren recibir este tipo de llamadas, denominado ‘Do Not Call’ (No Llamar). En la primera semana se registraron más de un millón de afiliados. Pronostican unos sesenta millones de abonados en el primer año. Únicamente exentos de esta barrera están los encuestadores (‘Hola, ¿qué piensa usted de la nueva ley contra el telemarketing?’), y es de suponer, los políticos.
Luego, están los mensajes de Telefónica que trastornan el móvil. Pocos más usan estos ajetreadas mensajes, exceptuando las empresas grandes – que una, en Inglaterra, llegó al desagradable extremo, hace un mes, de despedir a mil empleados, mandándoles un mensaje a su móvil-. ¡Esto si que es ahorrar tiempo!
El único sector que también los usa son los jóvenes, que mandan tonterías entre ellos.
El teléfono móvil ha penetrado al sector joven con tanto éxito que ninguno de ellos se plantearía salir sin este accesorio tan emblemático. Hay horas de placer escondido detrás de veinte botones, y la satisfacción de saber que ningún adulto puede manejarlas. Miles de jóvenes han sido engañados el mes pasado por un timo de una falsa Operación Triunfo. Estaban allí, en plena calle, cantado ‘A mi manera’ a un operativo en Singapur. Como nosotros, los padres, generalmente tenemos que afrontar el coste de llamada, les ofrezco una táctica para frenar su uso. Mande a su heredero eventual (si queda algo) un mensaje como que tiene que hacer alguna tarea (k ACE n tarea) y verá como, asustado y mortificado por haber recibido un mensaje tan poco orientativo del viejo, no volverá a coger el artilugio en varias horas.

Mi bisabuelo estaba presente cuando inventaron el teléfono. Fue periodista. Graham Bell, el autor del terrorífico invento, llamó – evidentemente con paloma mensajera – a todo el cuerpo de periodistas para presentarles su nuevo artilugio.
-¿Cómo se llama esto?, inquirieron los asustados periodistas.
-Se llama teléfono, respondió el autor.
-¿Y qué hace?
-Hasta que construya un segundo ejemplar, la verdad es que no sé.
Han avanzado mucho las comunicaciones desde entonces. Ahora todo el mundo está pendiente de su teléfono o su móvil, donde no se oye mucho más que ‘no te oigo’, o ‘¿qué?’o ‘no tengo crédito’ o ‘maldito invento, estoy fuera de cobertura’.
Pero, según mi experiencia, el momento no es de lo más idóneo (estoy en el baño, el ajo, el jardín, la otra línea…) y el llamante generalmente quiere algo.
-¿Oiga? Sí, ¿Lenox? Mira, has dejado tu móvil en el bar…
Antes, había un cacharro hecho de un plástico negro llamado bakelita que dominaba una mesa en el vestíbulo. El mayordomo siempre lo atendía.
–¿Pennsilvania 65000? Es para usted, señor…
Ahora están en cada habitación, en el coche, en el bolsillo.

Mi bisabuelo, alertado por otra paloma mensajera, volvió al año siguiente a ver al inventor.
-Miren, ahora funciona. En breves instantes sonará un timbre.
Sonó un timbre.
-¡Sí, diga!
-Hola. Me llamo Josefina. Quisiera hablar con el abonado…

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Night Has a Thousand Aies

I found this on an old 'New Entertainer' posting (there's a useful site for old, deleted web-pages at - yes, nothing is ever truly lost...)

I was sorry to note, while whipping through the local news in one of our ‘newspapers’, that Tony Meehan had died. Although his connections with this area were decidedly slim (having never been to Spain in his life), it was good to know that I wasn’t his only fan south of Calais. Tony Meehan was the drummer for Cliffie for a short while, before breaking into stardom (of a type) with another ex-Shadow musician, a guitarist called Jet Harris. They had two minor hits (reminiscent of Hank Marvin) called Diamonds and Scarlet O’Hara, under the name of ‘Jet and Tony’. Tony went on to become a bus conductor. I have a copy of their EP (two songs a side) with those two aforementioned pieces (Where are you Spectrum when we need you!) and two rather uncertain ‘flip side’ numbers called Footstomp and Doing the Hully Gully, where the two musicians were unwisely persuaded to sing.

I mention these two forgotten treasures here as the titles refer to particular dance-styles which must have had some short and fleeting fame in 1963 (Yep – we’re going back a-ways). I started my own dancing career on a rather low note a few years after the Hully Gully had returned to obscurity and the popular lurch of later years was still a twinkle in a Hippie’s brain. That particular evening, I had escaped the confines of school by climbing out of a handy window and I had gone down to the local ‘Townie’s club’. Public school versus the local community, in case you missed the point. So, I’m dressed in a suit and tie, drinking a Coke, which was all that Len was going to serve his customers at the social club, smoking a most enjoyable fag – which explains why I’d vacated the school for the nonce – and ‘eyeing the talent’.
After a long space of teenage angst, I eventually summoned up the nerve to go and ask a pretty girl over in a clutch on the other side of the room for a dance to Len’s record, which it seems to me might have been Norman Greenbaum, who I believe has also never been to Spain. ‘Cooee’, I said, ‘wouldja like to dance?’ She opened her mouth to reply something along the lines of fook orf or whatever. The accent! The voice! Crushed, I barely noticed the beating I got an hour later having returned to school-life through the window and into the presence of the House Master.
My next attempt at dancing occurred in Mojácar. I was a few months older and it was the holidays. I was at Trader John’s drinking and dancing establishment on the playa, locally known as ‘The Congo’. John Benbow, reputed to have Killed a Man, ran this truly original bar, built of stone and thatch like a jungle hut. Another fellow, Carlos, an ex bodyguard and killer from Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, worked the record player. A really quite enormous, tall and cheerful Australian, known inevitably as Big Sue, and equally inevitably attached to a tiny boyfriend, pulled me to the dance floor. ‘Aw, there’s nothing to it!’ She was spot on. I danced for six hours straight. It was the time of Soul music. Sam n Dave and Wilson Pickett. Yes, this stuff was good (makes another note to call Spectrum).

I was wondering if people still danced these days. The music of these times is truly awful. Not bad or uninspired like Bubblegum. Not gloomy like Leonard Cohen, or dated like Blood, Sweat and Tears or too bloody long like Inna Gadda Da Vida. Just numbingly, unspeakably, cripplingly dire. You can’t dance to this crap! You can’t even listen to it. Some bars run this stuff (preferred by the kids, and good luck to them) for their middle-aged customers. What are they thinking? So, I asked the kids. OK, pretend that you like this stuff. Pretend for the sake of argument that it’s good. My question is this. Do you dance to these horrid computer generated riffs with thumpy-thump backing and the poetry of a public lavatory? Or how about, can you hum one of them for me?
Come back Jet and Tony, come back The Shadows, come back Billy Fury, Come back Bobby Vee. All is forgiven.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Self Medication, with Socks

Concluding my holidays in the USA

Flying across the heavens, in one of Mr. Boeing’s fine vehicles, at 600 miles an hour. I am wearing a ‘support stocking’ on my right leg, one out of a packet… of one. I must ask the stewardess as to when we get half way across as I will need to change it to put it on the other leg. This is to combat ‘deep vein thrombosis’ which is the last thing I want to get, as my legs ache enough as it is.
I had asked my wife to get a set of stockings from the farmacia before we went, supposing that, like most other garments worn below the waist, they either come in pairs or, at the very least, in the plural form. The price certainly suggested at least two, with possibly a spare third one, in case I got a run.
I was reading about an ingenious invention in the free airline magazine while cooped uncomfortably in my small seat flashing across the sky: it seems that somebody has come up with tights with three legs. The idea is that the fashionable young things wear them with two legs duly rolled on, and the third, the spare one, tucked modestly under the belt. Then, in the event of a ladder or some other unforeseen accident, you merely do a quick change and ¡voila!
This itself reminded me of another invention, jolly nearly as clever, made by me while doing the laundry one day and searching for The Missing Sock. Washing machines, as everyone knows, have a special feature that subtracts one sock out of every wash. They are apparently all waiting for us after we pass on. Paradise is quite warm, but it is said that the souls up there like to cover themselves with a nice pair of woolly socks.
My invention was simplicity itself. Sell socks in packs of threes. You could wear two and save one against the inevitable loss, and, better still, as you waited for one of them to be taken by the sock-pixies, you could rotate the entire set. Today’s left foot goes onto tomorrow’s right foot and today’s right foot will be in tomorrow’s wash. Clever, you’ll agree.
Once arrived in New York, or at least its airport, which is the size of Huercal Overa, we got onto a second, smaller plane, and headed inland. A third flight in a tiny prop job followed this and the final two-hour hop was in an aircraft so small they practically gave us a leather helmet and goggles along with the peanuts.
We eventually arrived in a modest mid-western town, about the size of Turre, furnished with sixty two churches, three burger joints and one enormous Shop. So large was this store that fat people (of which there are a grate meny in America) would cruise slowly around the aisles on enormous battery-run shopping trolleys/seats which look something like the dumpers which plague Mojácar building sites. These clearly highly-prized customers would scoop their shopping off the shelves in armfuls into their trolleys, much to the satisfaction of all concerned. I was hoping that there would be an aisle of support stockings somewhere inside that gigantic shopping-warehouse and so I followed a large schooner of fat person around until we finally came to the self-medication department.
Much has been written about American health-care – or lack of it – and it is true that a visit to a doctor is prohibitively expensive as you have to buy his lawyer a three-month cruise around the Caribbean at the same time. To combat this, rather as we obtain pretty much anything we want from the farmacia here in Spain with a merry ‘yes, I’ll bring the prescription along tomorrow’, over there many of the pills, unguents, capsules, powders and teas available on the shelves of the larger supermarkets are labeled as ‘untested by the FDA’. Almost faith-healer stuff. You are, as it were, on your own. Yes, you can buy aspirins (a box of 600 of them for a very satisfying five dollars. Compare!) or cough syrup, or chewy antacid tablets but I couldn’t help treating myself to a box of the intriguingly named ‘Queasy-Ohs’ (guaranteed to hit that hangover on the head, thanks to its secret ingredient, a South American root), along with a packet of ‘Stay-Alert’ pills with 8,500 times the recommended daily dose of Vitamin B12 plus the equivalent of a dozen American coffees – come to think of it, about the same as one Spanish one.
Oh, and a gun.
The Americans, inveterate television watchers all, consider themselves quite savvy about medicine. Naturally, they are helped in this by the big pharmaceutical companies both in scripted chat on certain TV shows as well as the astonishing number of medical adverts.
‘Well BJ, you seem to have deep vein thrombosis’.
‘Figured as much. Can you write me a prescription for Vainothrob?’
‘That guy on the TV with a beard, huh? There you go, that’ll be 20,000 dollars…’
The support stockings were on the next aisle, and near them was another clever invention. A thin cotton sock-bag. You put your socks into this before putting the little bag into the washing machine and they will be there waiting for you after their wash. All three of them.
I’m home now and my legs are fine. Unfortunately, I took one of those ‘stay awake’ pills when I arrived in Madrid so that I could drive all the way down to the coast and I haven’t slept since. My eyes are red and sore and it’s five in the morning here.
About eleven in the evening over there. Right now in Texas, they’ll all be shopping.