Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Putting Old Cars Through their Paces

I bought my first car from a dealer in Almería. I was eighteen and had recently (that morning, probably) passed the driving test in Huercal Overa. The car was a kind of old Renault van called a 4F with the push-pull gears, but fitted with an Ondine engine rather than the usual 4L couchez-avec egg-beater. This meant that the old girl could thunder along at a rather better speed than suggested by the body and was just the ticket for me. The passenger seat was removable; it merely hooked in at the front, so it offered a rather nasty surprise to anyone sat next to me when I stepped on the brake, but with the seat parked on the tarmac, I had room to stretch out full length on a thin mattress for a snooze. That’s right: my first vehicle was a camper.
I remember belting one day down the wiggly line on the map laughably called a road which connected Mojácar with Murcia and all points north. In those far-off times, roads went through towns, rather than round them, which meant you could stop for a libation every hour or two. Trucks would work their winkers to let you pass. There were no discernable speed limit and no one took any notice of the signs anyway. There were drain-channels across the road which, if hit with sufficient speed, would cause you to leave a dent in your roof as the car dipped and you didn’t. On this occasion I was approaching Murcia at somewhere over a hundred kph when I saw two cops on the side of the road, just at the point where the road itself dropped about six inches and turned into a rutted track. No warning signs, of course. Spoil the fun. There wasn’t time to slow down nor was I inclined to, as the two grinning policemen waved me past, like fans at the track. I think I broke a kind of automotive long-jump record that day.
The car took me to England in about 1972 on an early adventure in my life, the only time I have ever driven from here-to-there, all the way through to Calais and across the channel. Crossing into France caused me some embarrassment as I stopped at the frontier and whipped out my passport at the desk with a merry ‘Bong-jour’ only to see a small package arc across my line of vision. It was a single and rather elderly prophylactic that I had kept in an inner pocket ‘for emergencies’. To my horror, monsieur le flic saw it as well. ‘Is ze engleesh gentleman goin to defloweur one of our fine French beautees?’ he asked kindly, picking it up and returning it to me. Sadly not.
The front axle of my passion-wagon fell off in Norfolk and a mechanic friend of the family told me that it would cost 50 pounds to repair and that the car wasn’t worth it. Yea, right. So, once fixed, and driving back home, again through France and into Spain, the old Renault van proved him wrong. It lasted another couple of years before I sold it to the Bédar town hall.
A few years later, a Spanish friend with an odd sense of humour told our family of how he had just bought a strange foreign car: a brand he couldn’t remember (you could only buy Simcas, Renaults, Citroens and Seats in Spain in those days, peppered vaguely with a few enormous American Dodges and a strange kind of Austin making sure that the British car industry would remain a world power forever). He had left this car, he continued, in Almería, parked on some side-street and the problem was, as he explained to the police, he couldn’t remember where he had left it and, as they attempted to take down some details, he admitted that he had no idea what sort of car it was. Despite this unforgivable lack of crossing one’s tees and dotting one’s ayes, the car was eventually located and returned to its concerned owner… who promptly sold it to my father. It soon became mine. It was a two-tone Karmann Ghia 1500 Special and easily the worst car ever made. It had a rear engine hidden under a false boot and a large and empty space in the front, empty, that is, except for some rust and a sack of cement. Without this aid, the front wheels would lose all contact with the road once you got up to about sixty, which may have helped improve my reaction time and general driving skills but must nevertheless be seen as a major design flaw. Sometime along the way, a school-friend came to stay and asked to borrow the car. He seemed a decent sort, and played a lot of cricket. He wanted to go down to Marbella for some amorous reason. I gave him the keys. I have never heard from him or the car since. I hope he’s all right.
I met my fastest and most terrifying car for the first time when wandering around in Madrid and suddenly saw her sat in the window of a second-hand car studio. This was a red Italian super-car, a 1967 Iso Rivolta with a gigantic American Corvette V8 engine in it, making the car capable of breaking the sound barrier. I was about 30 and in the mood for some muscle and so I bought it from the suspiciously grateful dealer for a million pesetas. The car brought me down to Mojácar in a personal record time, helped by not having any brakes at all. It was quite splendid. It turned out that the car had belonged to a political nutter who had shot some left-wing lawyers dead in a famous attack in Madrid in 1977. He obviously wouldn’t be using it for a while. To give you some idea of how fast this luxury four-seater was, the speedo – while unfortunately broken – went up to 300kph.
But that was then, before they invented air-bags, satellite navigation and eight-track. Today I drive an old Mercedes lovingly made in 1984 which, at a top speed of around 100, is a bit slower than I’ve been used to, but it does mean that the traffic cops and those ugly speed trap gizmos on the motorway will leave me alone as I chug effortlessly past. These days, that’s enough for anyone.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Licence to Hunt Frogs

In the old days, it was easy enough to find frogs. They would be croaking in some corner of the garden or leaping into a nearby pond. Sometimes there would be hundreds of miniature amphibians, perfect but tiny, wandering around the edge of a pool as if on their first morning stroll. Nice little chaps, frogs.
‘I say waiter, do you have frogs legs’. ‘Oui, monsieur’. ‘Splendid. Hope over the counter, would you, and get me a sandwich’.
I had read in the paper that a large pond in some pueblo in the province was full to bursting of ‘renacuajos’, tadpoles. It would have been what editors call ‘a slow news day’. The reason this interested me was because we have had a lot of mosquitoes lately and if there’s one thing that enjoys a good meal of these horrible insects, it would be frogs. The bugs are out now, and biting. Besides which, the pump in our swimming pool is bust so I can’t empty (and paint) the piscina and I don’t want to get into trouble and be blamed for the clouds of mozzies by the neighbours. I also want to do my bit for the environment, so won’t be buying any nasty sprays. Best thing for everybody would be a shovelful of frogs tossed into the deep-end.
All I needed to make this plan a success was a bucket-load of the little critters collected from the local pond or some handy reserve of stagnant water.
In the old days when I was a boy and first exhibiting an interest in the small animals and insects that surrounded me, I would catch a few sticklebacks with a jam-jar and a bit of string while wearing flannel shorts and Start-rite shoes stuck gamely in some mud. This would be a rather hit or miss affair at best; but now I am glad to say that I am rather more hi-tech in my hunting.
I get my boy to do it.
We are spoilt for choice at the moment, with lakes, ponds, pools, gullies, reservoirs and endless puddles all full from the heavy rains over the past months. This blessing from the skies, apart from causing a welcome surge in the roof-repair business locally, has brought a wondrous crop of wild flowers to stipple the hills and fields with every colour that Nature can imagine, and is now causing the first stirrings of insect-life, bees, butterflies, glow-worms, dragon-flies and, of course, mosquitoes.
It was a warm day and there wasn’t much doing so we went down to the ‘creek’ up past Turre, where the steep and narrow bridge dog-legs over the gulch, at the narrow bit of the Rio Aguas as it splutters its way down from the snowy mountains far inland. There’ll be frogs there. You can park the car off the road at the top in some handy ditch, deep in a patch of wild flowers. The descent to the river-bed is tricky, as it’s all overgrown, but we made it safely to the bottom, jam-jars and bits of string quivering with excitement. Years ago, there used to be small black terrapins living down there and it was worth the odd inconvenience of a shoe full of water to catch them. Now, in a small and localised example of extinction, there’s none left. Just water-boatmen, caddis flies and mosquitoes perched in the branches of the trees. It is a peaceful place down there under the bridge, although something felt wrong, as if we were being watched. A bit creepy. We saw the dried husks of some dead swallows tossed violently around in the undergrowth. There didn’t seem to be any frogs about so, unsettled, we soon left.
We drove back and went down to the riverbed near our house, where the winter rains have collected into what turns out to be quite a large lake. The gravel-grovelers in the rambla appear to have built this for some reason or other with their bulldozers and tractors. There were some large aquatic birds scudding across the surface and I heard the call of a lone bullfrog but we couldn’t find much sign of life once we had climbed down to the edge, apart from the floating body of a dead goldfish. How on earth did that get there?
The town hall will need to spray this expanse of water soon, as the season’s mosquitoes are larger than normal and they are getting hungry. Perhaps the dreaded global warming or something strange in the water is doing it. The story is, and you may have heard this already, the mosquitoes are so big this year that their wings have atrophied and they have lost the power of flight. They are said to run along the ground after their pray, like asthmatic rabbits. Two or three bites from these things can empty a leg.
We return home and I feed the chicken some dog-food (which it seems to prefer over rooting around in the garden). The eggs are a trifle gamey but they are regularly laid and the shell is certainly strong. You have to break them with a hammer.
There’s a pond way up above the pueblo towards the top of the mountain, guarded these days by a chain. No biggy. I go up there with a bit of muslin to scoop out some tadpoles for my jam-jar. This time, I have some success and bring home a smear of wriggling pond-life which I toss into the bottom of the mostly empty swimming pool. There is an odd moment of suspense before the water begins to bubble and churn. To my surprise and horror, I can see the insect larvae eating the unfortunate tadpoles in a feeding frenzy like something out of an old Jaws movie. I go quickly inside and close the windows.
They are climbing out of the pool now. Using the ladder. The sky is empty of birds. I’ve got a tin of spray, a fly-swat, a plug-in with a little blue pellet and a loaded shotgun. We’ve nailed pieces of wood over the shutters and put a chest of drawers in front of the fireplace. A blond American woman is making us a cup of tea in the kitchen as the first exploratory ‘thunks’ and bangs start at the base of the door in the front room. There’s a crash from upstairs. The radio is babbling some nonsense about horse racing at Ascot.
Where is that helicopter from the town hall? We need some insecticide down here!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Up on the Roof

The infinity of space is a subject that makes us dream. The Hubble observatory, drifting purposefully around our planet like an extra from a Kubrick movie, brings us its extraordinary photographs of the births and deaths of far flung galaxies. A star some ten thousand light years away explodes in a cataclysmic act and consumes, in a moment, a dozen planets that had anxiously spun around it. Everything recorded with infinite detail by the space observatory as if it were happening in real time, and not, as the astronomical measure suggests, some ten thousand years ago. The stuff of wonders!
Here on earth, a massive particle-accelerator machine buried under the earth in Switzerland crashes atoms together with the force of star-bursts and traces the millionth of a second after ‘the Big Bang’ when, mysteriously, something rather large went ‘pop’ and it all began.
Led by these thoughts, when I read in the press that there was to be a spectacular meteor shower called ‘the Lyrids’, to be offered ‘with various shooting stars every minute’, I went up the ladder on to my empty roof-top, with a sleeping bag and a pair of binoculars which used to belong to a German officer and were found in the sands of the Libyan desert a few years after the Second War together with a treasure map and an empty litre of schnapps. They had probably belonged to Rommel. I had recently picked the glasses, bottle and map up in the Sunday Market off a bloodless-looking blonde gypsy called Karl.
These meteor showers are a nighttime sprinkle of ‘shooting stars’, a poor description really, as they are small lumps of galactic rock that incandesce when they meet the Earth’s atmosphere, burning up long before they hit the ground. Unless, of course, they are a bit bigger, in which case they make a sizable thump.
That particular night was cloudless, the skies clean and the stars as cold and hard as a banker’s heart.
Lying in my thin sleeping bag and gazing at the firmament, after a few hours had crept uneventfully past, I suddenly saw a red light coming in from the west. I doubted that it might be a UFO, common enough round here during the sixties, when Mojácar seemed to abound with them, and when people would impatiently wait for a breathless and exaggerated flying saucer story to end to cap it with another even more interesting and improbable one. Meetings these days with small green creatures being a rarity (unless of course they want to breathalise you), and with the absence of a non governmental organization for their care, it seemed more likely to be a light from the Madrid plane – or possibly the plane alight – or perhaps the nub end of my wife’s cigarette.
And I thought she had given up.
‘Any meteorites?’ she asked.
‘Nary a one, the astronomers must have got it wrong’.
Apparently, they were twenty four hours out, which isn’t bad for several million light years; so, the next night found me on the roof again. Nothing. Zip. Nada. I may have dozed off, of course, and missed the action. Anyhow, about five in the morning, I could see some red sparks over to the west, but they were probably just an illegal exhalation from the Carboneras power station which may well be one of the biggest (and dirtiest) in Europe, but doesn’t seem to stop us having regular power-cuts here at home. In fact, each time I decide to write an article entitled ‘Sevillana are Complete Bast-’, the power in our barrio promptly goes out. It’s nothing short of uncanny.
The Spanish press, of course, stung by attacks about our coughing and wheezy power station, eventually convinced our mayor a few years back that the smog which he’d complained about was nothing more than a collective delusion similar to something a group of shepherds might have seen a couple of thousand years ago in Palestine, and nothing more about this phenomenon has ever been said. Odd really, either I’m the only one who still has these visions of a cloud of orange/gray dirt banded across the sky, or maybe there’s still a lot of sand in my binoculars. By the way, the power has just gone out again. It had better not do so during tonight’s Real Madrid/Barça game or there will be hell to pay.
We might never know who won.
Whoever did, from the roof that evening, meteorites or indeed footballs kicked by Messi were not in evidence.
It rained the following night, but there I was, back on top with my sleeping bag, not this time to observe the stars, but to cover a leak over the bedroom.
In the old times, our craftsmen would build flat roofs because it was cheaper, less likely to fall down, and because furniture in those days didn’t complain over the odd dousing from a leak. Economics continue to play a role today and I should state that I’m lucky to be able to enjoy the use of my own roof as the catchy ‘pyramid’ style of construction favoured by some developers (one man’s roof is the next man’s terrace, and so on for fifteen steps into the mountain) can lead to additional problems from your ‘next floor neighbour’, and obtaining permission to fix a leak – often with the help of a lawyer – from someone who hasn’t been back since he bought his ‘holiday-home’ apartment five years ago can easily become complicated. The ‘pyramid style’ (‘retranqueo’), by the way, is how we go over the local two-storey limit.
A flat roof has another overweening advantage which will become clear when our little town fulfills its evident intention to expand to seventy thousand souls, with the consequent and inevitable collapse of its risible road system. I’ll be able to park my helicopter there.
Apparently a meteor the size of an aircraft carrier went past one night last week. I didn’t see it but it would have left a large dent in whatever it hit if it hadn’t have been just a bit off target, missing the Earth by a quarter of a million kilometers. No doubt it will be back in 2012.
These days, I sleep fulltime on my roof, wrapped in my muslin quilt against the insects; admiring the horizontal views (while they last) and the refulgent vertical ones. I breathe the reasonably uncontaminated air with relish as I continue to watch the night sky for meteorites, flying saucers and incandescent projectiles arching over me (to land explosively in the trees) fired enthusiastically at the heavens from the local fiestas.
There are worse ways to live.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mojácar Changes Shape

It is said that the old village of Mojácar, that white cubist wonder squatting on the final hill of the Sierra Cabrera as it tumbles towards the sea, is the magnet, the ‘imán’ that brings us all to this area. Oh, I know that, once here, we never visit the pueblo of Mojácar, but it is nevertheless something that we are all attached to. Its dramatic and unequalled appearance – something beyond Spanish in its austerity and sharp majesty – is the inspiration for all of us ‘homesteaders’ and visitors. How could it have ever been built? Paul Becket, one of the earliest foreigners to set up home here, said that the village was a place of wondrous beauty (he was a Dane and liked Shakespeare), despite the best efforts of the mojaqueros to the contrary.
We were Becket’s neighbours, and shared the same view of the village – I mean the scenic one rather than the misanthropist one, of course. Indeed, from where we live, just below the village and practically in its shadow, the feeling is that a decent earthquake would dash the whole place down from its eyrie and that we would have lots of interesting new neighbours.
But, to return to the top: Mojácar’s narrow streets remind us of her Moorish past, when short figures in lumpy robes and veils scuttled past one another as they went about their business. The houses had small barred windows and were whitewashed each spring. Flowerpots bursting with blooms brought colour to the alleyways and, beyond the noise from the open-air cinema on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights (I learnt my Spanish there), the village was pretty quiet after twelve. There may have been a couple of foreign bars and one French-run discothèque, but the Guardia kept strict rules about opening times (though not about driving drunk which seemed in those innocent days to be a lawful and perhaps inevitable consequence of drinking). More recently, disco pubs open until three or four (or five) have ruined the peaceful evenings, together with the bright wattage of streetlights, truculent public illumination and crass neon signs in lurid colours. As far as driving drunk goes… well, watch out for the hoards of humourless cops with their clipped salutes and breathalysers. The narrow casements meanwhile have become giant strengthened-glass display windows protecting shelves upon shelves of Chinese-made tat.
The town hall has just decided, in plenary session, that things will be a little bit quieter once again, and has ordered one of the fifty-odd bars in the village to be demolished. This particular bar was, it is true, a bit loud and did stay open until rather late, but the good news is that the owner has now taken on another place nearby. So now we have just 49 places to get a drink. The reason for knocking down the bar and the apartment upstairs (our first home in Mojácar back in 1967), together with the old ‘school-masters houses’ – cheap housing built in the Franco era for what used to be the school next door, now the town’s department of urban planning – is to build a large plaza there. These new demolitions join another city-block which came down a few years back, together with another old building and the ‘Arco de Luciana’ - the tunnel under somebody’s bedroom that led down towards the Muralla which, so far, four mayors have failed to replace. The Muralla, now a pizza restaurant, for several years ran as a disco-pub with a ‘motorway licence’ – meaning it could stay open 24 hours a day if it felt like it. From below, down in my barrio, we could listen all night while comfortably tucked up in our beds to the local equivalent of the Top Twenty. And then try and get up in the morning. Now it’s much more peaceful, except during fiestas when the bands, fireworks, sirens and other festive sounds keep us all awake. Or perhaps we join in. I like to bring my trumpet. Anyhow, it seems to me that knocking down these buildings by the church will create a kind of massive ‘bald spot’ for the village. Under part of this – and ‘bang’ goes the idea of pedestrianising the Pueblo Viejo y Noble de Mojácar – they plan to cut into the rock there and build an underground parking-lot for forty cars (at an apparent cost of around 50,000 euros per coche). This of course helping to make the narrow road past the church into a kind of M30. Look forward to traffic lights.
Meanwhile, to continue with the metaphor, Mojácar is developing a middle-age paunch around the bottom of the town, at the ‘Fuente’ where new bars and sundry erections – including a future art-museum – are transforming the residential focus of the town, although parking remains a premium.
We also hear – at second hand, of course – of a project to build a roundabout outside the Hotel Moresco (I know, it’s like something out of a Buñuel film). This artifice will empower traffic to run ‘contracorriente’ against the one way system back down the hill as far as the narrow (but widened) Calle de San Sebastián below Tito’s house, allowing home-owners in the new block being built there – at the foot of the three year-old orange crane – to park. This insane idea to support a promoter at the expense of the rest of us apparently enjoying the unqualified support of the Town Hall architect.
Elsewhere, the new double-decker parking lot just opened over Easter at the now rather unfortunately named ‘Campo de Fútbol’ has provided either 104 or 206 parking spaces (depending on whether the Town Hall allows use of the downstairs bit or not. They are apparently not entirely sure what to do with it having spent the Government’s ‘PlanE’ grant of 1.4 million euros on building the thing). There is even talk of a third car-park for the village, so that tee-shirt and humorous-ashtray collectors will have ease of parking. This third car-park, which has been touted around now for many years, is to hang off the side of the hill by a bar called the Pavana and, in the event of that earthquake referred to earlier, will be leading the village as it plunges towards me and mine below.
The town hall apparently plans to build some other dependencies inside the village, as that august institution expands in size. Any suggestion of moving the ayuntamiento to the playa, where around 90% of the population of Mojácar lives, is treated with the derision it deserves.
So, as the once-magnificent village of Mojácar bakes slowly in the sun, waiting for the coaches and the night to roll round, the Indalo quietly steals away, climbs onto the back of a lorry from Antas and is whisked away bearing a load of fresh vegetables to Germany and new adventure.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Breeding Bulls in Cadiz

There are said to be three Anglo bullfight-appreciation associations around, one in New York, the second in London (and a very venerable club it is too) and the third being local: The Club Taurino de Mojácar.
This past weekend, the CTM filled a bus and took off for a weekend visit to the picturesque ‘white village’ or ‘pueblo blanco’ of Vejer de la Frontera in Cadiz and the chance to see around Spain’s best bull-breeding farm, the magnificent ganadería de Nuñez de Cuvillo.
I managed to wangle a seat on this trip which was organised by the Mojácar Councillor for Tourism Angel Medina together with Mike and Audrey Hathaway who tirelessly run this non-profit club as, they explain, a chance to get to know something about the real and traditional aspects of Spain.
The coach left early on Saturday morning and took the coastal route towards our destination, passing Málaga and, after a lunch-break in Torremolinos, continuing along the road past Gibraltar and the astonishing view of the Mediterranean narrows, North Africa, Ceuta and Tangiers, just apparently a stone’s-throw away. We eventually churned up the hill to Vejer de la Frontera in the mid-afternoon, where some of our 48-strong party flopped down in a handy bar as the rest were taken by a tour-guide around the dramatically beautiful hilltop town.
Vejer stands really on two hills, with the ‘old town’ – old in the days it fell to the Moorish captain Tarik (after which Gib-al-Tarik – Gibraltar was named) who thrashed the Visigoth king Don Rodrigo just below the town in 711 – and the facing ‘new town’ which is itself pretty old by anyone’s standards. The old town has a small castle, a walled inner-compound and an eccentric church which starts out at the back as a Christian building and ends up at the front as a far older mesquita, a mosque. But besides the hullabaloo of these larger attractions, the narrow white streets and steep inclines together with a modest statue of a local girl dressed with a veil, reminded me of a larger and better-kept Mojácar.
There’s a story that the Moorish prince took a Christian girl as his wife (it’s something that used to happens quite often, I’m surprised they don’t put a stop to it). The couple had to leave for North Africa when the Christians led by Sancho IV re-took Vejer in 1264. This girl, Zhora, missed her town and so the prince ordered a copy of it to be built in Morocco to cheer her up. The copy being the well-known and attractive town of Chaouen (now happily twinned with Vejer de la Frontera).
A hotel and a fine dinner awaited us that evening.
On the next day, the Sunday, the coach took us along through the rolling green hills of Cadiz to the estate of Nuñez de Cuvillo, generally accounted to be the best breeder of the Toro Bravo, the fighting bull. Here, on 2,500 hectares, the family breeds their bulls as they have done since old Joaquín bought the estate off the Osborne Domecq brothers in 1982. While not very used to tourists – I think we were the first foreign group they had received – they graciously showed us around. We saw how the four-year-olds are run, four times a day – to strengthen their legs for the corrida and we saw one of the vaqueros, the ‘cowboys’, snare a young week-old bullock and place him across his saddle to give him his ear-tag. The ganadería has an old Mexican-style farmhouse with stables and a museum, all accessed from an interior patio. José Tomás and other famous bullfighters will regularly visit to discuss and view the season’s bulls.
We were offered a splendid lunch next to their small bullring, decorated on the outside with plaques commemorating those (few) bulls known as ‘los indultados’ which are granted their freedom in the ring for uncommon bravery. Angel Medina, who had accompanied us on our trip, thanking the family on our behalf.
Our return on the bus took us along the inland route past Granada. We had travelled a long way – I wouldn’t want to drive it. Taking a comfortable bus is, oddly, a far easier way to go.

I would like to thank Mike and Audrey Hathaway for their boundless enthusiasm – they are already planning several fresh trips for the club, including one to Caravaca de la Cruz in Murcia on May 13th and a full week’s trip to Granada with hotel from May 31st coinciding with the Corpus Cristi and the corridas. http://www.club-taurino-mojacar.com/

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Entertainer Online

You probably know my main webpage - The Entertainer Online - which covers local news and comment (I live in Mojácar, Spain), national news, plus a good list of local (non-commercial) links and some other material. The name 'The Entertainer' may be a bit odd, but I'm stuck with it slightly as the original 'Entertainer' was a local English-language newspaper produced by me which started back in 1985, exactly 25 years ago. It ran until I was obliged to sell it on a surprise three-year option in 1999 which the 'buyers' (until then, trusted staffers of mine) never respected - changing the name instead to 'The Euro Weekly' when the time to pay fell due and now - worse still - attempting to sue me for saying what sort of people they are. Spain being what it is, the judicial system can be a little eccentric, so the outcome could go either way (they've got expensive lawyers on their side, I've got the truth on mine).
So, money has understandably been short. I know, just another sob-story. There are lots of them in Spain.
Anyhow, that's all by the bye. The reason I'm writing is, the webpage has been down for a couple of days, after heavy electrical storms in the country where the server is. It should be back up today. Hope you like it!

Sunday, April 04, 2010

English as She is Wrote

I’ve written in the past about the knotty subject of integration for the Europeans: the foreigners, the ingleses or the what-have-yous. Every one of them with a copy of ‘Teach Yourself Spanish’ stashed under the bed. Unopened. Perhaps it’s a bit of a pipe dream to suggest that we all learn the language of Cervantes and start waffling about the finer points of Cante Jondo over a glass of fino with the good ol’ boys at the far end of the bar. After all, at 57 years old (the average age for a resident with time on his hands), it’s hard to expect someone to learn ten words of Spanish a day when he can barely remember the name of his wife.
The nation’s barmen and waiters have risen to the challenge and now enquire after the gentleman’s health in English. It’s actually a bit annoying for those Spaniards who had the misfortune to be born blonde, or indeed those foreigners who have learnt Spanish. They will still be treated to a ‘You wan’ beer?’ There’s not even much point in answering in Castellano in these circumstances as the waiter considers himself to be on a roll and won’t want to change gear. ‘Yea, I’ll take a big beer’ says the customer (he gestures so big).
Even in those establishments far from the tourist route (always excepting the town halls), most Spaniards can crank out enough English to save the day. Gone are the times when an outsider was treated like a Martian. Those far-off days when the mayor once asked me to tell a bawling foreign kid to shaddap. ‘But I don’t speak his language’, I said (the child was German). ‘You speak ‘foreign’, so speak foreign to the kid already’, answered the dignitary. He had a point.
But most foreigners aren’t those intrepid types who bought an old ruin in Fiñana and are fixing it up ‘poco a poco’, most foreigners, in fact, climbed off the plane yesterday and, after changing out of their worsteds into something more comfortable in their hotel room, have just sauntered into their first proper bar. Of course they won’t speak any Spanish – about half of them won’t even know they’re in Spain.
Hello mister, I espik ingli very well fandangui’. Laugh if you like, I was told that phrase by a Spanish co-worker.
Now that tourism has apparently taken such a knock, with improbable destinations like Serbia and Bulgaria starting to eat into our bucket and spade crowds, the Spanish are waking up – finally – to Residential Tourism. Which is, unfortunately, not necessarily a Good Thing. However, while there’s subject-matter for a few essays down the line, we’ll remain here with the topic of communication between neighbours, because long term neighbours need to be known and understood. In Sweden, the state actually pays that country’s immigrants to learn the language. Here, as we know, there has never been the least interest from the authorities regarding the improvement of our communicative skills. The only comments on this hoary subject coming from the Spaniards themselves: ‘they want to live here and they won’t learn our language!’ This is a bit unfair since, as I’ve suggested above, it’s not easy learning a new language when you’re a bit long in the tooth. I suspect that living in the midst of an English-speaking community in a town which is more or less prepared for your presence makes it all a bit easier, especially if you like chip butties – on the other hand, try parachuting into the middle of Albacete or somewhere ‘far from the madding crowds’ and you’d soon pick up some Spanish.
So locally, it’s the Spaniards who have made the effort and attempt to communicate in English: this often means that they employ Rumanians, who can evidently pick up a language in a week. In fact, the problem is more about those visitors here who don’t speak English. Imagine coming to Spain all the way from Jutland and having just ordered two beers in the hotel bar and been served a coffee, a gin and tonic and a bowl of crisps; and saying resignedly to your wife, ‘Gerda, ve should not have taken dose Spanish lessons. Ve should haff learnt English’.
Oddly, though, while our affable hosts and neighbours may have learnt some ‘inglés’ – perhaps for commercial reasons as they rarely pop into Fred’s Fish n’ Chippee for a merry bowl of mushy peas and a glass of Abbots – they are not too concerned about writing it properly. We have all seen the ‘This establishement has a complaining sheet’ thing, which has been hanging on the wall, by the way, since 1967, or one I saw tonight on the television - off topic but worth a mention - in homage to Dean Martin singing ‘My Riffle, my Horse, and Me’. One might suggest, since they are trying to catch the English-speaking customer, that they would, um, you know, ask a Brit over a beer to check the spelling, rather than run the risk of losing business and having the customer laugh at you… I mean, you can always pick out a friendly resident (unless you are threatening to knock down his house). He’s the one having a brandy at 9.00am. These residents, of course, make up a sizable part of the local economy, and this is why so many billboards, menus, and peculiar looking property-catalogues are enthusiastically splitting their infinitives at the prospect of doing business with them.
One cool day in November a couple of years back I was walking along Bond Street deep in conversation with a Spanish friend who is a councillor in our local town. As we sliced our way through groups of Arab and Russian shoppers we were wondering why there were no British people about. They had, of course, all moved to Spain but I didn’t tell him that. Suddenly, a tall Englishman with a clip-board apparently conducting a survey attempted to stop us. ‘Lo siento’, I said in Spanish, ‘No hablo inglés’. I don’t speak English. And we pushed past him. I actually felt his bemused glare scorching my back and after a few yards, I turned around to have a second look at him. He stared back and suddenly called in pretty good schoolboy Spanish, ‘¿Dónde está el ayuntamiento?’ Where is the town hall?
I think he had me sussed.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Illegal Properties - The Latest Word

Well, let's see: Spain has consistently ignored the subject of the tens of thousands of illegal homes sold, mostly, to northern Europeans and denied any responsibility for the fall-out. In fact, the subject is barely touched on by the media here who are all beholden to larger interests. The result has been, in a time of deep recession and job-loss, another door to prosperity firmly shut.
The Northern European homeowners fight quietly back. We have associations starting with the AUN, the ‘Abusos Urbanisticos ¡No!’, which is based in the Valencian Community and which began as a result of ‘Land Grab’, the process whereby a powerful developer can oblige a smaller land-owner to cede part of his property for urbanisation and, worse still, to pay a share of the improvements, which means sewerage, pavements, public lighting, parks and so on, making a fortune for some at the expense of others. This is a kind of forced expropriation for entirely commercial ends. The man who began the AUN, an organisation now with thousands of concerned members, was (as usual) a quietly retired individual who found himself a victim of ‘Land Grab’ on his home in Benissa, in Alicante.
In Almería, the AUAN was created to help face another property problem, where homes were built, marketed and sold: all with their paperwork apparently in order (at least, according to the promoters, the lawyers, the notaries and the town halls; which sounds good enough for anyone). But not good enough, apparently, for the Junta de Andalucía’s housing goons, who began a few years back by declaring an increasing number of homes – all owned by Europeans who had moved here to retire peacefully – to be ‘illegal’. They then chose just one of these ‘ten thousand illegal dwellings’ located in and around Eastern Almería, and knocked it down in January 2008 in an act which crashed around the world, appearing on British, German and Norwegian TV, in the British press, on the BBC World Radio (I was heard talking on this subject by people who know me in both Boston and Miami). The Junta’s aggression was covered in places as far apart as Australia and Bulgaria and this injustice even interrupted Robert Mugabe’s violent elections in Zimbabwe. This single case of the demolition of a home owned and lived in by simple retired folk has without doubt been felt around the world. The Junta de Andalucia’s experts in negative promotion nevertheless managed to trump this by declaring a further eight (later nine) homes in Albox (apparently cherry-picked at random) to be flattened in the early future, a notice which they issued to the owners (all British once again) on Christmas Eve last. The news once again thundered around the world and even more people, watching or reading this fresh horror, decided not to invest in Almería, a once-wealthy province which now enjoys the highest unemployment rate in Spain.
These homes, whether ‘illegal’ or not, are not cluttering up the coast, but are located inland, in small and often moribund municipalities where the young people are moving away and the small industries or agriculture of the past are often closed down. There is no tourism, for obvious reasons. No hotels, no beaches, no soaring monuments to the ingenuity of Man. They are just small pueblos where hard-working and tired northern Europeans can go to retire. This is Europe’s answer to Southern Florida. Each of those homes bought supposes a good chunk of money for the local community: and it also means that funds will be being transferred into the local banks from abroad every month, and from there into the local businesses. What’s not to like?
The AUAN, based in Albox, has been joined by the AULAN, based in Mojácar. This newer and smaller group helps out with similar cases to the AUAN, together with the problems that have arisen thanks to the new coastal laws. In essence, the beach used to have to be kept clear, not for the benefit of the ecologists or the tourists, but for the military. Clean beaches give a good field of fire, and one never knows when one might be invaded. Then the rules grew as this was taken over by the Central Government (coastal municipalities do not have control over the coast itself which ‘belongs’ to the State). In short, homes which are deemed to be too close to the ever-expanding coastal-zone, will fall under the increasingly complex ‘ley de costa’.
In other parts of the south and east of Spain, owners have had to face these and other problems, and more associations have sprung up to help defend them. There is the SOHA (Save Our Homes Axarquía) – which held a demonstration in Málaga this past month; there’s the very active AULN in Lliber (Alicante) and the CFRA in Chiclana (where the state has agreed that homes will be legalised by having them ‘urbanised’ with truly massive costs going to the unfortunate home-owners). There are other groups in Murcia, Coín, Marbella and so on. Most of these various associations have now unified under a national federation, called the FAUN.
Indeed, beside the presence of the property-owners’ associations, there have been several demonstrations across southern Spain and visits and support from various MPs, ministers and Euro-deputies. Furthermore, we see some sympathetic coverage in certain local English-language newspapers and we have, of course, massive exposure on British TV (the latest program being a documentary broadcast on March 30th by the BBC). All of this being for the Junta de Andalucía (operated by the PSOE) – and presumably the Generalitat Valenciana (PP) – like water of a duck’s back.
In January, Marta Andreasen MEP publicly humiliated Zapatero at the opening of Spain’s six-month presidency in Brussels and she was back on subject on March 17th, speaking at the Málaga demonstration where she said that she would do everything in her power to cut EU funding to Spain while this iniquitous situation continued (based on a vote to this end organised by Margrite Auken twelve months earlier, but since quietly forgotten).
We should recall the comment of the angry PP spokesman Manuel García-Margallo in Brussels last year regarding the ‘Auken Report’ who said that 'the image offered by Ms Auken suggests that Spain is a banana republic'.
So, to soften the blow of what is now described as ‘100,000 illegal homes in Andalucía’ (Diario Sur: 18 March 2010), almost all owned by retired Europeans, the Junta de Andalucía has initiated a couple of slightly cynical initiatives – the first is the creation of an official cast-iron government-controlled real-estate agency called ‘Spanish Homes Network’ (the banks, don’t forget, have well over a million homes to dispose of) which sells only guaranteed legal homes (the State has in effect become a Real-Estate) and the second initiative is the recent announcement of a Spanish government agent to be incorporated into both the Alicante and the Málaga British consulates, which is, at the very least, a turn-up for the books.
Clearly, neither of these splendid ideas will do anything for the tens of thousands of aggrieved and frightened property owners who have already bought homes in Southern or Eastern Spain and who will, unfortunately (the Spanish legal system being what it is) have to wait in limbo, anxiously, for the rest of their lives.
But now, perhaps there is a way of shortening the wait ‘as each property, one after the other, is scrutinised’ by the Junta’s department of housing. And so it proves. The Junta de Andalucía has now approved a new 'regulation of urban discipline' the ‘Reglamento de Disciplina Urbanística de Andalucía’, which 'agglutinates all the rules of prevention, inspection and sanction' of constructions into one handy package.
It gives town halls the right (and the obligation) to demolish 'manifestly illegal' buildings within a month of the owner being advised, according to the buck-passing Juan Espadas, the housing tsar for the Junta de Andalucía, as the capacity of town halls will 'be re-enforced in urban discipline, since it was previously alleged that the ayuntamientos couldn't halt construction in non-urbanisable areas because the courts wouldn't allow it'. You see – it wasn’t us…
Finally, far from backing down as the economies of many interior towns in Almería, Málaga and Cadiz are dismantled by the Junta’s erratic policies, Juan Espadas said that the British property-owners ‘should not attempt to pressure the Junta de Andalucía’ – presumably with more demonstrations, car-stickers and interviews with foreign-dog TV channels and journalists. He asked instead for 'tranquillity and patience'. Lots and lots of patience.
Something that President of the Andalucían Community Griñán doesn’t have. He fired Espadas on March 20th as part of an abrupt re-shuffle, and has passed the responsibility over to the ex-IU mayoress of Cordoba, now PSOE Independent Rosa Aguilar Rivero. No doubt we’ll soon be seeing what she’s got to say.