Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

Ex-pat cravings

The crazy things I miss from blighty

 

For my first visit to Spain my wife and I were lucky enough to be invited over by a friend who had moved over to Alicante in the previous year. He kindly offered to shows us a few locations up and down the Costa Blanca. One thing stuck in my mind from that visit. One day we popped into an English grocers shop and my friend happened to spot a box of cornflakes. These weren't ordinary cornflakes but the fruity ones with added strawberries. What happened next left quite an impression. My friend retired to the car, opened the box of cornflakes and started cupping handfuls of the dry cereal into his mouth with tears of joy coming down his face. He explained these were his favourite brand and that he had not had them for a year or so since he was last in the UK!
 
Now that I'm a Spanish resident myself I completely understand how he felt. While I never get homesick for England, every now and again, a flavour or a smell can trigger an unusual response in the brain. Like Proust's Madeleines dipped in tea, they can open a neural pathway with surprising efficacy, transporting one back to a different place and time. Sometimes though it happens the other way. One imagines the place and the time which in turn reminds one of the taste or smell which stimulates the craving. I've lost count of the number of times this has happened to me. Typically I'll think of an event like a Christmas celebration, which will remind my of a beverage like ginger wine. Once the flavour and smell of the ginger wine gets in my head I'll be unable to shake it off. I'll trawl around the supermarkets here to see if there is anything similar. Then when inevitably I find that there isn't I'll go online to shop for some, only to be defeated by exorbitant delivery charges. Then I'll hit up YouTube and start typing "how to make ginger wine"...
 
The first big bump in the road after first moving to Spain was that I found myself living in a remote village that was far, far away from a decent curry house. Not only that but I was really surprised by the paucity of spices used in Spanish cuisine. They just don't do hot and spicy food over here. So a process began of teaching myself how to cook Indian food and sourcing ingredients. I'd brought some dried chillies and coriander seeds with me and surprised myself by successfully planting and growing these. I discovered cardamoms were available through a local health-food shop. Also, I came across a Moroccan bric-à-brac shop which had a small shelf of spices from which I was able to source a few things. Bit by bit I was able to get everything together, and using the invaluable book, 'The Curry Secret' by Kris Dhillon, I was able to recreate the good old-fashioned British Indian restaurant experience in my own home. I shed a tear myself when I cooked my first perfect Chicken Tikka Massala!
 
This was over fifteen years ago and things have moved on. My local supermarket carries fresh coriander and ginger these days. However there are still many items that obsess my senses from time to time. Fresh cream seems to be unknown here. They only do the UHT stuff or horrible squirty cream. Clotted cream is pure fantasy. I often dream of kippers, smoked mackerel fillets, custard powder, Colman's mustard, instant desserts like Angel Delight, pickled onions, Vesta Chow Mein with crispy noodles, the list is endless! Most of this is crap, processed food, but such is the way my brain is wired, these happen to be the ones that take me back to the past most effectively.
 
When I moved to Andalusia a decade ago I found the situation little different. There are places near the coast where British and Asian groceries can be sourced. As I don't have a car, and the bus ride would be a round trip of about 25 euros, I rarely bother to make the journey.
 
Fortunately online purchasing has gradually made the availability of many items possible, though some online retailers either won't ship to Spain or charge a lot for postage. Even Amazon didn't have an online store in Spain until as late as 2011 but now it is possible to order some items through them at a lower cost of delivery than getting them sent from the UK.
 
A better solution over the years has been to inconvenience friends of mine to bring stuff over when they come to stay. Fortunately I've known many folk with holiday homes here who have volunteered their services as my spice mules, squeezing all sorts of things from poppadoms to tamarind paste into their luggage. My most trusty trafficker, Lynda has brought hundreds of items over for me in the past, but alas she is retiring this year, having made the sensible decision to base herself over here permanently. Respect and many thanks for your years of loyal service!
 
Really she couldn't have picked a better time to hang up the shopping bag, since this year I've discovered a couple of online Asian grocers specialising in the Spanish market, carrying a much wider range of items than I've ever seen before, and with reasonable delivery charges. For the first time in almost two decades I can order everything from rasmalai to frozen samosas with more spices available than you could shake a cinnamon stick at!
 
In case these websites are of interest to my fellow ex-pat sensation-seekers, here are the addresses:
 
 
 

The fallen. People who have moved to Spain and later returned to the UK.

What makes the difference between those who stick it out and those who don't.
 
A few thoughts this week on 'The Fallen' (no I'm not talking about contestants who didn't make it in the Hunger Games, though sometimes it feels like that) I refer to those expats who moved to Spain later to give up and return to Britain. Sorry if it is a bit of a gloomy post but it's not all sun, sea and sangria over here!
 
This is a topic that has hounded me as I've known quite a few folk over the years, many of whom were good friends who have upped-sticks and moved back to blighty. Some of them have seemed really committed to Spain and have really surprised me with their decisions to return whereas with others, I've known they wouldn't stay the course as soon as I met them. Anyway, no names no pack drill but I'll outline a few case studies here to try and dig into the reasons people join the ranks of 'The Fallen'.
 
Certainly in the case of the ones I've known immediately that are not suited for expat life, one group that sticks out are the spenders. These are people who sell their property in the UK and find themselves with more money than they've ever had in their lives but instead of investing wisely, just 'spend spend spend'. One family I knew burned through their savings in one mad year, eating and drinking out every night and filling a rented house with a ton of things they didn't need from ridiculously expensive TVs to quad bikes. They seemed to reach a tipping point where they realised they need to work but couldn't find anything to do because they didn't know the language and ended up flying back home with their tale between their legs.
 
The language barrier manifests itself in other ways than making work hard to find. Several elderly couples I've known had an imbalance where one partner knew the language really well and the other couldn't pick it up at all, leading to the linguaphile acting as a translator for his or her partner. In the instance that this partner dies, it can make it much more difficult for the remaining partner to cope. Several people I knew that found themselves in this position gave up and returned to Britain.
 
Family ties are often behind people's decision to bail out on their lives in Spain. It's quite common for parents to undertake the move to Spain after their children have grown up and all they're leaving behind is an empty nest. The problem arises when grandchildren start to appear. The desire to be close to the grandchildren so as not to miss out on their growing up is clearly a strong draw, but also the grandparents seem to feel a renewed sense of purpose, a feeling that they should be helping out and baby-sitting etc. This suddenly makes a life in in a deck chair sipping sundowners seem a selfish waste of one's life.
 
I've long held the view that there is a knack to emigrating successfully which is to get the goal right in the first place. I seriously think a lot of people imagine living in Spain is going to be a endless holiday, which is completely the wrong mindset. Unless you are of retiring age, few of us are lucky enough to be sufficiently financially secure to avoid the need to work. Yet on message boards and forums I often see questions from folk of working age with kids planning to move over with little or no idea of what they are going to do to support themselves. A classic fantasy-fallacy I've seen is from people with zero experience of the pub trade saying they are thinking of opening a bar, with no idea of what hard work and little reward this entails. One bar owner here told me he was afraid to open his letter box for fear of receiving yet another unexpected bill, such as the one from the council demanding payment for the health inspectors that are required by law to inspect his kitchen! Folk who come over here without having a strong income strategy are generally doomed to give up and go home at some point.
 
Even with a work plan, I think its prudent to lower one's expectations here compared with Britain. Wages are generally lower here and demand for goods and services are smaller. Spain was hit very hard by the 2008 crash and there is no social security net to fall back on. Property sales came to a halt in 2008 putting many real estate agents immediately out of work and the construction trade, albeit slower, came to a similar collapse. With less work to go around the competition forced wages down, particularly in black money which forced many trades people to repatriate. One competent plumber told me his reason for returning was 'he was fed up of being poor' a phrase you would rarely hear from a plumber working in the UK even in the midst of a recession.
 
While I've seen a lot of people rushing to escape the UK for Spain before the January 31st 2021 deadline, curiously I've known several people who have returned to the UK because of Brexit. While I've asked several of them what has prompted this decision, I'm not sure the answers they have given me are completely satisfactory. One chap expressed concerns that the healthcare cost would rise for him, which is fair enough I suppose, but other reasons people have given me have been less convincing. I suspect some people were just living 'under the radar' and would have to become registered tax-payers if they stayed.
 
Finally one thing I've seen many times is that couples with relationship problems often move to Spain thinking it will be a new start that will magically fix everything. At some point down the line however it becomes clear that far from being a remedy, the battle of coming to terms with the new environment, making new social contacts and probably spending more time together than they ever had in the UK puts more stress on their relationship. Invariably a split happens and one or both partners end up on the plane home.
 
My advice then for people looking to make the move to Spain is look before you leap!

Climate Change Lightblub

We are warming, but more locally than we think.
 
I struggle to to understand certain aspects of the global warming debate. Climate change deniers generally admit that the global temperature is warming as we're coming out of an ice-age. Their denial is that human activity is accelerating that process. This has always seemed silly point of view to me, I mean if you were standing on a railway line with a train coming towards you, you would take action and get out of the way, not stand there arguing about whether the train was accelerating or travelling with constant velocity. Similarly then I don't see why we don't take action to avoid the consequences of a change in climate that is inevitable, rather than bickering about carbon taxes (or even more dangerous IMHO, plans to 'reverse' global warming). Common sense never prevails however, so conservatives will continue to allow folk to build houses on flood plains and crumbling cliff edges!
 
Anyway, the main point of this post is a modest lightbulb moment I had a few years back that I'd like to share.
 
My friend Mike works in Seville, Spain as an English teacher. He said he was cycling to work one evening at about 5:30pm and, finding it difficult to breath, noticed the temperature was a staggering 57 degrees Celsius. He explained that Seville is like a cauldron and heat just collects there and sits during the day, which is worse in summer as everyone uses air-conditioning which pumps more hot air in the street.
 
I live in Spain too, and I learned the trick years ago that to cool myself down, I run my wrists under the tap for a few minutes. Since all the blood passes through the wrist and the veins are near the surface, the cool water takes the heat away quite efficiently. This is the point where the light-bulb went off. It struck me that Seville was on a river and that the river must be acting like the tap water, taking some of the heat away with it as the water flowed through it. Furthermore, apart from a few sparsely populated mining towns, just about every human settlement was built on a river or near the sea. The thought crossed my mind 'what if we humans are acting like radiators for the worlds air and water. Summer and air-conditioning aside, even in the coldest winters our cities are still pumping heat into the environment when we run a bath or turn on our central heating. Billions of humans make heat and we do it by and large in our cities.
 
The notion might have drifted into obscurity if I hadn't come across an article on climate change which shared the Web address of the NASA GISS database containing records of world surface temperature. Out of curiosity I started to look at the data. I was struck by how temperature increases correlate closely with population density. Where ever I looked, temperatures had been rising in the worlds cities more than anywhere else. In fact, looking in comparison at some sparsely areas, places like Alaska and Mongolia had actually fallen in temperature at the same time temperature in cities had been rising.
 
Now if the most densely populated areas of the planet are near water, and the temperature is rising more profoundly in these areas, the impact on the worlds weather could be starker than previously imagined. Weather is governed by fluid dynamics of water and air. If these flows were being affected evenly by a global change in temperature by a degree or so, the effect on the world's weather would probably be negligible. The problem is, if that one degree in temperature is concentrated locally in coastal areas, the effect is bound to be more pronounced. Taking this further, we could see a situation where the global temperature of the earth remained stable, or even fell overall, but local heating could continue to have a devastating effect on the worlds weather systems.
 
Another thought experiment has a chilling consequence. If magically we were able to flip a switch tomorrow that transformed all the energy that powered our heating, lighting, A/C and domestic equipment from a fossil fuel source to solar, heat generated in cities will continue to have a disproportionately large effect on global weather, and the heat in our cities will continue to rise in tandem with population increases.
 
Up until this point these ideas were the merely the musings of a pretty ignorant layman with no expertise at all in the field. Then a few weeks ago I stumbled across an article from 2016 which went some way to confirm what I'd been thinking.
 
 
The article goes on to explain that the effect, know as the Urban Heat Island (UHI) had been know about for a long time, so I was surprised I'd not read about it before.
 
My point here is that while we mostly talk about man-made or 'Anthropomorphic' global warming, the real killer is the man-made local warming we all contribute to by our never-ending desire to congregate in cities. I'm not claiming that CO2 emissions are irrelevant. These too exacerbate local warming effects, though carbon emissions should not be singled out as the sole culprit here. Man's tendency to aggregate in to ever larger conurbations is a much larger factor than previously thought. 

Remembering Live Aid

..because I was there!

 

I've been to many hundreds of diverse musical shows from street music at the Sidmouth folk festival to ballet at Sadler's Wells. Every now and again a curious thing happens. The performance of the artists and the reaction of the audience appear to fuel each other, such that the whole experience seems to exceed the sum of its parts. A mere concert transcends itself to become an event. One of these was Live Aid, the 35th anniversary of which is the 13th of July this week. I was lucky enough to be there so let me share my experience with you.
 
Firstly I was lucky to be there at all as it wasn't my original intention to compete in the battle for tickets. I got a phone call from a work colleague whose wife was planning to call the ticket hotline and thoughtfully asked if anyone else wanted one. About eight or ten of us got on board and stumped up our £25 quid.
 
On the big day I agreed to meet another workmate, Chris, on the way there. We both had to pickup the tube at Wimbledon so met up for company on the journey to Wembley. Already there was a hint of an atmosphere as clearly a lot of folk were heading in the same direction.
 
Chris was a decade or so younger than I was and quite a character. He was a flamboyant dresser and a bit of a party animal with an instinct to know where to seek out a good time. On more than one occasion I'd seen him arrive in the office in the clothes he'd been wearing the previous day and he'd confide that he been night-clubbing, ending up in one of the 'early houses' near Smithfield market for a pint and a spot of breakfast.
 
As there was an alcohol ban inside the stadium, he and I had agreed to 'make other arrangements' and so we each had two litre bottles of lemonade in which we had mixed in bottles of vodka, thinking even if security opened and sniffed the bottles there was still a fair chance we would get away with it, but as it happened the policing of the entry to the stadium was pretty lax and we were soon making our way to our allotted seats with our 'moonshine' in hand.
 
We were quite far back, about half way up the stands facing the stage and slightly to stage-left. However as the stands were staggered we had unobstructed views of the stage which was not the case for a lot of people on the flat. It was a blisteringly hot day so I started to nip the vodka before a note was played.
 
Status Quo was famously the first act on stage and they played a blinder. Their performance got everybody in the mood and the simplicity of their pub-rock beat went down surprisingly well in a big stadium. I'd say they were one of the top five acts of the day.
 
My only negative memory of the concert was that we couldn't see or hear the music from America which was relayed though screens on each side of the stage in between the British acts. Perhaps the technology was immature or we were too far away, but the pictures were hard to make out in the strong sunshine, so I think many of us, at least in our part of the stadium, just resorted to chatting and people watching. Clearly for this purpose God had placed the braless young woman in a loose fitting T-shirt in the row in front of me, whose left boob kept trying to escape when ever she lent forward, an activity to which it had an eye-opening degree of success.
 
The afternoon went on and the atmosphere built. It was a uniquely friendly atmosphere for such a large event and people were all happy to be there, just having a party to feed the starving Africans. This became apparent when we realised that despite losing liquid in the heat, some of the two litres of lemonade/vodka cocktail was going to have to come out at some point.
 
It was Chris who then came up with a cunning plan. The nearest toilets at Wembley were at three o'clock, if you consider the stage was mid-day and we were about twenty-five past six. He suggested that if we moved down onto the pitch we could ease our way gently towards the stage and get there just about in time to watch U2 which he considered would be a great act to catch up close. Then after seeing them we would head right to the bogs and then back in a triangular path.
 
All hail the party animal! His plan worked a treat. We gently mingled our way through the good-natured crowd with amazingly nobody moaning about pushing in, and after a while made our way to the 'sweaty mosh-pit' just as U2 came on. By that time it really was exceptionally hot and the stadium staff were spraying us with water to keep us cool. When U2 started playing there was a crush as everyone exploded with excitement. By that time we'd got within about ten metres of the stage, roughly inline with where Bono later rescued a woman who seemed to be being crushed. We couldn't get any closer once they were playing but it was a great memory seeing some of the show from there.
 
As planned we then headed off to the toilets, which took some time. In the bowels of Wembley there are a series of rooms which led to the facilities and as you can imagine, with 72,000 people there that day the queues were pretty horrendous. While we were waiting though, we were rewarded with a sweet surprise. A door opened and all of a sudden a small crowd appeared, moving through our tunnel. On the outside were a gaggle of paparazzi madly flashing their cameras. Inside that there was a cordon of police who were linking arms surrounding none other than Bob Geldof!! I can't adequately describe how that moment felt but there were dozens if not hundreds of  audience members who realised who it was, realised his importance to the staging of the event and how improbable it was that we would get so close to him on the day. Egged on a little by the flashlights, we each to a man started screaming hysterically and unselfconsciously like teenagers at a Beatles concert. I suddenly got an insight as to what Beatlemania must have felt like.
 
After availing ourselves of the facilities we made it back to our seats to enjoy the remainder of the show. Queen were of course the main event, their songs so skilfully crafted to work a big stadium like Wembley and Freddie Mercury the consummate rock-God performer. However my overriding memory of the night was that of George Michael singing 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me'. Up until then I think a lot of people, me included had dismissed George as being a bit of a light-weight popstar, good, but second division. That night though he stepped up to the plate and smashed it out of the park. Just as Live Aid itself had transitioned from a music concert into a much more special event, so George transitioned before our eyes into the mature superstar he was. It was certainly the song I had buzzing in my head on the long journey home, and remains, of all the wonderful music I heard that day, the song that most readily takes me back there whenever I hear it.

A pat on the back for me

..I made it half way through a year of weekly blogging.
 
My new year's resolution was to publish a weekly blog post ever Sunday throughout 2020. Well this week we will pass the mid-point of the year and so far I've managed to stick to my goal. So this week I thought I would explain why I'm doing it and what I've learned so far.
 
I'm not new to blogging but previously I'd only ever written articles as the mood took me, which has the downside that there are gaps where sometimes months would go by where I'd not got around to writing anything. This not only deters human readers but the algorithms used by search engines which learn that one's blogging is irregular making it unlikely that one's pages ever get returned in response to a search. While I'm not overly concerned about this as I'm not blogging with the intention of making money, it would be nice to get some traction so the whole exercise doesn't entirely feel like a waste of time.
 
I made the resolution in response to 2019 being a really unproductive year for me. It was the first year I can remember that I felt I'd achieved nothing. I'd done no new work, not acquired any new business, not written any music, song lyrics or written anything of note. I'd done some courses and learned some new skills but I just felt so guilty that I'd not made anything. My creative output was zero and that made me feel mad at myself.
 
Also I'd noticed that the people who are most successful in any sphere are the ones who make a schedule and stick to it. There are plenty of examples I could cite but perhaps the most extraordinary is the Youtuber Casey Neistat who managed to produce a daily Vlog everyday for over a year. He created a staggering two days, eleven hours and 56 minutes spread over 419 videos over that time, representing a an admirable work ethic. I figured if he can make a video everyday for a year, a weekly blog post should be a breeze.
 
Another thing I'd been considering is the importance of story telling. I'd completely missed this crucial point until very recently, that in conveying an idea from one person to another, story telling is at the heart of all communication. If I were to look at a book for example, it's not just that the book conveys a tale, but every chapter should have a clear beginning, middle and an end. So should every paragraph, if not every sentence. As Kurt Vonnegut said, every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action. It is in effect a mini-story. 
 
The importance of story underpinning everything maybe obvious, especially to the more creative types out there, but for me it is quite a new idea and I began to realise that it was a skill I needed to advance. I was struck by the example in the book 'Art and Fear' by David Bayles, Ted Orland of a craft class that was divided in two. One half of the class was instructed to make the best pot it could possible make. The other half of the class was instructed to make as many pots as they possibly can. At the end of the semester the students that had been churning out pots and learning from their mistakes made much higher grades than the students seeking perfection who finished with "little more than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay". Clearly by forcing myself to write something (anything) once per week I would learn from the mistakes I made and I would get better.
 
So I decided to write one blog post a week for a year. I drew up a schedule with the date of every Sunday in 2020 and started to assign topics to each one. I used the app Evernote to keep track of my ideas and got into the habit of jotting down any thoughts that came up.
 
After little over a month I noticed a routine emerging. Immediately after publishing the weekly blog post I would start thinking what I would write about in the next week. Some weeks I already had assigned a topic. For example I'm planning to write about my late father on the 23 August which is his birthday. For weeks that had not yet been assigned a topic, I would look at my list of ideas and start thinking about which one I felt most drawn to. Over the next few days my unconscious mind would stew over the topics, then by the Wednesday I would usually have made a decision. I would then create a new note in Evernote for the topic. I would perhaps jot down a list of bullet points of thoughts I'd come up with so far, then leave it for another day or two for my subconscious mind to 'chew the cud' before finally sitting down to write the whole blog post in full. This I would do very quickly, without attention to spelling, and I would write in a dry, factual style with little in the way of elaboration or humour. This was in order to try to open a stream of consciousness going from brain to page with the least obstruction.  Once that was done I would go through and correct errors, address style issues and add gags to jolly the mood. I've found this business of deliberately not thinking about it too much, but letting the subconscious mind do the work is surprisingly successful. The subconscious mind is, I believe, like a quantum computer. We don't really understand how it works but expose a problem to it and it solves it for you! 
 
I've had some good feedback so far. I seem to have a small regular readership that comes from promoting the blog on Facebook and an additional 'irregular' readership that arrive according to topic in response to promotion I do via Twitter. So far I've managed to be consistent and have not missed a Sunday slot yet, though I have chewed through many of my initial topic ideas many of which come from personal anecdotes. The well of these is running dry so I may soon have to start writing about things that are further from my own experience. 
 
One of the things I've learned is not to be overly judgemental about what I write. If I were to worry in advance about pleasing everyone who is conceivably going to to read my article I'd probably never get anything done. In fact I've come to realise I've not even got to worry about pleasing myself, because I'd never be 100% with anything I've written but that shouldn't prevent me from releasing a post. There is also a destructive side to judgmentalism in that when you put something down on paper and you don't like it, it is very easy to reflect that back on yourself and say "I don't like that therefore I don't like me", which can induce a negative cycle of thought and energy which destroys the creative process. It is important to remain a certain level of detachment for critiquing one's own working so that the process of improving and rewriting things does not destroy one's self-confidence (a topic covered in the book "The Inner Game of Tennis by W Timothy Gallwey).
 
That notwithstanding I apologise if this weeks post is a little self-indulgent. Looking at my blog calendar I can't tell you next week I will be writing of my recollections of the Live Aid Concert I attended in 1985.

Remembering Lady Di

Personal memories including the day she nearly ran me over.
 
At the beginning of the 1980's Britain was in a fairly dark place. An economic, social and cultural transition was happening. The country was in need of a fairy tale and it got one in the shape of the much publicised romance between Prince Charles and Diana Frances Spencer, who was born on 1 July 1961. Since this is the week of Diana's birth I thought I jot down a few memories and observations. 
 
We never met face to face but our paths did cross a couple of times. By the time I first saw her in person I felt already knew her, such was the media frenzy when her relationship with the Prince first came to light. I've never seen one person so relentlessly exploited by the media before or since. It was like Beatlemania though the focus was on a single, young individual. Doubtless she had a notion that she would be 'stepping in to the spotlight' but I really don't think she or anybody had the foggiest idea of the level of hysteria that would be whipped up by the world's press. Her face was on every newspaper, magazine and TV show. From the announcement of the royal engagement in February in 1981 to the Royal Wedding in July 1981 (watched by a worldwide audience of 750 million), Diana's face became one of the most recognisable on planet earth.
 
I had no problem then recognising the woman on my first encounter. I was working in Kensington at the time and as usual I alighted from the train at Olympia from which my office, Charles House, was but a short walk. I crossed Kensington High Street using the pedestrian crossing. Although the traffic lights had changed to red and I'd taken several steps into the road, a Mercedes came hurtling out of nowhere heading straight for me. As I stepped back out of harm's way I eyeballed the driver. It was Lady Diana! She give me the sweetest apologetic look and mouthed the word 'sorry'. I think by this time she had taken to using a gym in Chelsea and was presumably coming back from her morning work out. I was surprised she was alone in the car, and that there didn't seem to be any other vehicles following her by way of a security detail. It was just her and me and a near fatal accident. One has to keep one's eyes open while walking the streets of Kensington. On one occasion I found myself within a few feet of getting mown down by TV personality and Mastermind winner, Fred Housego in his taxi. On another, I gave star of and stage and screen Una Stubbs a break-test in her Beamer while crossing the road at Phillimore gardens. The look on her face wasn't quite so enchanting as lady Di's!
 
The second time I got to see Diana at close quarters was when she came to our office. Part of the building was given over to a hospital trust and she had been invited to perform the official opening of the new wing. This occasion was much more auspicious. She had her best togs on and hair and make-up was immaculate, a far cry from the startled gym-veteran I'd seen before. There were limousines, an entourage of assistants and a legion of photographers. My office on the fourth floor overlooked the main entrance where the circus arrived. I didn't get to see her inside the building though I could hear there was a hell of a buzz coming from the next corridor. The thing I most remember was that when she left the building, she acknowledged all of us plebs rubber-necking out of the windows. She did a slow-spin waiving at all of us. Somehow she gave the impression of having made eye-contact with everybody looking down at her which I considered quite thoughtful and professional. 
 
The other strong memory I have of lady Diana was of her death. The wife and I were on holiday in Cyprus when it happened. We learned about it rather accidently from flicking through the Greek TV channels. Being pre-internet, there wasn't really any further way in which we could learn anything more about it, so we got over the initial shock quite easily. I recall going out to dinner that evening and I made a remark about it that was overheard by an English couple on the next table. We started chatting about it by way of catharsis and became friends. The rest of the week went by without being confronted with anymore information about it and in our minds it was done and dusted - out of our system. I thought that was the end of it.
 
When we flew into Gatwick a week later though we found out it had just been the start. With the same intensity the media had paid her way back at the announcement of her engagement, the press and TV had been relentless in the coverage of her death. The nation's grief button had been massaged daily, imbuing in people a much more profound sense of loss than we had because we hadn't been exposed to the media. I'm not saying we didn't feel anything, but what everyone in Britain was feeling was just out of step with our own experience. It was like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even the sort of cynical folk who would normally have a sick joke at the expense of a regular celebrity death were weeping into their handkerchieves. The whole business made me realise how powerful the media are when it comes to manipulating hearts and minds. The mood of the nation might not be created by the media but it certainly can be amplified and polarised. 

Dead dog story

The tale of how I came to bury my canine friend

I mentioned in a previous post that I preferred cats to dogs. I have had several dogs in the past, one of whom, Leon, got a mention, so I thought I'd tell you a little about him here.

Leon came with the Spanish country house my wife and I bought in Murcia in 2003. The sellers were elderly people downsizing into a townhouse and it was thought with Leon being an outdoor dog in the country that it would be unfair and frankly a bit of a gamble to expect him to adapt to life in the confines of the indoors.

When I first met Leon he barked his head off as the estate agent pulled up to the gates of the property in her 4x4. He was just alerting the owner to our arrival. I later learned visitors could tell whether anyone was home or not because if someone appeared at the gate while we were out, Leon wouldn't bark. Why should he? Leon was a clever guy.

We got to know the previous owners quite well. For the first few years they would visit from time to time to see Leon ask how we were getting on. We learned that he was a purebred German Shepherd they had got in Barcelona. Apparently their son worked in Barcelona and they used to visit from time to time. It struck me Catalan was his first language, Castellano his second, yet he still seemed to understand me in English.  He was more familiar with the area than I was and guided me on many a long walk on the tracks and hills where we lived. Like I say, was a clever guy!

Not long after we moved in, some builders had to replace the old bathroom so I built a crude commode with a bucket and an old chair with a hole cut in it. On one occasion I dug a hole in the garden and poured in the waste for burial when Leon leapt out of nowhere, picked up a piece of poo with his teeth and ran off with it, chewing away as best a dog can. I was more cautious about letting him lick me after that.

Leon's appetite never failed to amaze me. I visited my neighbour Manolo one day when he happened to be eviscerating a freshly killed chicken. Casually he pulled out the various guts and tossed them to Leon who had obviously played this game before. Seeing him chomping down on hearts, lungs and the giblets made me feel kind of queasy but Leon was as happy as Larry, his big bushy tail whipping up a minor dust storm in the dry sandy yard.

Leon was getting pretty old by this time. One day I got a phone call to say he had died. I was working in the next village and couldn't get back until late afternoon where I saw my wife sat on the patio next to poor old Leon covered with a sheet. It had been very sudden, probably his heart gave out. I thought we better get him cremated or something so I popped into town to see the local vet. When I asked him if he could arrange for the disposal of the body he threw me a puzzled look and explained they don't do that sort of thing, at least not in this part of Spain. Just bury him in the garden.

"Oh" he said "Leon is a big dog. Make sure the hole you dig is deep enough". The vet knew Leon, having had many previous wrestling matches with him in the past for inoculations and on one occasion a little dentistry.

I went back home and got my 'azada', a sort of sturdy, square shaped hoe that the farmers use to dig holes and trenches here, and tried to dig. Well it was the middle of July, the ground was bone dry and rock hard. There was zero chance of me being able to dig a hole even vaguely big enough and time was not on our side. Burials are traditionally performed quickly in Spain before, well, things start to go off.

So then the hunt started for help. I made a few phone calls but no joy, then we were joined by an English neighbour who recommended her gardener, Ginez. I knew him vaguely as a farmer with a property not far away from me and I had spoken with him once or twice at a few social events. It turned out he had a small mechanical digger which was just what we needed to dig a grave. I made the call...

"Ginez, my dog died. Can you dig a hole to put him in"

"Yes, but I'm out of town" he replied.

"I'm working in Caravaca. I'll come when I've finished"

Caravaca was the next town along, only a couple of miles as the crow flies so I was hopeful it wouldn't be too long.

Well we waited and waited. The wine came out and a few more neighbours came to see what's up. It started to turn into a wake for Leon.

Some hours later I phoned Ginez back and asked if he was still coming.

"Yes I'm on my way now he said"

What he didn't tell me was that he was driving the tiny digger on its sluggish caterpillar tracks all the way back from where he'd been working! By the time he pitched up it was gone half ten in the evening! The digger slower came through the gates and we showed Ginez the dog and started to scope out possible burial sites. Ginez removed his John Deere baseball cap to scratch his head, revealing that a farmer's tan is a universal thing among the tractor driving fraternity.

He explained the problem was there was nowhere to bury Leon inside the property. Although the grounds measure 1500 square metres, half of it was given over to a white gravel drive, and the other half was an orchard. The drive would be a pain because we would have to scrape back the gravel and replace it, and would probably have water pipes going through it anyway that could be an issue if we hit one. The trees in the orchard were all too close together. Although the digger is small it needs room to manoeuvre so he couldn't dig a hole there unless we removed several trees.  

We went and look outside the property. There was an unfenced area just to the right of the front gate with a hut on it that belonged to a local goat farmer, who had fortunately given up the goats quite recently and now lived in Caravaca. He came back to potter from time to time but I figured if buried Leon there and 'covered our tracks' well enough he probably wouldn't even notice.

Ginez got to work and in half and hour or so we laid poor Leon to rest, covered the hole, said a few words and then started scattering grass and bracken over the grave to disguise its existence. It was quite an inauspicious end to a loyal security dog and friend but in the years that followed I realized I felt quite comforted by the notion of Leon in that spot outside the main gate, guarding the property for eternity! RIP Leon.

Happy Birthday Donald Trump

..but why are you so unpopular?
 
When Sting released "If I lose my faith in you" in 1993" no one could have imagined this line from the song would be so prescient:
 
You could say I'd lost my belief in our politicians
They all seemed like game show hosts to me
 
Yet here we are in 2020 and there is both a game show host in the Whitehouse and in 10 Downing Street.
 
(In the case of The Whitehouse, Donald Trump was the presenter of the US television reality TV show The Apprentice, that adjudged the business skills of a group of contestants. Boris Johnson was a guest presenter on the British topical news quiz 'Have I Got News For You' on four occasions.) 
 
Today, the 14 June 2020 is the President's 74th birthday and for weeks now the good people of Twitter have been conspiring to flood the service with pictures of Barrack Obama just to piss Trump off. Despite his media popularity prior to becoming president, Trump's average approval rating is languishing at 40% which is the lowest of any president in modern times.
 
Obama Portrait 2006 Yougov puts Johnson's popularity at 39%  and, in another poll specifically related to his handling of the COVID crisis, the Daily Express reported on Jun 9 that Johnson had "the lowest approval rating worldwide
 
Why then have they become so unpopular? Could it be that they share certain flaws?
 
Both men have a number of things in common. They both bat for their respective country's mainstream right-wing parties, the Republicans and the Conservatives. They've both achieved media popularity through a lot of self-promotion, cultivating a somewhat roguish images with colourful personal lives. Both know how to showboat for the cameras, whether it be Johnson waving Union Flags while hanging of a zip line, or Trump putting his hair on the line in Wrestlemania 23
 
Also somewhat sinisterly, they have both dodged accusations of links to foreign interference in the democratic process, with Trump narrowly avoiding being impeached and Johnson so far refusing to publish the Russia Report by the Intelligence and Security committee which may contain details of outside meddling in the Brexit referendum in 2016.
 
The more one considers the parallels between Trump and Johnson, the uncannier it becomes. Both have been in charge of their respective countries during the 2020 fight and against Covid-19 and both have failed spectacularly to contain the disease by delaying lock-downs that were in any case insufficiently comprehensive nor were they enforced with much vigour.  Both are still failing to implement the most basic tracking and tracing that many countries have had in place for months.
 
Both have a tetchy relationship with the press, preferring to address the nation directly through social media or prerecorded video. When they are forced to appear in front of the press, they have both banned journalists of national mainstream media outlets who have previously dared to report them in an unfavourable light.

Also, and rather unfortunately in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent avalanche of 'Black Lives Matter' protests, both men have been accused of racism, claims which they of course vehemently deny. Johnson wrote in the Spectator in 2002 that "..the problem with Africa is that we are not in charge any more". Referring to Blair's visit to Africa in the same year, Johnson wrote in the Telegraph  "What a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies," he wrote, referring to African people as having "watermelon smiles." In defence, Johnson dismissed the words saying they had been "taken out of context." Trump meanwhile has a lengthy Wikipedia entry entirely devoted to cataloguing his racial views making it as easy to find evidence of his racism as shooting fish in a barrel, from calling African countries shitholes to calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers. 
 
Both Johnson and Trump have a similar track record when it comes to the LGBTQ community, with Johnson calling called gay men 'tank-topped bumboys' in a 1998 Telegraph column, while Trump has just distinguished himself by rolling back Obama era healthcare protections for transgender patients two week into Pride Month.  which is the latest in a series of rollbacks of transgender rights. You couldn't make it up!
 
Almost inevitably then both men are similarly accused of sexism. From Johnson's long career in journalism there is a seemingly endless source of quotes where he demeans and patronises women, from advising his successor at the Spectator to "Pat her bottom and send her on her way" when referring to the journal's publisher  Kimberly Quinn, to once claiming that "Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts". 
 
Trump of course was famously caught on tape speaking of "grabbing them by the pussy". His history of sexism and misogyny is longer than Johnson's. 'The Week' has a list of "61 things Donald Trump has said about women" which is staggering! The guy just doesn't have a part of his brain that audits whether what he is saying about women is appropriate or not. One of my particular favourites was the time when he and his daughter Ivanka were interviewed on 'The View' and he cringingly said if she wasn't his daughter he'd probably be dating her. Eew!
 
So many happy returns Mr Trump but you know what? If Marilyn Monroe was alive today I don't think she would be seductively singing you happy birthday!

Views on Spanish Cuisine

What's the inside track on the food we eat in Spain
I'm on comfy ground writing about food. I like it. I eat some every day. In fact I'd struggle to live without it. So here I'm going to dispel a few myths about Spanish nosh and probably make myself unpopular with the tourist board into the bargain.
 
Or maybe not. In the village in Murcia where I lived until 2009 there was a chap who worked in the tourist office called Santi, who was born and raised in the Basque country. While chatting one day I asked him what he missed about being so far away from home.
 
"The food" he said. His face was a picture as his mind drifted away in deep culinary reverie. Now I'd heard the reputation of Basque cuisine first hand since my neighbour Manolo and his wife had not long returned from a gastronomic coach trip touring eateries from Galicia to San Sebastian. Santi confirmed what they'd told me, that the food in the North of Spain is a cut above the food in the South. He put forward a bold theory that the high temperature experienced by the South of Spain for much of the year was a deterrent against cooking. Who wants to be stuck in a hot kitchen all day? In fact the kitchen is often purposefully kept away from the house. I'd been working with an estate agent at the time and I'd noticed a trend for houses to have 'summer' kitchens, often in a separate building. One old lady giving me a tour around her property showed me a pristine kitchen that looked as it had been totally unused, and probably it hadn't, because she then took me to another hut four doors up the street where she said she did most of her daily cooking!
 
Another consequence of Santi's conjecture is that simplicity is a common characteristic of the culinary art in the South. Generally the dishes here are prepared with as little fuss as possible, again as a conservation measure in the battle with the heat. I'll cover a few dishes I've encountered while living here, all of which will be noted for their simplicity.
 
The first thing I was taught to cook here (by my neighbour Jose - he of the Swimming Pool Saga post from last week) was chicken in garlic. If you've not had this you must try it. The same process can be used to cook rabbit and works just as well. Fry the chicken in oil on a medium heat for 15 minutes until it is nearly done, then near the end of the cooking process, throw in a handful of chopped garlic. Let the garlic cook for a few more minutes, then just as it threatens to brown, pour in half a cup of vinegar. As if by magic the vinegar boils, taking the garlic flavour into the meat and leaving a dry saucy residue. Plate it up and eat. Couldn't be simpler! I understand this technique was popular in Portugal, and was taken by Portuguese sailors to India during the Age of Discovery where it was adopted and developed into Vindaloo (from Carne de vinha d'alhos meaning meat with wine and garlic).
 
Another friend gave me a good lesson in cooking garlic prawns (Gambas al Ajillo). You can Google the recipe. It's pretty simple and widely available online. Tips I got from her was that she heated the individual sized clay dishes (cazuelitas) on the stove top - I'd always assumed they were heated in the oven. Also she used the cheapest olive oil called suave or refinado. I thought it would be all extra virgin but no, with the strong flavour of the garlic, the prawns and the cayenne pepper pods, you'd be hard pushed to tell the difference between the flavour of the oils so use the cheapest!  
 
Of all the dishes Spain is famous for however, seafood paella must be the best known. Strangely I don't think I've ever had it once since I moved here. This is probably because I live inland. Don't get me wrong, they get the paella pans out here and cook rice in it, but I've rarely seen fishy ingredients. Rabbit yes, vegetables yes, chicken yes, snails oh yes!! Again, it's an easy way to cook and a a rabbit and a kilo of rice will feed ten people from a one metre pan. Rabbit with rice (arroz con conejo) was therefore a popular choice during the summer fiestas of the towns in and around the North West of Murcia. Another popular fiesta treat is tortilla in bread. I found the doubling of carbs in having potatoes in a baguette quite heavy going but they serve them by the hundreds at the local feria. 
 
Tray of chicken straight from the bread oven
 
If you've never been to a Spanish feria, these are local events where a town or part of a city takes three or four days to party, with food and drink forming a big part of the celebrations. My best feria food-fest was in an office I worked in. The boss's extended family turned up in number to the office and on this particular day they brought with them a huge kitchen tray, about a metre wide and a metre and a half long. They filled the tray (pictured) with dozens of chicken quarters, added potatoes, tomatoes, lemons, onions, garlic, oregano and lashings of olive oil. Then half a dozen people ceremoniously picked up the tray and proudly marched it to the local bakers where it was cooked in the bread oven. I don't think I've eaten anything quite so delicious made from such basic ingredients! This has influenced the way I roast a chicken - now I always add the same ingredients and it tastes much better. 
 
One disappointing note about the cuisine in Southern Spain is the lack of vegetables, making it tricky for vegetarians and vegans to eat out. I find many restaurants think of meat/fish first, then add chips and maybe a little salad by way of a garnish. If it's a posh place and you're lucky you might get some goo that consists of a few varieties of seasonal veg boiled to death in tomato sauce for a couple of hours so you can barely identify what you're eating. Bread is served with everything, which together with the obsession with chips and dearth of vegetable makes me very sceptical about the merits of the so called 'Mediterranean Diet'. As someone explained to me recently, the chap who came up with the notion (Ancel Keys) did so after visiting the island of Crete, noting how fit and well-aged the population was. Apparently he visited the island during lent so had a rather skewed view of what was being eaten and he neglected to take into account his visit took place just after WW2, a period of harsh austerity when food was scarce and the population aged artificially because of the younger members of society being killed in the fighting. Untroubled by such facts, Keys got it into his head that the diet was the cause and went back to America creating his famed Seven Nation study to prove his idea, the results of which have since been widely discredited. However the myth that the food in this part of the world is some kind of panacea persists to this day.
 
If however your appetite has been whetted by all this talk of grub, I suppose it would be fitting of me to offer you something for afters to finish with. Many of the desserts in Spain are things you would find elsewhere, ice cream, flans, rice-pudding etc. One that was new to me which I took a liking to was fresh peaches soaked over night in red wine - yum! By experimentation I found this works best by adding a little brandy too and by soaking the peaches in the fridge it makes the perfect supper for a hot summer evening.

The Swimming Pool Saga

This is the story of a swimming pool. Moreover it illustrates how folk work together to get things done in Spain.
 
The missus and I bought an old farm house in the latter part of 2003. One of the things that drew us to the property was a walled courtyard of about 15 metres by 15 metres which afforded us the opportunity to sunbathe in the nuddy. 
 
Towards the end of the following spring it started to get really hot. By the end of May the wife got the unshakeable notion in her head that a swimming pool would be required to get us through the summer. We made enquiries and got the same answer everywhere, that a proper sunken pool starts at two million pesetas (about 12,000 euros). Spain joined the euro on the 1st January 1999 but to this day, many Spanish people evaluate large purchases such as houses and cars in terms of pesetas. Curiously in the run up to the changeover to the euro, Spanish car-dealers did a roaring trade in Mercs and Beamers as panicked savers snapped up luxury cars as a way to launder the black money under their mattresses. I was told Murcia sold more 'Berliners' than anywhere in the world that year, a fact which I've been unable to verify but it sounds highly likely!
 
Anyway getting back to the story, 12,000 euros was way over budget so we looked at alternatives. We hit on the idea that an above-ground pool would not only be a cheaper solution but a quicker and easier one. We could easily fit one into the courtyard and by not having to dig down (which would require re-routing sewage and water pipes) we would make life a lot easier for ourselves. At this point we enlisted the help of our Spanish neighbour Jose who went with us to the shop to choose a pool. Involving Jose turned out to be a fortuitous decision. Although he worked in fruit canning and juicing factory, like all Spanish men he seemed to have innate knowledge of the building trade. What I knew about mixing cement at that time could have been etched on the head of a pin, so I was very glad when it became apparent that we needed a concrete base for the pool, that Jose volunteered to help build it. 
 
My wife unsurprisingly went for the largest pool we could comfortably fit in the space available. I can't remember the exact price but it was in the region of 1500 euros, a far more reasonable figure. It was roughly eight by four metres in size. There was a large steel skirt that went around the perimeter of the pool which was supported by metal buttresses, so we marked out on the ground a kind of 8x4m rectangle with legs every metre or so for the supports. Though the courtyard seemed level to the eye, it dropped by about 30 centimetres from one end to the other. This meant our base was 30 centimetres deep at one end, which required far more concrete than I had expected.
 
Jose led the work, turning up in his van with a cement bath, shovels, hoes and buckets etc. All this was new to me. We began by creating a mould with old bits of wood that followed the design we made on the ground, then Jose showed us how to mix the concrete. If you're not familiar with a cement bath it is a poor man's cement mixer, a metal tray about two metres long and a metre wide having the depth and appearance of a squared-off bathtub. The idea is to mix the concrete by using a hoe, pulling it backwards a forwards to bring all the ingredients together. We soon found it was back-breaking work, especially since it was already reaching 30 degrees at nine in the morning.
 
We all took turns mixing the bath and carrying bucket after bucket to fill the mould in the yard. It took the three of us the best part of a day but we finally had a base to be proud of. As we surveyed our work, Jose said he would return at the weekend with his family to erect the structure of the pool. It didn't sink in when he said 'the family' but because the steel skirt was so heavy it would take more than the three of us to manhandle it into place.
 
The Saturday came and several cars pulled up in the drive. Sons, brothers, sisters, in-laws, aunties and uncles teamed out of the vehicles, many of whom we'd never met despite having been to many social events at Jose's country house. There must have been twenty or thirty people, all cheerfully helping the foreigners build a pool. We trooped into the courtyard and unrolled the massive metal skirt. Even with Jose's skillful direction it took a good half an hour to manoeuvre the huge steel structure into place, with everyone holding their section and shuffling back and forth to get the perfect fit. Then we started to bolt on the side supports. It took a couple of hours until everyone could tentatively let go of the skirt and start the other tricky task of fitting the giant pool liner. The thing that most struck me throughout this process was how all these people, some of them complete strangers, were not only volunteering their time, but all the while they were happy, joking and generally having fun! I've since come to love this feature of the Spanish people. There should be a word for it but I can't think of one. What's a word for the joy shared in the co-operation with others? Answers on a postcard!
 
As soon as the job was done they all disappeared. I was frantically thanking them, offering beer and money but they were having none of it. They just smiled, waved goodbye jumped in their cars and left, completely without ceremony. It was this kind of event that often causes me to reflect on why I'm so extraordinarily fortunate to live in Spain. They are truly remarkable people!
 
Jose had one more gift of knowledge to impart. He said if we just turned on the tap and filled the pool it would cost a fortune. 32 cubic meters of water would take us over the limit of our monthly quota. I didn't even realise we had a monthly quota, but the way the water company prices the water is based on volume tiers, so as long as you keep consumption within the lowest tier the water is cheapest. Jump a tier and the price doubles. Jump another tier and it doubles again. His advice was that since it was near the end of the month, half fill the pool, then wait until the next month to top it up. I later checked the small print on the back of a water bill and he was correct, so we had to wait a week before the pool was finally full but then we were off to the races.
 
I offered to pay Jose for his help but he of course declined. I later repaid him with favours such as videoing his son's wedding and converting his old family videos of previous weddings and communions from VHS to DVD . This is the way things work in Spain, sort of "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours", though one is never made to feel obligated or be in anyone's debt. It's a great way to live!
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An aside

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