Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

Sunday Blackout

How my electricity went down and didn't come back up

 

Last Sunday was a funny old day. As occasionally happens at this time of year, work was scheduled to upgrade the electricity supply, so it was announced that the power would be off between 8am and 10 or 12 depending on which part of the town you live.
 
Midday came and went but my electricity remained off. I had some chores to do and visits to make to recycle some bottles and plastics, so I just got on with it, expecting the problem would sort itself out. By the time I finished it was 14:30 and still no electricity. I visited my neighbour across the street and found her electricity had been restored some time previously. Perhaps it was just me.
 
I tried phoning the number of the electricity company but I butted up against an automated system and none of the available options resulted in a connecting me with human being. Then, for the first time in the two years it has been in my possession, my phone froze. The touch screen wouldn't respond. Phones these days don't have removable batteries and I didn't know how else to turn it off and on again. [I've since learned holding the power button for 20 seconds restarts the thing. Who knew?] All of a sudden with no phone, no computer and my neighbour now apparently repaired for comida, I felt completely out of touch with the world. I felt marooned.
 
At this point I started to be concerned. Everything in my house is electric except the hot-water boiler. I worried that I'd be eating fruit for dinner by candle-light, unable to heat through any of the meals I had in the freezer.
 
I thought perhaps the first thing to do is ask the police for help. This is very nearly an emergency, surely they must know what to do? I couldn't phone them, so I trotted off to the police station. It was closed. So then I thought I'd knock on the door of a few friends in the area, hoping they would be able to phone the police mobile number for me. Problem was, it was such a warm, pleasant, sunny day, that nobody was home.
 
On about the third door I knocked on I finally got a response. It was my old neighbour up in 'La Cilla' in the old town. I explained my plight and she found the mobile number of the police and gave them a call. They told us that if the problem was in the street it was the electricity board's problem but that they wouldn't come out if it was a problem within the property. They recommended getting an electrician first, to determine whether the problem was local or not, then if it was a problem with the supply outside the house, we should get in touch with them again and they would get hold of the electricity company.
 
So now the problem was how to find a domestic electrician on a sunny Sunday afternoon when Olvera was like a ghost town because so many people had gone off with their families to enjoy their houses in the country. My friend thought for a moment and rang her cousin, who knew an electrician. He was out of town, but her cousin asked if she had thought to try another distant family member, 'Cristobel'. She gave us his number and Cristobel was called. Thankfully he was in town and agreed to come right away.
 
I hot-footed it back to the house as fast as my over-weight frame would carry me, as I was walking whereas Cristobel would undoubtedly be in a car. As it happened I got back with about five minutes to spare, so was able to get my breath back. Cristobel arrived with another gentleman and started flicking the switches in my circuit-board. Everything in the house was absolutely dead.
 
Outside the house there was a fuse box. Cristobel requested a chair and he climbed up to test the fuses. I jokingly assured him I'd paid my bills. (When they cut your electricity off here, these fuses are removed by the electricity board!) He tested the supply with his meter but there was no juice. He took the fuses out and tested them but they hadn't blown. He explained they now had to test the next junction box on my neighbour's house to see if current was reaching there. However this box was much higher up on the wall, and since both Cristobel and his mate were quite short, something more than a chair was required. He knocked on my neighbour's door to see if he had some steps but to no avail. Then he had the bright idea of parking his car underneath the junction box and standing on the bonnet. It is a bit of a squeeze to get a big SUV down my road but soon he was on tiptoe peering into view the state of the fuses. He gave one a tap with the handle of his screwdriver as it appeared loose, and banged it back into its housing. Then he tested the supply voltage with his test meter. There was a loud 'bang' and a flash as he had forgotten to change the meter range from continuity testing to volts! Fortunately he didn't fall off the bonnet or otherwise injure himself, but he knew from the shock that current was reaching this junction box so he asked his colleague to check the supply inside the house. He flicked the switch and the lights came on! Yay! Tapping the fuse home had done the job. It was now 16:30 but at least I knew I would have hot food that night!
 
I asked Cristobel how much I owed him and he said twenty euros. I was more than happy to pay, and as I did so, wondered how many years ago it would have been England to get a pair of electricians out on a Sunday afternoon for the same money!

Chemicals in Spain

The perils and pleasures awaiting you in chemists, supermarkets and hardware stores
 
In my early days in Spain I owned a little land and immediately found I was at war with weeds and insects. To keep down the fleas and ticks, the local vet hooked me up with a chemical that I needed to spray "all over everything", warning me not to get any on the dog, cats chickens or pigeons. I can't remember what it was called but it smelt awful and I had to wear a mask to avoid breathing it in.
 
The farmers were always recommending sprays as well. My apricot leaves started to curl-up one day and I made the mistake of taking a sample into a bar frequented by local farmers and asking their advice. Never do this! I nearly started WW3 as arguments raged about the best plan of attack. Again, I was steered towards various chemical sprays for  bugs and fungi, each one of which smelt stronger than the last. I read the contents of one of these and found it contained chemicals that were banned in many countries of the EU and beyond. Eventually it was removed from sale in Spain but not until I'd been using it for a few years. In anticipation of the ban my farmer friends told me they had stock-piled quantities so that they would be able to continue using it for years to come. Such was the dangerous nature of the stuff, I erected a steel cabinet in my shed and kept everything under lock and key in case a visiting child had an urge to play with my 'chemistry set'.
 
I'd always eaten apple skins prior to coming to Spain. Then one day I was having lunch with a farmer who had lots of fruit trees of various types. He started to peel an apple and I mentioned that I generally eat the skins. He didn't have to say anything. He just wagged a negative finger and mimed a spraying action. I got the message. Clearly as a fruit grower he doesn't eat the skins because of the chemicals which land on there!
 
I had flu one day back then and a Spanish friend laughed when I told him I was taking Frenadol, the sort of Beacham's powder they sell as a cold remedy over here.
 
"That stuff is rubbish, you want to get some Algidol" he said as he pulled out a pen and wrote down the name for me. So I bought so Algidol over the counter in the chemists and sure enough it dried my nose up a treat. The list of ingredients on the packet included 'codeine phosphate'  an opioid analgesic, which would require a doctors prescription anywhere else but Spain. Back then it was possible to get antibiotics over the counter too, and high strength 600mg Ibuprofen, though recent tightening of the regulations here are causing pharmacies to stop selling them.
 
You can see a theme arising here. Spain does have regulations for the sale and distribution for chemicals but they always seem to be lagging behind other countries, or sometimes ignored altogether.
 
Hardware stores (Ferreterias) and even general supermarkets in Spain sell a dizzying array of  chemical products in concentrations and quantities that shocked me when I moved over here. Back in blighty where I'd lived for forty years I'd seen many dangerous chemicals removed from sale, diluted to reduce their potential to cause death, or sold in 'child proof' containers so difficult to open that they challenge even the most ingenious of adults. Not so in Spain. My local Dia supermarket sells bleach in large yellow bottles with a red screw-cap which is not child-proof or even sealed. Rather than being on shelves out of harms way, the bottles are stocked on the floor at exactly the right height to provide an inviting challenge to an inquisitive toddler.
 
This article was prompted by a Facebook post in which several  chemicals got a mention.  The first one people generally seem to encounter when they first come to Spain is 'Agua Fuerte' which is sold in all supermarkets as a cleaning product. At first glance it translates as 'strong water ' though you would be in for an unpleasant surprise if you tried to drink some, as it is in fact Hydrochloric acid. It is quite popular here, probably because most of the water here is very hard, so the acid works well attacking tiles and surfaces that are stained with calcium. I used to drain my pool once a year and sweep it through with 10 litres of the stuff to get rid of the limescale.
 
Much stronger products are sold in the supermarkets for the purposes of cleaning drains. Sulphuric acid in a frighteningly high concentration is available as a drain cleaner but it will also melt the metal drain in your sink or shower so has to be used with great care by someone who really know what they're doing. Caustic soda is also sold as a drain cleaner here. It sounds like something you would put in your washing but in fact it is a powerful alkali. A bar owner I once knew used it to clean a blocked toilet, which subsequently blew back in his face causing some nasty burns.
 
Recently I was working with epoxy resin, to resurface the fretboard of my bass guitar.  I was advised that for cleaning, the best solvent to use was acetone, the essential chemical component in nail varnish remover. I thought I'd seen it in the hardware store so I trotted down there and had a word with the owner. He disappeared behind the counter and returned with a litre bottle of the stuff which, unusually did have a child-proof cap and several worrying warning signs hinting at fire and explosions. I knew little about acetone, so I asked my friend Google.  I was surprised what a versatile and nasty chemical it is. The first Youtube video showed a chap with a five litre bottle of bleach into which he injected 100ml of acetone. He did nothing more than leave it to settle overnight.  The next day there was a liquid layer at the bottom of the bottle which was neat chloroform! This is clearly powerful stuff!
 
My local Mercadona supermarket sells a product for cleaning glass in ovens and log burners. A friend recommended this but also issued a warning to be careful using it as it was nasty stuff. I read the small-print on the back and it contains hydrogen peroxide, but ten times stronger than you would use to lighten your hair! It's rocket fuel! Dye your locks with this stuff and you'll wake up bald as a coot in the morning! Again on a Youtube video, I found that this over-the-counter chemical mixed with the right quality of acetone leaves a solid residue that looks like salt. It is in fact acetone peroxide a.k.a 'The Mother of Satan' which came to fame when it was used in a failed suicide bombing attempt by the shoe-bomber Richard Reid in 2001.
 
Doubtless all these strong chemicals can be sourced in other countries but it seems much easier to find them here and Spain. The topic of the original Facebook post which inspired this article was a government warning about the danger of mixing cleaning products. As you can see from the above, this is advice really worth listening to.

Driving in Spain

What's it like motoring over here?
 
On the whole I prefer driving in Spain to the UK. Something about driving on the right-hand side of the road and changing gear with the right hand feels more natural to me. On the occasions I've returned to driving on the left I've found it took me a few days to get used to it, though when I return to Spain I snap back instantly. 
 
I saw a report recently that named Spain as the 11th safest county to drive in worldwide. https://www.atlasandboots.com/remote-work/worlds-worst-countries-to-drive-in/ This did surprise me a little as there are number of reasons I would have expected to relegate Spain to a much lower position on the list. One of these is the macho boy-racer mentality that seems to take-over normally sensible people as though they had been assimilated by the Borg as soon as they sit behind the wheel. I worked with a chap like this, Manolo, for three years and dreaded every journey. His specific problem was an inability to remain behind other vehicles that weren't travelling at less than supersonic speed. Many of the journeys we took would be on long, straight, single carriage roads between towns and villages in the Murcian interior, a rural area in which we would often find ourselves stuck behind lorries full of sheep or agricultural machinery being moved from one farm to another chaperoned by a flotilla of warning vehicles with flashing lights. Once caught behind something like this he would become agitated and start checking his mirrors and nudging across the line in the in the centre of the road to see if there was anything coming the other way, often darting back quickly when something was. Then the magic moment would come where he would drop a gear and seize the moment to power past his quarry, during which time I would often be slamming my feet down on imaginary brakes in the floor-well of the passenger seat. When life returned to normal he would then throw me a smug grin and say "Fernando Alonso". How I lived to tell this tale is one of the greater mysteries of my life.
 
Spain's appetite for partying is another reason I'm surprised there are not more deaths than there are. During the September Feria in Cehegin, an English chap I knew found himself driving towards another car on the wrong side of the road, and narrowly avoided a head-on collision.  He turned his car around and chased the other vehicle down. When he pulled the driver out of the car he found him to be blind drunk, having been partying all night at the feria. The drunk driver was laughing! Another town I knew about had three people killed by a drunk driver at their annual feria. For this reason I always look twice when crossing the road during holidays and fiestas in Spain.
 
It's not just the drivers, but the roads themselves that seem unusually dangerous here. Not long after I moved to Andalucia, the stretch of motorway connecting Murcia and Andalucia, A-92 was damaged by rain. Much of the road was built on a sandy foundation that just washed away! Huge swathes of dual-carriageway were reduced to a single lane for months to effect repairs. Locally too, I had to drive to a house in the countryside near Pruna in the dark one evening. The same rain had washed away a section of road which just came to a cliff-edge drop. It wasn't fenced off, there was just no more road. Had I been travelling a little faster and not stopped in time, that may have been the end of me!
 
The authorities are notoriously slow to fix issues. Well known accident blackspots can persist for years before anything is done. The artist César Manrique (who deserves a blog post all to himself) campaigned for over 30 years about the dangerous stretch of road near his home in Lanzarote where accidents frequently occurred. Nothing was done and Manrique eventually died in a car accident near the village of Tahíche on the very stretch of road he had been complaining about.
 
Which reminds me, the first time I drove in Spain was in Lanzarote. I hired a Fiat Panda which rather than having a clutch seem to have an "on/off" switch for changing gear. I was a little nervous having never driven on the opposite side of the road before, and to make things even more complicated, the car was parked perpendicular to the road, meaning I had to back out into traffic on a busy main road. It was a baptism of fire, but I drove all over the island in the brave little Panda during the following two weeks over some rough terrain and perilous mountain tracks but it never let me down. 
 
I have a poor sense of direction which is not good in Spain as signposts here are invariably misleading. I got lost driving back from Alicante airport one evening and drove merrily along for over an hour before realising my mistake when I saw a sign for Madrid. I don't know if it's just me, but the number of times I got lost driving back from Malaga airport is insane. I take no blame for this. It's all the fault of poorly thought out road-signs that are either too general to be of any help, or are actually lying. I think the folk who design them are taken with those novelty signposts in tourist traps that instruct you that Timbuktu is 2700 miles that way.
 
Speaking of remote places, I broke down one summer whilst driving on the road between Calasparra and Blanca. The route takes one through a flat, agricultural land in which there are nothing but grapevines as far as the eye can see. Luckily I had a phone signal and was able to phone for roadside recovery. 
 
"Where are you" the operator asked. Well I looked one way and then the other. There was absolutely nothing I could give to indicate may location. All I could do was say I was halfway between the two towns! I was told it would take a couple of hours to get someone out to me. It was July so it was really hot, about 36C and apart from the car, there was no shade anywhere. I sat in the car, but without the air-conditioning on it soon felt like I was in a bakers oven. I took to standing outside of the car with covering over my head. It took hours for the truck to arrive but it seemed like an eternity. Fortunately I'd stopped at a garage and bought a bottle of water before I'd set out. I was very glad that I did as waiting in that heat without water would have been dangerous. Since that day I've never driven anywhere without a drink in the car, just in case!
 
Now I don't want to put anybody off driving in Spain. It's a beautiful country and many of the roads are empty even in high season. Some of the roads are so picturesque in this part of the world that the big European motor manufacturers film their advertising here. However I write a "warts and all blog" that tries to tell it like it is as I have nothing to sell and am not promoting anything. I will finish with one more wart and one that drives me crazy (pun intended). That is the sneaky way the police catch you out with speeding tickets over here. Typically there will be a stretch of road near a junction or something that has a reduced speed limit. The police will hide out with their radar guns and catch all the folk who miss the sign and fail to slow down. This is low-hanging fruit and I'm sure they have better things to do, but they take it so seriously. A chap I knew was given an 'on-the-spot' fine in one of these stops. He didn't have any money on him, so they accompanied him in to town and stood over him while he took the money out of a cash machine for them. Quite frankly I think they'd do better to spend their time catching all the Fernando Alonsos and drunk drivers out there.
 
 
 
 
 

Language Learning Tips

A few ideas for improving your command of Spanish

 

It's a bit  cheeky of me to be giving tips about language learning. You might as well ask Donald Trump to teach you how to dance the ballet. I've never been good at languages. It was the only thing I failed at school and after nearly twenty years of speaking Spanish I'm still far from fluent. That part of my brain that processes language just doesn't seem to work very well in me.
 
However, having tried all sorts of things to improve my Spanish I am perhaps in a good position to say what has worked for me and what hasn't. Classes haven't. I think classes may have been the reason I struggled at school. Classes are the exact opposite of one to one' learning. My mind tends to wander when not engaged. I don't think I'm alone in that. I distinctly remember at school, there came a point after three years of French where there were one or two swats sitting at the front doing all the heavy lifting with the teacher while the rest of us were really just marking time until the next lesson, completely disinterested as to what was going on. I don't really blame the teacher for this, I just don't think a language should be taught to thirty or so people at a time.
 
Looking back on it, making the decision to learn a language and promising myself I would stick to it was the crucial turning point. I'd had what I'd later heard Tim Ferris describe as a  Harajuku moment, an enlightening self-realisation arrived at by defining a fear rather than a goal. I'd always dreamed of retiring to Spain one day and the fear that I faced up to was that this was unrealistic unless I knew the language, and that learning the language becomes harder as you get older. Therefore I drew a line in the sand and promised myself to do a little language learning every day. This was November 1999. To this day I still engage in a daily activity to increase my knowledge of the language.
 
I dug around on the Internet and found a few resources. In those days courses were nowhere near as plentiful on the web as they are today but the BBC had a Spanish course as did Manchester University, both of which were free. Neither however were very effective in getting me started on the road to speaking the language. The turning point came when I discovered the Michel Thomas method. 
 
The Michel Thomas method is an audio course that places you in a conversation between a teacher and two other students. Questions are asked and both you and the students offer your replies. Often the mistakes the other students make help you understand the correct answers. The course relies heavily on pointing out the similarities between English and Spanish, for example drawing your attention to word endings and giving easy to use formulas for converting between one language and the other (a technique that had been pioneered in the books of Margarita Madrigal's Magic key to.. series). The amazing thing about the course is that it enables you to start forming quite advanced sentences comparatively quickly because one learns rules for generating words, rather than lists of words themselves, thus building confidence. After completing the course I felt I'd really turned a corner and became quite thirsty for more Spanish resources.
 
I was still living in England at the time, though certain Spanish media were available online or via satellite. Euronews was a TV news channel that had audio streams that could be changed to a number of European languages. The stories would rotate every 10 or fifteen minutes or so and I found it useful to watch a story in Spanish, then rewatch in English to see if I had the gist. Spanish football was also available with Spanish commentary, so I started to follow that. Soon I was learning the words for corner, goal, penalty and chants like "estas ciega" when asking the referee if he was blind. The most revered word in football of course is 'goal', which is shouted long and loud by the commentator when someone scores. I was listening to a program on the wireless one day called 'Radio Estadio' that was broadcasting an important game featuring Real Madrid. At six o'clock the programme was interrupted briefly for the evening news and there had been a grave incident somewhere in the north of Spain with loss of life, so Prime Minister Aznar was making a solemn statement to the nation. He'd only managed to get a few sentences out when the commentator interrupted shouting "Gooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal a Real Madrid". Clearly nothing is more important in Spain than a ball hitting the back of the net!
 
In an attempt to build vocabulary, still back in 1999, I bought a Spanish newspaper and a highlighting pen. Each day I would read a story, highlighting any words I didn't know and looked them up. I found this a valuable way to build vocabulary and one learns a little of the culture and current affairs of the country. Over time I found if I learned about ten new words a day that was about right. More than ten was hard to remember. Less than ten and I felt I wasn't making any progress. Later on I realised there is only a certain vocabulary of reported speech in newspapers that is quite different to how people speak in real life, but it is still a good way to learn words.
 
I love music so I also sought out Spanish songs. The Columbian artists Shakira and Juanes were popular at the time so I got hold of the lyrics to some of their songs and learned to sing them. This was very good practice for pronunciation, as to be in-time with the music it is often necessary to enunciate faster than one would do by speaking, thus giving the mouth and tongue a workout. It also came in handy years later in Spain when belting out the Gypsy Kings Bamboleo at Karaoke as I'd already learned the words! Learning to speak fast is quite important. Try to plan what your're going to say in your head then say it as quickly as possible. People hearing you speaking slowly start thinking "Oh he's a foreigner, he won't understand me" then freeze like a rabbit in the headlights!
 
The wife and I finally made the move to Spain in the Autumn of 2003. The town we moved to had only a small number of maybe a few dozen Brits out of a population of 16,000 so my wife argued, quite correctly as it turned out, that we should avoid the English speaking community and only speak Spanish. This we did for over a year, making lots of Spanish friends in the process. It was during this time that I battled to make the transition from speaking textbook Spanish to that uttered by people with local accents, as described in my previous blog post the Gargoyle Folk. It was an important time that cemented everything together. I didn't speak to another English person other than my wife until over a year later, when a woman trying to arrange a delivery in a furniture shop turned to me and asked 'How do you say when in Spanish?' Seeing how far behind me in learning the language she was, I delighted myself in how far I had come.
 
During our year in isolation we made many Spanish friends. Though we lived in the countryside and some of the owners of the neighbouring properties only visited at weekends, they were nonetheless keen to get to know us and invited us to all sorts of social events, which really helped develop conversational skills. One to one learning is much more effective than a classroom situation. A good way to go is to find a Spanish friend who is keen to learn English, then meet up and do a half hour conversation in each language. 
 
We also watched Spanish television during our first year, mainly in the afternoon. There was an extended weather forecast was on at 4pm which was great for beginners like us, because the weather uses small vocabulary of words that are repeated most days like cloud, rain, sunshine etc so these soon become imprinted on the brain. We also watched Telenovelas which are like ultra-melodramatic mini-series. In one 'end of series' cliff-hanger I remember there was an evil step-mother who pushed a baby in a pram into the middle of a bull-ring then released the bull! God knows what was going on there!
 
These days there are so many more online resources than when I started to learn Spanish, many of which are free, ranging from language exchanges to online courses like Duolingo. I won't go into detail about any of these as there are already a million blogs telling you all about them. Instead I'll end with one last tip which helped me a lot in the early days. Don't worry too much about tenses. Tenses confuse beginners and can seem like a mountain of complexity to learn. The fact of it is though, Spanish people are much more accepting of the present tense than we are in English. It's perfectly OK to build a sentence like "I go to the shop tomorrow" where the tense is present but you use the word tomorrow to specify the future. I go to the shop yesterday would also be understood. Being understood is far more important than being correct. This is my motto for getting by in Spanish!
 
 

Funny Things They Eat in Spain

Warning: Don't read this if you are vegan/vegetarian
 
It was during my first week in Spain that I ascended an escalator in a big supermarket, turned a corner in to the meat section and was greeted by a rack of pig faces. It was quite a bizarre sight! It looked as though the left half a pig's head had been placed in a polystyrene tray and wrapped in cling-film. There were dozens of them, all looking the same way, which of course prompted a question in my ever curious mind. Where were the right hand sides of the pig's heads? Was there another shelf somewhere with dozens of pig faces looking the other way? I never found out. I consoled myself that at least they all had their eyes closed. Were they open, now that just would have been weird!
 
Even though I'm a meat eater, I was still troubled the first time I bought what I thought was an oven ready chicken in a small local supermarket. It looked like the ones in blighty, again sitting in a polystyrene tray wrapped in plastic. However when I unwrapped it I was in for a surprise. The head was still attached and dropped onto the counter with an unexpected thud! What I was supposed to do with it I don't know to this day. I think I actually closed my eyes when I cut it off with scissors and threw it in the bin. Yuk!
 
Spain is obviously a different country with a very different culture to the Britain I grew up in. The food they eat here and the relationship to food and to animals takes some degree of adjustment. The first house I bought was a country house, and the owner had a shed full of rabbits he bred for the table. I had him remove them before I took possession of the house as I didn't fancy myself having to kill and butcher rabbits. However a short time after I moved in, a neighbour invited me around for Sunday lunch. He introduced my wife and I to our meal, which was a live, white rabbit that was hopping around in his garden shed. You know what's coming next don't you? Yes he killed and skinned the rabbit before our eyes. Within the hour, bits of poor bunny, including his head were on a plate in front of me. I understood being served the head was quite an honour, but one I could have lived without if truth be told!
 
Heads are quite a thing here. One of the restaurants in Cehegin used to serve roasted goat's heads on a Monday night. They were brought out on a tray from the oven and placed on the bar. Each head was sawn in half, and as I recall served face down, so you could see the brain, tongue, sinuses etc. I'm going back a few years, but I think half a head and a few roast potatoes was pretty good value for one euro fifty.
 
My rabbit murdering neighbour invited me out a few weeks later to go snail hunting. Eager to integrate myself into Spanish society I was accepting all such invitations at the time as it seemed the right thing to do. The day came and I went with him and some family members on a walk in the 'campo' along a quiet road where I was assured lots of snails would be found. Now I'd seen bags of snails for sale in the market and they all had ornate spiral shells, which I'd assumed was the hallmark of some special edible species. How wrong I was. All sorts of varieties and sizes of snails were apparently fair game, some looking distinctly like the ones I'd had to put pellets down for in blighty to stop them chewing my Hostas. After a while, we had amassed several buckets full of sundry snails, which my neighbour took to the kitchen of his country house. I was hoping they would be well cooked or at least boiled for long enough to kill any remnants of 'snailness' but alas no. All he did was put them in bowls of vinegar and pop them in the fridge. The next day I was invited around for a snail feast. They were served in some kind of sauce which I had not been privy to the making of, but it tasted quite spicy, as though some cumin and chilli was involved. Much to my surprise they tasted quite good, though I don't think I'd go to the trouble of making them myself. Incidentally, this incident revealed the answer to question that had puzzled me since I first bought my house. The grounds were fenced in, and the fence mounted atop a small wall, two breeze blocks high. Dotted around the property, ceramic tiles were lent up against these walls. It turns out they were snail hotels, deliberately placed to provide a cool, moist, comfortable space for the snails to repair to so they could be easily harvested. I'd inadvertently purchased a snail farm!
 
Probably the most unsavoury thing I've known the Spanish to eat are wild birds. I've not seen this with my own eyes, but someone who does it showed me the equipment he used. I visited the country house of a friend of a friend one Sunday morning for a barbecue. Breakfast barbecues are not uncommon on a Sunday in Murcia when the weather is good which is often. On this occasion we were eating six week old goat (yes I know, animal lovers must be cringing by now, but when in Rome). So we were talking about barbecue and the bird topic came up. The guy went into his shed and brought out a large black net and a device that looked like a camouflaged military radio. It turns out it was a bird-caller. He turned it on and within a minute or two, birds started flocking into the olives trees around us. He explained how he would setup the net between the trees, play the bird sounds, and when enough birds had arrived, he would gather the net entrapping them. Then he would pick them out of the net, and, miming the action, described how he would spike them on a skewer, presumably while still alive, and cook them on the barbecue. 
 
"Which birds" I asked, visibly wincing a little in anticipation of the inevitable answer.
 
"All types" he said. "Whatever is in the net."
 
As you can imagine, I was extremely glad not to be invited back to see that in action.
 
The same chap provided the meat for a birthday party I was invited to a few months later. He worked in sales and drove all over Spain for a living, so contrived to bring back two baby pigs from a trip to Segovia, which those in the know will tell you is the best place to go in Spain if you're into eating piglets. The pigs were placed on olive branches which were laid inside a bread oven. I can't remember the cooking time but I think it was a good few hours, and when the pigs came out of the oven, the meat was succulent and falling off the bone. As is traditional, they sliced the pigs up with dinner plates which were then ceremonially smashed, and everyone was served piglet slices on a paper plate, which seemed somewhat ironic. I must say though it was delicious. 
 
The list of odd things I've seen in bars here goes on and on. Pancreas was something I tried but didn't care for. I was hoping it would taste like liver but no, it tastes, well, like pancreas. One bar surprised me by selling frogs legs as tapas. On the bar in a glass case in lots of steel trays were all the usual suspects. There was Russian salad, eggs stuffed with tuna, anchovies, tigres (stuffed mussel shells), then, unusually, a tray full of frogs legs. The tapas was free with a beer so I had to try them. They tasted a little like chicken. I was surprised to see them in Spain. This was in a transport cafe on an industrial estate, so it is possible they were there to delight visiting French lorry drivers. I pondered for a while as to what happens to the rest of the frog when it loses its legs. Perhaps there were choruses of ribbiting frogs pushing themselves around in wheelchairs somewhere.
 
Possibly the weirdest thing I've seen someone eating was after a bullfight one day. When a bull is killed, the animal is taken out and butchered. The meat, known as lidia is quite prized, as a bull bred for fighting is in pasture for five years to gain the necessary weight for the ring. I've never eaten any myself but it must be along the lines of Wagyu beef. Anyway, I happened to be in a bar near a bullring one day after a bullfight and witnessed a chap chewing a raw bull's testicle! I know it's rude to stare but it was hard not to look!
 
Probably my favourite curious culinary delight is Mondongo. There was a gastronomical society that met once a month in Murcia, mainly patronised by elderly folk who revisited their youth by dining on some of the meals they ate during the Franco period. As a foreigner it was quite an honour to be invited to join the club and I went to many meals over a number of years. We were even featured on regional television, such was the interest in what we were eating. You may know, the Franco years were characterised by extreme hardship, so good meat was expensive and hard to find. Mondongo was an ingenious use of two cheaper more readily available cuts of meat, sheep's stomach and cow's knees! It doesn't immediately sound very appetising, but trust me it was delicious. The dish is rice based and cooked in a large paella pan (I know I know, you don't have to say 'pan' because paella means pan). The tripe, bones and a little stock is added and, as it cooks, something magical happens. The cow's knees have very little meat on them, but the gelatinous fat in the bones melts and gets soaked up by the tripe and the rice. When it is served, the trick is to get a palm full of oregano, then rub your hands together to grind the leaves over the rice, and then the flavour of the herb gets drawn in by the fat. I really couldn't believe how something so simple and potentially unpalatable could taste so good. I don't have much contact with Murcia anymore these days, but if there was one reason to go back it would be to relive the Mondongo experience!
 
 
 
 
 
 

The low down on Spanish weddings

What's it really like to go to a wedding in Spain?

 

I stumbled across a DVD I made a few years ago of a Spanish wedding that I was invited to. I've been to several in fact, and I've noticed there are quite a few differences to Spanish weddings, some of which may seem a little odd to outsiders.
 
Firstly, one doesn't necessarily need to know the bride and groom to be invited to a wedding in Spain.  In one instance I was very friendly with the groom's father but I'd never met his son or the wife to be. On the big day, although I attended the church, I didn't actually meet the happy couple for the first time until the reception where they shook hands with everyone on the way in to the venue. I used my pigeon Spanish to explain I was sorry for not having met before, but sensing my awkwardness, they brushed aside any embarrassment and welcomed me to join the celebration and enjoy myself. I did just that! The food was excellent. It was explained to me there were two function rooms used for weddings in town, one which was a bit 'posher' and this one which had better food. They must have had a large kitchen as there were hundreds of guests there, with waiters buzzing around like bees, bringing plate after plate and wine bottle after wine bottle. The father was milling around talking to people but kept checking up on me to make sure I was OK. 
 
"Did you like the prawns" he said, obviously knowing the the answer would be yes, given the huge pile of shell casings in front of me.
 
"Have another plate.."  He snapped his finger at the nearest waiter and another plate of prawns arrived. Now I'm no prawn connoisseur, but these things were damned good. Larger than most prawns and a deep red colour. I didn't know as I was shovelling them in my cake-hole but I made enquires about them the following week and learned they cost a euro each. I'd probably eaten my way through twenty or thirty euros worth!
 
Which brings me to funding. By convention, if one is lucky enough to be invited to a Spanish wedding, one is expected to contribute to the cost of the celebration. They way this is done is by making a discreet enquiry before the event as to the probable cost per head. Then one brings this money in an envelope as a gift to give at the reception. Some people, close family members and friends may give more, but the general idea is to cover the costs with hopefully a little left over to start married life together. I think it's a great idea and from what I've heard, the generosity of  the guests never leaves the bride and groom out of pocket. 
 
One thing I've seen at a lot of Spanish weddings, not just ones I've been invited to, but ones where I've happened to be a passer-by at the church, is when the couple exit the ceremony, fireworks are set off. I don't know how or why firing rockets into the air in the middle of the day became a thing, as the explosions are almost impossible to see in bright sunshine. The noise is most likely the reason. They also enjoy riding around town in a cavalcade of cars all beeping their horns in celebration. In a small village like Olvera it's impossible to not know a wedding is taking place!
 
Another difference at Spanish wedding receptions, at least the ones I've been to, is that there are no speeches. Nobody clinks their glasses or makes a toast. No 'best man' gets up and makes rude jokes about the groom. Having been used to the format of British wedding receptions, I recall feeling robbed of entertainment. I've also had Spanish friends tell me they have seen movies like 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and were quite envious of this but in Spain, people just don't seem to want to take the leap to address the room. Instead of being punctuated by speeches, the progress of the reception seems to be marked by which course is being served. There are generally lots of courses, multiple starters, a couple of fish courses, a couple of meat, desserts, even cigars. At one wedding I went to each man was furnished with a big cigar and each woman with a miniature commemorative five-pack of cigarettes! 
 
As with wedding receptions the world over, when the feasting is over the dancing starts. All the weddings I've been to featured discos rather than live music. What is different is the duration. Even at weddings that take place at midday, you will still find yourself dancing at six o'clock in the morning and sometimes beyond. I've never had the stamina myself, but I've been assured that the celebrations often continue back at the groom's house up until lunchtime the next day. That's one thing you can't deny about the Spanish. They sure do know how to party!

Eight Great Reasons to Visit Spain

Why Spain is a great place to take a vacation

 

I felt I was unduly negative in last weeks blog post. To be fair, I was directly ranting at the folk in charge of tourism in Spain, not the country, which is rich in reasons to visit. So, to redress the balance somewhat, here are my eight great reasons to visit Spain.
 
 
1) People have been here since prehistory.
 
The first time I stayed in Cehegin, the town in which I spent my first six years living here, I booked into a hotel that had copies of rock art on the wall. I didn't think too much of it at the time, but these images were taken from cave art found in the Peña Rubia, the big hill behind the town. It's said that the Peña protects Cehegin from the worst of the rain as the clouds tend to go around it one way or the other. I'm not sure how true that is but the town does seem to have a favourable climate. It was some time later I learned about the caves and rock art in the Peña Rubia and I hoped to visit them but they were unfortunately closed for security, restoration and research. I understand the caves can be visited today if one makes a booking in advance with the tourist office. https://www.laverdad.es/murcia/planes/larutaconunpar/201405/07/cuentos-edad-piedra-20140505190930.html After I learned about it I often marvelled that as long ago as 3500 BC people had made the place where I was living their home. Of course, the Peña Rubia is one of many prehistoric caves containing early rock art in Spain, the most famous of which is Altimira in Cantabria, the discovery of which was the subject of a fascinating movie 'Finding Altamira' starring Antonio Banderas.
 
2) The Romans
 
The Romans had an enduring relationship with Spain which I first learned about when a neighbour told me the land on which my house was built in Cehegin was the site of a Roman cemetery! No names no pack drill, but a Spanish chap I met in the same town invited me round for a family lunch one day to his country house. The garden was full of Roman columns, statues, busts and frankly looked like a museum. He told me he ran a construction company excavating roads and railway lines. Work would often stop because another piece of history had been unearthed. Such delays were as unpopular with him as they were with the firm contracting him, so often isolated pieces would quietly disappear into the boot of his car so that work could continue! The rape of Roman ruins was not limited to the private sector though. I saw a group being guided around the ancient Roman ruins of Acinipo near Ronda in Malaga province. A woman stumbled across a piece of pottery which she showed to the guide, who much to my surprise told her to keep it as a souvenir!
 
 
3) Nightlife
 
The Spanish certainly know how to party. Ibiza is the party capital of the world but nightlife is great all over the country. My wife and I stayed with a friend in Alicante for a week while first looking for houses here. Towards the end of our stay, he suggested when went night-clubbing and he showed us around all of the local gay bars. There seemed to be dozens of them. I recall dancing along to something camp like Kylie Minogue in one of them, when I noticed video being played on the walls around the bar, then I realised they were filming the audience and playing the tapes on subsequent nights. I suddenly had an overwhelming feeling of sympathy for the future punters who would have to endure my interpretation of The Locomotion. Despite this it was one of the best nights out ever, as partying with gay people often are. You don't know you've lived until you've been 'cruised' by a George Michael lookalike in the Bang Your Head bar at 2:30 in the morning! Changing tack slightly I've noticed a marked trend for nightclubs in Spain to be empty one minute and full the next. It seems the locals move in packs from one bar to another, so if you happen to arrive at the wrong time you might think the place is not happening. Don't panic though, have a look for evidence of activity. If there are glasses waiting to go in the dishwasher you may have missed the 'pack', but if it looks 'clean', have a drink and give it half an hour. Chances are the party is on the way! (Also nightclubs in Spain never have the word 'Club' in their name - that is reserved for another type of establishment altogether where the dancing is more horizontal than vertical if you get my meaning!) 
 
 
4) Beaches
 
I'm not much of a beach bum but even so I've visited dozens of beaches over my many years in Spain, all the way from the Mar Menor in the East to Tarifa in the West. With over 5000 km of coastline, Spain has all kinds of beaches imaginable, so you're guaranteed to find something to your taste. My favourite is probably La Playa de la Cortadura at Cadiz which is a sandy shoreline so long you can't see the end of it. Even in the busiest part of the season you're able to find a quiet spot!
 
5) Quaint Villages
 
The Spanish landscape is pockmarked with picturesque towns and villages. I recall reading somewhere there are about 5000 though I've been unable to verify that figure for the purpose of this blog. While I've mentioned in previous blogs the threat of rural depopulation hangs over the future of many of these, it's also true that there are more opportunities than ever to find accommodation in them thanks to the Internet and services like Airbnb. I met some American cyclists recently (well, pre-Covid) who were riding from one side of Spain to the other with no formal plan other than accepting the hops that booking their next accommodation online took them. I thought that was a great idea. I wish I was brave enough to do it!
 
6) Architecture
 
Whether you love modern architecture or megalithic monuments, Spain has it all and everything in between. We have 2500 castles and just shy of a 100 cathedrals. Particularly notable in the south west of Spain where I now reside, is the influence of the Moorish period and the colonial period where huge wealth came back from the country's expansion into South America. Much of these riches came via Seville and spread out all over the region, reflected in fine old buildings all over the Western provinces of Andalusia.
 
7) Scenery
 
Spain has a remarkable variety of countryside. I've driven back and forth between Murcia and Andalusia many times and I'm always struck by the way the views change. Driving out of the elevated pastures of Caravaca that look like a scene out of the Sound of Music, I would round a bend at the other side of the Puebla de Don Fadrique to reveal a break in the mountains revealing a huge plain, then keep driving to see the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada then beyond them on to the desert of Almeria. The landscape is constantly changing. How many places in the world can you be skiing in the morning and swimming in warm sea water in the afternoon?
 
8) Wine 
 
I don't think Spain's wines get the international recognition they deserve, which may well be because their focus has most recently been on the domestic market. Grapevines were thought to have first been brought to the peninsula by the Canaanite tribe of the Phoenicians roughly around a thousand years before Christ when they settled in Cadiz, (making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe). The Romans later fell in love with the sweet wines from Cadiz province, particularly from around Jerez, much more of which was turned over to grape production back then than it is today. The Roman poet Marcus Valerius Martialis wrote of the primitive sherry saying it was "highly regarded in Roman circles". Winemaking in Cadiz is currently undergoing a renaissance with many farmers replacing olive trees with vines. The olive oil industry is under threat from stiff international competition from New World countries however there is little to differentiate one brand of oil from another. Although wine faces similar competition, the difference in character between one bottle of wine and another is much more marked and so today's marketplace is rediscovering the wines of Cadiz with similar joy to the Romans 2000 years ago. 
 
These are my solid reasons for visiting Spain but there are many more. What is your favourite?

Tourism in Spain - why aren't they thinking ahead.

A rant about tourism

 

I received an official looking letter through the post this week. You know the sort, covered in barcodes and government logos. Roughly translating the label on the outside of envelope, it was from "The Institute of Statistics and Maps of Andalusia Council of Economic Transformation, Knowledge and Universities'. While mouthing the words represented by the three letter abbreviation 'WTF' to myself, I opened it up to find I'd been one of 5000 lucky people to be selected to take part in a survey about tourism. I say 'lucky', but reading the small print suggests that completing the survey is compulsory. I'd hate to be clapped in irons for not filling out a form, so I hastily took to their website to submit my responses online.
 
My first though was that I'd been singled out for selection as what they term over here as a 'residential tourist', which always makes me think we're regarded as foreigners who live here but they are expected to up sticks and go home at some point. But not so. This was a survey intended for Spanish folk, asking about their travel habits over the last few years. As the questions moved from past to the present  they were clearly designed to figure out what affect Covid has had on people's ability and desire to go on holiday.
 
I've read elsewhere in the Spanish press that certain bodies within the Spanish travel industry are pushing to refocus away from the international traveller towards the national internal market. I think this is quite a mistake. The whole point about international visitors is they bring wealth into the country that didn't exist here before. Encouraging internal tourism, trying to get folk to move around within the country, is only going to move around wealth that is already here, though clearly with the intention of sweeping more of it into the pockets of the folk behind all-powerful hotel lobby who are probably the authors of this initiative. In case you haven't come across the hotel lobby before, they were pushing to ban Airbnb a few years ago, alleging they were stealing trade from hotels across Spain. They didn't succeed but they arm-twisted government to bring in stiffer regulations to private landlords wishing to rent out the homes to tourists.
 
Tourism in Spain is in my experience a myopic, inward looking affair anyway. As I understand it, people need a degree in tourism to work in a tourist office but it doesn't seem to obligate them to speak English or any other commonly spoken European language. I've personally visited at least a dozen tourist offices here where Spanish is the only language spoken. Locally, strategy and planning to attract tourists seems frankly uninspired, seemingly going little further than adorning the old town with flower pots and slapping a bit of paint here and there. Olvera has its own official tourism website which is fittingly blank http://turismolvera.com Regionally and nationally, efforts to promote tourism seem to be equally parochial and archaic. I had a flick through the latest government report from the ministry of tourism, which was lamenting the demise of Thomas Cook and boasted of strengthening ties with the airline industry. To be fair I suppose, they didn't see Covid was going to come along and upset the apple cart. Elsewhere in the report though, there is a heavy emphasis on ecotourism and one gets the impression they are trying to attract a 'certain class' of client with a preferred profile. This is evidenced in the official Instagram feed of the Spain's Tourist board @Spain where images of cathedrals and churches outnumber beaches by about ten to one and gastronomy, nightlife or even wildlife pics are near non-existent. It's almost as if they are purposefully trying to attract the sort of tourists who do a lot of brass-rubbings!
 
My mission here today isn't to totally trash the Spanish tourist industry, but I would like to drop an idea their way. I did so at the end or the survey when they asked me for any other thoughts and I shall relay what I told them here. (Sorry to regular readers that I'm rehashing an idea I put forward in an earlier blog post but I think it's perfectly OK to plagiarise myself in the promotion of a valuable idea!)
 
The EU has in sight the phasing out of the internal combustion engine. Diesel engines are set to go by 2030 and petrol will probably go soon after, possibly as early as 2035.  (https://www.transportenvironment.org/news/end-fossil-fuel-car-eu-agenda)
 
This means that road traffic by tourists from northern Europe will be transitioning to electric over the next ten to fifteen years. 80% of tourist traffic in the past has been by plane, however Covid has decimated the air industry and the future of fossil-fuelled flight is almost as precarious as that of the petrol engine.
 
If however you try to map a route to drive an electric vehicle though Spain today you will find your journey is dictated by the paucity of charging stations in rural areas. Overlay the charging stations on a map of Spain and the image resembles the wheel of a bicycle. There is a dense hub in Madrid in the centre, then a fairly dense ring around the cities and towns in coastal Spain. In the interior of Spain is like an electric desert. 
 
One could argue that this will improve organically as the number of EVs sold in Spain increases over time. It seems to me though that the essences of attracting tourists, especially to a small town like Olvera, is by providing the transport infrastructure they need. If we had a Tesla Supercharger in Olvera it would be the only one between Madrid and Malaga. Imagine how many affluent northern European Tesla owners would see the charger on the map and plot a route to head through here on their way to the coast. Until another charger appeared somewhere else in this electric desert, this would be practically all of them!!
 
This is the way towns grow. My home town is Surbiton in Surrey. Before 1838 it was little more than a hamlet, at least compared with the neighbouring town of Kingston-upon-Thames. Kingston was an important stop on the route from London to the naval base at Portsmouth back in the day when Britain ruled the waves. As such, it had a well established and lucrative coaching house industry. When it was proposed that a newfangled railway line from London to Southampton would be running through Kingston, the coaching industry were up-in-arms that they were going to lose trade, so lobbied the council to reject the scheme. The line was instead re-routed through Surbiton. A station was built there in 1838, from which the South London commuter belt grew. The town never looked back. ( Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Surbiton#History )
 
I have heard that attempts to install charging stations in rural towns in this part of Spain have met opposition. I don't know for certain but it wouldn't surprise me if this came from petrol station owners who are worried about losing trade. I hope not. I hope they see the future belongs to renewables and don't use their influence at a local level to discourage the development of the economy of towns like ours. As I mentioned in the blog post Spain's Problem With Rural Depopulation ( http://andaluciasteve.com/spains-problem-with-rural-depopulation.aspx ), towns like Olvera need every bit of help they can get to stay afloat. We should be lobbying like crazy to make Olvera an 'Electric Vehicle Friendly' town. Opinion!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Work. What is it Good For?

(Apart from the money)
 
A work colleague from long, long ago recently got in touch to wish me a happy birthday. I don't want to blow smoke up his arse but if I drew up a list of people I'd met in my life blessed with both high mental agility and being a good hang, he would be top percentile. In our email exchange, we both waxed sentimental over the team of extraordinary people we used to work with all those years ago.
 
This got me thinking. I've had quite a varied and somewhat chequered career in public and private companies of various sizes in various countries, or indeed online, with no particular country at all. The thing that struck me is that one doesn't remember the money. It's always the people, their interactions and incidents that stick in one's mind, which in some ways a better indicator of what makes a particular period of one's career good or not.
 
I hardly remember my first job at all. It was really just the first thing that came along and I was all but bullied into it by the sour-faced woman in the job centre. It was in a factory that manufactured 'architectural metal' which is unbelievably dull. I was appointed as the 'works clerk'. I soon found out I was really just a go-between, relaying the dictates of management in the office to the workers on the shop floor, then batting back their discontent to the boss. It was an extraordinarily dry, uninspiring job and I lasted about five weeks. The only memory of any richness that stays with me was a prank played on the first of April. There was a young labourer working there who clearly wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He used to cycle to work and always brought his bike inside the factory and parked it in a particular place. The prank was simply that his colleagues hid his bike. The poor guy went to jump on his steed to cycle home for lunch but it wasn't there. He started ranting, running around asking if anyone had seen his bike. Looking on as an outsider, it seemed mildly amusing but all his work-mates were creasing up in fits of hysteria. Eventually I had to ask someone what was so funny. A chap told me "We did exactly the same thing last year. Daft bastard still hasn't twigged it's April the first!" 
 
Humour is a great thing to have in a team, as it binds people together. There was plenty of "esprit de corp" in my next position that arose as a variety of gallows humour. I snagged a three month summer job working in what used to be known as the local 'dole' office, where folk would come to sign the famous 'UB40' form to declare themselves out of work and therefore eligible to receive benefits. In actual fact, the UB40 was only one a several types of form used for people that depended on the type of their employment. For example, actors who were in and out of work all the time, had a yellow form and were known as casuals, but I digress. Anyway, there was never a dull moment in the dole office. With several hundred members of the public coming in every day we saw all walks of life from Royalty (we had a Baron signing on) to tramps. These were the days before security screens. It wasn't unusual to be verbally abused, spat it and occasionally, violence occurred. One guy who was refused benefit showed his displeasure by returning to the office with a bag full of refuse which he emptied out all over the floor. On one occasion my supervisor was in an interview with a claimant who slit his wrists and sprayed blood all over her. There was clearly then an 'us and them' dynamic between the public and the staff. It was curious to feel this social pressure from outside the team, strengthen the ties between the people within it. Very soon I was bonding with my work-mates, playing in their five-a-side team, going out boozing and swapping stories about the events of the day of which there were many. This must be a phenomenon that happens in other walks of life like the police, fire service etc. I was only there for the summer but when I left, I felt curiously closer to these people than most of the kids I'd been at school with over the past seven years. 
 
I had several jobs in the Civil Service. Once you get in it's hard to leave! I was in the Ordnance Survey for a while. If I had to rate all my work experiences, excluding the contribution of people, this was probably the most enjoyable because of the travel. I was part of a small unit with a surveyor and two labourers and each day we would pitch up at eight in the morning to get the day's assignment. It was a bit like Mission Impossible! We never knew where we would be going until we jumped in the van and hit the road. We were limited only by the geographical bounds of our area, SE8H, which covered a big chunk West of London, kind of a square from Slough to Wembley, down to Dorking and Guildford. I found getting out and about everyday enormously enjoyable, as was the unpredictability.  I never knew if I would be clambering up scaffolding on a new build block of flats or measuring the distance between street furniture that was the scene of a recent traffic accident. Variety is the spice of life! The public were always curious about what we were up to. During one routine survey a guy came up to me and asked if we were building a new bypass. I assured him it was just a remapping job but he wouldn't let it go.
 
"I know! You can't tell me. I completely understand, but it's a new road isn't it? All these buildings will be coming down. Come on now, don't deny it, no names no pack drill!", and so he went on, putting words in my mouth, convinced that his little town was soon to be flattened by bulldozers. Eventually I leaned into him, and glancing conspiratorially right and left, I winked and said,
 
"Loose lips sink ships".
 
He returned a gleeful smile and doubled-tapped the side of his nostril, which I considered was to indicate that our little secret was safe with him, at least until five minutes later when he would probably share it with the rest of the village. Such are the joys of working with the public.
 
My last and longest Civil Service job was in the Department For National Savings as it was then called (now re-branded as NS&I). I was there for about twelve years and  met a lot of bright, interesting people, some of whom I am still in contact with today. This was a much larger outfit such that from our ranks we were able to put together a half-decent rock band. Despite a rewarding social life though, I felt frustrated by continuing pay and promotion freezes. In 1995 the Dot.com boom was clearly going to be the next big thing and I wanted to be a part of it. So I left the service and became a freelancer.
 
Working for one's self is a double-edged sword. While one has freedom, with that comes responsibility, the most problematic of which was to actually find work. I'd planned to be a web consultant, however I was a little ahead of the game. I thought it would be a piece of cake to get clients as there were so few people at the time who knew how to build websites. As I found when I started hustling for business, there were very few people who knew what a website was nor why it could be of value to them. I eventually fell back on more familiar IT support roles, grabbing bit of work here and there which kept me going for a year or two. It was really all down to sales and marketing and I quickly came to realise that I wasn't very good at either!
 
Then I had a stroke of luck which led to me joining the company I mentioned at the beginning that prompted me to write this piece. A relative phoned me one Friday afternoon. He said he had a friend that had a start-up business in Richmond and they were looking for people. He gave me their number and I phoned straight away. I exchanged a few words with the guy who answered the phone and within minutes I was on my way to work. They were so busy they wanted me to come right away. I was with them for two and a half years. It was a blast. 
 
The way they hired me was not untypical. Most people seemed to be there through word of mouth, networking or even chance meetings. One of the owners had apparently met the General Manager at a trade show and pretty much hired him on the spot to run the thing. I later learned the company had been formed by some high-ranking ex-Dell employees. They had a business plan and didn't seem to find it hard to find funding. As the company grew, many bright and interesting people came on board. It was a broad mix of people from super-brainy graduates like my mate to plebs like me, but everyone seemed to fit in and bring something unique to the table and nobody was denied a voice. It was a joyous time.
 
I should mention at this point, that this company revealed another important factor that can make work enjoyable beyond money alone. There is a special energy and dynamic working in a start-up company which can be its own reward. When you go to work in a well established outfit, each day knowing that the challenges you face will be little different from the day before, well, there is something a little soul destroying about that. In a start-up, things are much more fluid and one meets new challenges all the time which can be quite thrilling. I met an accountant from America who was seconded to us for a while there and he told me he only ever worked for new companies for that reason. Once things are organised and setup to run, he told me that he was out of the door, off to work for the next one.
 
Regrettably the UK branch in which I worked later folded with much of the management moving to the larger, American twin of the company. I didn't want to move to Texas so I decided to move on and set up my own venture. 
 
I'd met a graphic artist while I was there who seemed to know what he was doing and also claimed to be a sales & marketing whizz, so we decided to join forces to setup a web design company. We worked out of a small subsidised office in Kensington and this time I found myself in the right place at the right time. This was 1998 and everyone wanted a website. Pretty soon, we were the ones doing the hiring. I must say I found being at the top of the company generally far less rewarding than being down below. There were endless meetings and far less of the coal face work that I'd enjoyed as a programmer. However one thing did reward me more than anything work related, either before or since. It was a surprise that came like a bolt from the blue.
 
I arrived in the office early one morning to be greeted by a young lady we employed as a designer. She had lots of seemingly ancient slips of paper written in 'Copper Plate' spread all over her desk. She explained to me that it was her intention to buy a house with her boyfriend. The documents in front of us were share certificates given to her when she was born. She was trying to figure out how much she would be able to sell them for in order to raise the deposit. I suddenly had the epiphany that the company I had conceived of, co-founded and was a half-owner of, was actually going to be paying for someone's house! It gave me a strange sense of satisfaction and pride that I find difficult to put into words. I've never had children but this must be something like hearing your child's first words or seeing their first steps. Several more employees later obtained mortgages against the salaries we paid them and each time I was really blown away by the feeling.
 
My business partner and I disagreed over some fundamental issues over the direction of the company and I eventually sold out to him and moved to Spain. My career has slalomed most unpredictably since then, mostly downhill and never bringing forth anything like the job satisfaction that I experienced in the first half of my career. These days I far prefer to be playing my bass guitar than working in an office, though who knows? If an interesting opportunity came along with the chance to work with nice people, I'd probably jump at the chance!

Making money in Spain

The hardest thing about moving here is the income problem.
 

I wanna job in Spain and basically need to know if there is work out there for me, I’d do anything I just wanna move for the sun.  Please help!!

 
The above quote was a genuine question asked a few weeks ago on an online forum for 'expats' in Spain. I kid you not that I see these sort of requests all the time. 
 
Sifting through the three hundred or so replies reveals an interesting snapshot of people's experiences of having moved here in search of work.
 
"Most men get off the plane and become builders, while women become cleaners and dog sitters" says one.
 
"Learn Spanish". says another, "you'll improve your chances of finding a job no end".
 
There was quite a long thread about teaching English in which one camp said it was dead easy to get a TEFL certificate (Teach English as a Foreign Language) in order to get a job teaching the queens, where as another camp were saying the language schools were in decline and rejecting applicants with the cheaper certificates earned on line, preferring instead the residentially earned certificates of schools perceived to be of higher value.
 
Curiously nobody mentioned becoming an estate agent, which many do. This can be a ludicrously easy way to make money in a bull market, but as I found during the last recession it's not much fun when you go over a year without selling anything. 
 
Generally most commenters agreed that it is hard to find work in Spain. As one chap said, "it helps if you have a lot of money to support yourself while you're looking for work as it can take some time".
 
In my humble experience, I've found the the main problems are the language barrier, the extremely high unemployment rate of the country as a whole and the fiscal system here which seems deliberately to act against people starting up their own businesses.
 
Not speaking Spanish, or speaking it very badly as I do, severely limits one's ability to find a job with a Spanish company. That means people coming from the UK will struggle to find employment in inland areas where English is not so widely spoken. This less of a problem on the Costa Blanca or Costa del Sol where English is more common. A nephew of mine worked as a waiter in Fuengirola for six months without speaking a word of Spanish.
 
I knew a young Spanish girl years ago who confided in me the dark secret of her employment status as an office worker. I think her hours were nine until two then five until eight. She had a contract with her employer who officially declared that he was paying her 800 euros per month, and so he paid her employer's contribution towards the equivalent of her tax and national insurance contribution based on the sum. In reality he only paid her 400 per month in cash though. I was astonished she worked all those hours for so little take home pay, but she explained to me it was hard enough to get a job at all. Getting one that paid her stamp and had her plugged into the system was a big plus compared with many folk here who work cash in hand and cannot afford to go self employed.
 
From what I've seen, one has to be rich in the first place to go self employed in Spain. If you want to set up the equivalent of a limited company you need to prove you have 5000 euros in the bank. The contribution to the health and welfare system here known as 'autonomo' is a big chunk. It was a shade under 300 euros per month last time I looked, though there is a scheme now to pay much less in the first year of trading. VAT starts from the first euro earned if your business is dealing in rateable goods or services. Income tax is even more full of pitfalls for the unwary. One chap I know told me his accountant advised him to use a system where he paid a quarterly sum on his predicted earnings. Half way through the year he lost his contract and still had to make the two remaining tax payments for the remaining quarters.
 
Worse still, the tax office or 'hacienda' is so grossly avaricious. It has the power to monitor your bank account and grab money out of it as it sees fit. One chap I knew stopped trading but didn't inform the hacienda. Some years later he found they had taken 6000 euros from his account for unpaid taxes. It took a devil of a job to get it back. The hacienda clearly has an army of spies. For an interesting insight into how they operate, read the recent article in El Pais (In English) called How the Spanish Tax Agency followed the trail of Shakira. They left no stone unturned, even to the fine detail of  tracking down details of her hair-dresser and Zumba teacher!
 
Elsewhere the hacienda has its beady eye on your private sales. If you flog stuff on websites like Ebay, Etsy, Facebook Market place etc, they want a chunk of your profit. How this works exactly varies from region to region but typically in Madrid, sales of over 500 euros are subject to a 4% IPT (transaction tax). I've read where they have had tax officers trawling through listings trying to identify sellers. More recently talks have been taking place to make the websites to supply transaction details to the hacienda digitally. Being a cynic, I suspect when they do, the minimum sales on which these taxes apply will be decreased!
 
Perhaps the most successful group of people I've come across in Spain are the ones whose work is not, i.e. people who work remotely. If you have the right skill-set and the right contacts it is possible to have the best of both worlds, e.g. an American sized pay packet with a Spanish style cost of living. Finding such work is not without its problems as there is a very broad base of people in all corners of the world competing for remote jobs. Websites such as Freelancer and Fiver allow one to pursue work in a wide range of countries but the downside is there is a mountain of competition from all over the world, so bidding for work is more often than not a race to the bottom. It is almost always preferable to seek work by personal contact, word of mouth, networking etc. 
 
Disclaimer. I'm not an expert on Tax or Employment law or any of the topics mentioned in this blog post. These are just the rantings of someone who has lived here for fifteen years and seen the work situation up close and personal!  Nor am I selling anything so I have no skin in the game (which is probably why my postings are a little less 'ra ra' than you might read elsewhere!!)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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An aside

 

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