Andalucia Steve the dream

Things that wind me up

My surprising reaction to life in Coronavirus lock down dystopia.
Maybe it's cabin fever but one thing I've been reflecting on of late are things that have got on my nerves over the years. (Politics aside that is. Though it pains me to do it, I generally try to keep this blog politics-free since it is probably dull enough as it is and my Facebook feed is full of it anyway). 
All of a sudden my house has become like sensory deprivation tank, free from outside noise and interference. There are no kids playing ball in the street, or playing 'Knock Down Ginger' (knocking on my door and running away in case that term is one not used in your part of the world). There are no longer motorcycles roaring past my door. The smoker coughing up his morning lung-butter no longer passes my house on his way to work. Things are quiet. It's bliss. That got me thinking about the things that used to bug me.
Breaking down the things that grind my gears into animal, vegetable or mineral, I can quickly see that plants don't really annoy me very much. Having said that, as a child I used to hate getting foxtails stuck in my socks. Even when picked out and discarded they still seemed to itch until a change of footwear sorted out the problem. I wasn't overly keen on stinging nettles but as one learns to look out for them, being stung almost becomes a matter of choice.
Minerals I'm generally down with too. I don't recall being annoyed by a amethyst or taking umbridge at uraninite, though given the latter is a 'flesh devouring' mineral that emits natural radiation my opinion could conceivably change if I kept a lump of it in my pocket for any length of time.
Only animals have bothered me in a significant way. Bugs have bugged me to distraction. For their small size,  Drosophila are remarkably irritating, especially if like me you enjoy a glass of wine, since these chaps like nothing more to join you in a glass - literally in your glass - committing suicide in the process, seemingly with the only purpose of plundering the pleasure of your sip by becoming a bitter, unwanted speck on your tongue. [If they bother you too, the trick is to get some empty spice jars, the ones with small perforations in the lid, half fill them with apple-cider vinegar and leave them dotted about your house. The vinegar is more tasty to the files than your wine and once they enter the spice jar they can't get out again. You may have seen many of their war-dead kin in vinegar cruets when holidaying in hot countries]
Creepy crawlies in general get my gander up. I can't stand spiders, crane flies, flying ants, beetles, cockroaches, earwigs, the list goes on and on. I endured a bed-bug infestation a few years ago that was extraordinarily irksome. Those guys are hard to vanquish. I spent months disinfecting and trying to track down the eggs but they kept coming back. Engage a professional pest controller if you can afford it, but I couldn't so I eventually cracked it by getting hold of some industrial-strength, nicotine based foggers, the type they use in professional greenhouses. I had to move out for a few days and everything had to be washed to get rid of the tobacco smell but the bed bugs abandoned the place never to return.
Apart from insects the only other class of animal to get my goat really is man. Where to start? I used to work with a guy years ago who, if there were any justice in this world, would have been clapped in irons. His crime? Well he brought a packed lunch into the office each day, part of which was a yogurt. I sat behind this chap, back to back with a movable partition screen separating us. Whenever his spoon reached the bottom of the yogurt pot he would scrape and lick, scrape and lick, scrape and lick. Minutes would go by of his noisy excavations at the bottom of the plastic pot, slowing the passage of time in my mind to a standstill. There surely could be not even a molecule of yogurt left, but on he would go, scraping, scraping scraping, until I would shout DAVE THAT'S IT - YOU'RE DONE!! then jump around the screen and blow his head off with a sawn off shotgun (well I didn't but that's what I was thinking).
This illustrates an important point about the nature of things that vex me. Human behaviour is far more irritating than anything else in the natural world because it is empowered by the volition of the human mind. Jean-Paul Sartre got it right when in his 1944 play 'Huis Clos' he said "Hell is Other People".
With that in mind, I've never quite understood why people congregate in Spain. Take bars for example. I knew a guy who ran a very popular little bar which was always packed. I asked him once why he didn't move to larger premises. He told me Spanish folk won't go into an empty bar. Larger bars seem emptier than smaller bars even if they have the same number of people in them [I later learned this is a manifestation of a psychophysical phenomenon called Weber's law, but I digress] Given the choice, if I was going to go for a drink with a friend I'd go for an empty bar rather than a full one, since I'd expect to get served more quickly and wouldn't have to shout to be heard but apparently I'm in the minority. People want atmosphere. When I lived in Murcia I'd occasionally go one of the beaches in a town called Aguilas. There are 35 beaches in Aguilas. Four of them have commercial facilities, bars, a first-aid hut, tourist tat shops etc. Those four beaches are generally heaving with tourists in summer, while the other 31 beaches will be virtually empty. Now me being me, my worst nightmare would be to go to one of the busy beaches, squeezing my beach towel between two families of tourists, indulging in the untold sorts of pursuits that would be sure to irk me. I'd prefer to drive five minutes down the road and have a beach to myself!
I'm probably then one of the few miserable buggers dreading the end of the lock down. I've quite enjoyed not hearing the nightly roaring of unsilenced quads, mopeds and scooters parading up and down the main street in pursuit of young female attention. I've quite enjoyed going shopping and not seeing a living soul except for the odd tractor driver spraying the street with bleach. The world seems a healthier, cleaner place with reports of crystal clear canals in Venice, reduced air pollution and animals venturing into towns emboldened by the abatement of people and traffic. If this is our dystopian future, long may it continue! Mind you as I say that, I've also noticed a sharp increase in flying things and creepy crawlies. I guess there's always a downside to everything. Where did I put those foggers?

On Playing Music

What's it really like to be a musician


I thought I'd jot down a few thoughts on being a musician.
We're a breed apart. I'm not saying people who don't play music are weirdly different such that we can't mix, socialise, marry, procreate or whatever but there is in some way a barrier that the two can never cross. It is a bit like being in one of those American movies where the visitor and the criminal can only talk over the phone though a glass screen. I had a girlfriend years back who was charming in every way but for her tin-ear. Music had no meaning for her so we never really hit it off.
So to the non-musicians out there, what is it like to be a musician, why do we do it? What is the point in an age where live-bands can be undercut by DJs? Well it's a blessing and a curse. I hope to answer a few of these questions here today.
Music was born out of curiosity for me. Dad plonked me in front of a piano when I was four and had me picking tunes out but I had no great interest at that time and the business of playing Three Blind Mice seemed unchallenging and a bit pointless. I had recorder lessons at school to learn how to read the dots, but again this exercise seemed worthless for the same reason. Who wants to play Three Blind Mice on recorder? It wasn't until I got a little older and heard Jimi Hendrix play guitar that I thought 'wow, how did he do that', that I dug out an old Neapolitan mandolin, family heirloom that had been languishing unloved in the cupboard under the stairs, and started to pick out Purple Haze and Voodoo Chile (Slight return). From then on I was hooked.
Mandolin was a gateway drug to guitar. Soon after I managed to save enough cash to buy a Spanish Classical guitar and started learning properly. I couldn't afford tuition but a school friend lent me some sheet music and was gracious with his time to show me the basics of technique, so I was soon on my way. 
That friend of mine was called Graham, and his other role in this story was that he setup for me what would turn out to be a lifetime dilemma. He had been taking lessons and at about aged 14 he volunteered to do a concert in the school hall. What you have to know about Graham is that he was a very shy, quiet dude who wouldn't say boo to a goose. He was ginger, not Auburn but bright orange like a Belisha Beacon which became his nickname. I'd stepped in to stop him getting beaten up on more than one occasion as he was the sort of chap who got picked on a lot. But here he was, bold as brass in front of the whole school giving a recital of Sor and Tárrega. I was gob-smacked. Not only was I in awe of my friend's confidence but I knew that as an introvert myself, performing in front of a large number of people is about the last thing in the world I would want to do. My dilemma then was what goals to have as a musician if being in the spotlight wasn't one of them. This is something I wrestle with to the present day.
The thing is though, once you get the bug, playing music is a class-A drug. I love the physical production of sound, the fretting of a note. I love the action of changing its  pitch by bending and vibrating it. I relish the challenge of playing a new melody I just heard for the first time, picking up my guitar and figuring it out. When one starts to make combinations of sounds a whole new world opens up in which every note takes on a new life dancing with its partners in time which for musicians is a never-ending puzzle of mathematics and emotion that is somehow of capable of describing the greatest wonders of the universe to the human mind through the ears. As Mozart marvelled "If only the whole world could feel the power of harmony."
Somehow then I get endless entertainment from playing. There are downsides though. Practising is a necessary evil, especially with stringed instruments where it is necessary to maintain a certain degree of hard-skin and muscle memory. This can seriously piss-off any significant other who come to see your guitar as 'the other woman'. Gear envy is another big problem. There are so many instruments I'd love to buy if I had the money. As a non-musician you might look at all guitars as being pretty much the same, but when you're an enthusiast the nuance in sound between two instruments appears as a roaring chasm with green grass on the other side, a journey that someday somehow has to be made. I have a wish list on an online music shop that has been building up for years and it struck me recently that even if I could afford everything on the list I'd need a warehouse to store it all as my house would be far too small!
I was in several bands when I was a kid from about aged 14 and I had a love/hate relationship with performing. It paid money which was good. My first decent guitar came from gigging before I'd ever worked a proper day job. However I always felt uncomfortable on stage and hated being in the spotlight, i.e. when I was called upon to do a solo or something. However for some reason I kept on doing it, as though there was a greater purpose I was unaware of that needed to be pursued. 
Up until I moved to Spain in 2003 I'd always been a sideman, a musician in a band where someone else was the centre of attention, so I was generally fortunate not to have to be exposed to the spotlight too much. In Spain however I found myself in a situation with no fellow musicians to fall back on. I felt the calling to move forward and perform but I had no band, no friends to even jam or practice with. So out of necessity, I taught myself to sing and worked out a repertoire of songs to sing solo in a reasonable fashion. It took a while. A friend of mine who was a musical examiner gave me some vocal coaching lessons which was mainly about breathing and off I went. I did some local gigs and some busking and forced myself to become a solo performer. I can't emphasise enough how alien that idea would have been to me only a few years earlier, but for some reason I found the music driving me rather than the other way around.
Ten years ago there were a few domestic changes in my life and I found myself living in another part of Spain.  I immediately found there were more musicians here and struck up several friendships which I still cherish.  I soon began jamming with my partner-in-crime Nigel 'bad boy' Tucker and we gig together to this day. It works because Nigel enjoys the spotlight much more than I do. Initially we just played with two acoustic guitars. then I switched to acoustic bass, but this wasn't really loud enough, so we upgraded to electric bass, which in turn demanded a drum machine. As our music advanced though, I found myself increasingly drawn towards the production side. Then I figured out how to hack the drum machine so I could add other backing sounds like horns and organs until now we're a bit like a full band albeit with only two players.
Now I feel like all my Christmases have come at once. I get to perform without being the limelight, yet I'm getting all the satisfaction of arranging and producing all the music we play. My role is something of the unseen hand but it fulfils my original curious interest in music which is enjoying the endless fascination of how this stuff works. We don't do it for the money. A famous meme circulating online describes a musician as someone who puts $5000 worth of gear in a $500 car to drive 50 miles to a $50 gig. Well believe me, in this part of Spain, $50 gigs are few and far between, but as you can see for the reasons above, it's still very much worth it!

A tale of two wasted Ronda hospital visits

Getting seen by a specialist isn't so easy in 2020 lockdown Spain


I wanna tell you a story. Trouble is, I have a split audience. Most folk who actually bother to read my trivial weekly musings probably do so because they know me, so they'll know some of the back-story of my life that puts this tale in context. If you're one of those then feel free to skip the next paragraph. If not, here comes the exposition.
I live in Spain on a low income, basically a pension I took early. I don't own a car and I live in quite a remote little village called Olvera. Olvera has a medical centre where I can visit a GP, but for more specialist medical treatment I need to go to a regional hospital, such as the one in Ronda which is featured in this story, that is about an hours drive away. There is only one bus that leaves Olvera at seven in the morning and returns from the hospital at two in the afternoon.
Back in September 2019 I had a fall, nothing serious but I managed to land on my eye-ball, which became bloodshot and rather uncomfortable. I visited A&E who kindly patched me up. Then I made an appointment to see my GP who referred me to the ophthalmologist in Ronda. I waited a few months and was assigned an appointment at the end of January. My vision had still not returned to normal. I was seeing floaters and each time I blinked I briefly saw a pattern in the manner of a Rorschach test, which was less entertaining than it sounds, so I was quite eager to get the problem looked at.
The day finally came. I'm an anxious traveller at the best of times, but the big worry here is, with only one return bus, I knew if I missed it I'd probably be sleeping rough until the next day, as I couldn't afford a taxi or temporary accommodation. I don't mind living on a low income on a day-to-day basis (it's good for both my dietary health and carbon footprint), but unforeseen expenses can force difficult choices.
So with some trepidation, I boarded the bus on a brisk winter's morning and headed off to the hospital. My appointment was 11:25 so arriving at eight gave me time to kill. I walked around the hospital to familiarise myself with it. This was a fairly new building which only opened in 2017 and this was my first time there. I noted there was a mortuary around the back a bit too near to the rubbish bins for my liking, but otherwise everything seemed clean and new. I just wished they'ed painted it a jollier colour rather than choosing the very depressing battleship grey.
I made my way inside and found the ophthalmology department. Many people were already waiting. If you know nothing of Spanish culture, one thing a person rarely does here is visit a hospital alone. These are deeply family oriented people and a hospital visit will rarely be conducted without a pack of three or four folk from several generations, often with an advanced party to reconnoitre the layout of the building, locate vending machines and to grab the best seats like Germans putting their towels on the sun-loungers. I'm not mocking this behaviour, well perhaps just a tad. I'm actually rather envious of it. A English lady of my acquaintance found herself in a dual room with a Spanish patient some years back, and the Spanish patient's family were so horrified that the poor English lady had nobody visiting her at all hours of the day, that they adopted her and brought her food and gifts, holding her hand and generally treating her as part of the family. This is one of the many tales that I've heard over the years that speaks volumes about the best qualities of ordinary Spanish society.
I sat down and pulled out a book. As the hours rolled by, the people milling about soon outnumbered the chairs, of which there were many. I reckon that more than a hundred people must have come and gone.  The Coronavirus threat was still a distant problem exclusive to China at this point. Everyone was on top of everyone else, many with seasonal coughs and splutters. How I didn't pick up something nasty that day I'll never know.
The time of my appointment came and went. Then another hour went by. I attracted the attention of a nurse who double-checked I was in the right place and reassured me that they were very busy and that my time would soon come. Finally at ten minutes to two I still hadn't been called so I made the decision to bail. I went to the reception and asked to have my appointment rescheduled, then jumped on the bus back home.
Some months went by then I got a phone call saying a new appointment was available if I still wanted it. Then a letter arrived confirming the date of Monday 6th of April, an earlier appointment at 9:25 which should give me a better chance of being seen - yay! By this time of course, the world had changed thanks to a virus called COVID-19. Olvera was in lock-down. There was a one person per car rule and police were monitoring who came in and out of town.
Bus services had been reduced or in some cases scratched altogether. There was a lot of misinformation online as to which busses were running, whether one could still pay in cash or had to buy a ticket online or in advance from a ticket office. I spent a sizeable amount of time researching this in the week prior to the appointment. The bus company website had a link to a timetable that was dead, and the option to buy an advance ticket didn't work properly. I resorted to ringing the two phone numbers given on the website, and neither worked!!
Finally on the Friday I happened upon an obscure article in a Spanish newspaper saying the local 'urbano' busses in Ronda had to be pre-booked, and said that folk using Olvera busses that connect with them should ring in advance too. It seemed crazy but due to the lock-down, so few people are using the bus that they only run them if someone rings at least an hour before, signalling an intention to ride. I dialled the number and surprisingly it worked! I spoke to a chap who sounded equally as surprised as I was. I heard kids playing in the background suggesting it might be his home number. I explained my circumstances and he confirmed me a place on the Olvera/Ronda bus at 7 a.m. Monday 6th April returning at 2 p.m. He didn't express the need to take my name but this is Spain. A nod's as good as a wink to a blind donkey.
So Monday came and with the bus largely to myself I cruised majestically into the Ronda hospital car park, alighting at 8 a.m. I took my place in the waiting area. This time, the chairs, which were in banks of three, had the middle one labelled with a message saying "Don't use due to social distancing". I was the only one there. It was deathly quiet. I sat there reading my book and hardly a soul stirred save a grumpy looking chap riding a floor-washing machine. Then a masked nurse emerged from the surgery area.
"What are you doing here" she said, sounding so surprised she set my alarm bells off.
"I have an appointment this morning", I said and triumphantly thrust my document proving the fact into her rubber-gloved hand.
"All consultations were cancelled. You should have received a message last week. We will send you another one."
My heart sank as I recalled those two missed calls from an unknown number on my phone last Friday which I didn't see until the next day because I'd stupidly forgotten to turn off 'aeroplane mode' after my siesta.
"Bugger" I said, slipping back into English, and skulked off to find a dark corner in which to weep and spend five hours to wait for the only bus back home. Ronda is a pretty town, but it's not as though I could have gone for a nice walk and taken in the sights as the police would probably arrest me for tourism, such is the strangeness of the times. I finished my book, a cheerful tome (#ironyalert) called 'Feast of the Goat' by Mario Vargas Llosa, a novel about the final dark days of the Dominican Republic's fascist leader Rafael Trujillo. I pitted my wits against my phone and beat the little shit at Monopoly and Chess. I had a stroll around the hospital grounds and struck up a conversation with the gardener, who coincidentally, as I discovered, was born in Olvera. (Seemingly tending a hospital's gardens is an essential occupation conferring on him the right to escape lock-down. Who knew?) He turned out to be a conspiracy theorist who spent ten minutes solemnly confiding in me his view that Coronavirus was created in a Chinese weapons-grade bio-lab with the ultimate goal of destroying the Western economy.
Eventually two o'clock came and my driver arrived with the bus, which again I had all to myself. As we headed back, storm clouds were gathering, the sky over the sierras becoming black as pitch. Francisco the driver, who I now considered my personal chauffeur, delivered me to Olvera just as the rain began to fall. It had to really. It had been that sort of day! 
My wait to see the eye specialist continues, as does the lock-down. In both cases and in more ways than one, I'm unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel!

Lockdown Cooking Tips

How to make things last when its hard to shop
Now I'm not claiming to be a whizz in the kitchen, but I've endured some difficult times in Spain that have forced me to acquire some culinary discipline. I lost a cushy job selling houses for a Spanish estate agent chain thanks to the 2008 crash, and, being unable to qualify for benefits here, money got very tight. For a few months I was almost living on air. During that time I learned some important lessons which are becoming useful and relevant again, now I'm virtual house-arrest in the uber-tight Corona-virus lock-down here in Spain!
So in the unlikely event I might be able to help someone struggling to cope in these difficult times I thought I'd share a few tips I've picked up over the years. I shared some of these on the '48% Preppers' group on Facebook, a group that has been preparing for a no-deal Brexit for a number of years, and they were warmly received.
Firstly you can probably make vegetables last a lot longer than you may have thought possible. Take onions for example. I used to hold an onion by the stalk end and cut the bottom off, then take slices perpendicular to the stem because they're easy to use in sandwiches or chop for frying, then I'd throw the onion in the bottom of the fridge in the hope in might use the rest of it later. The problem is that when you chop the bottom off of an onion you're depriving it of the root, so the onion thinks it's dead (it is - you killed it when you chopped the root off!) A few days later when you go back in the fridge to retrieve the onion, the layers will have started to separate and the onion will start to go off and look very unappetising. The trick then is to take you onion and take slices from the side, parallel to the stem. Then keep the onion in sealed in a Tupperware box, so it hinders drying out. This will help the onion to keep believing its still alive while stopping any onion smell pervading your fridge. You can take four quarters away from the onion like this leaving the exposed centre it will still survive for a week or more, just because you took the trouble to keep the root in tact. 
If I buy a whole lettuce I never cut into it with a knife unless I plan to use the whole thing in one go. Cutting creates a wound from which moisture escape leading to oxidation triggering the death of the plant. Again with lettuce, like the onion, keep the root on and peel off leaves as you need them. If after a while the lettuce starts to wilt, this can often be remedied by placing the lettuce in a bowl of water overnight to give it a drink. If the root has calloused over, slice off a small section of a millimetre or so to expose the capillaries to the water. The lettuce will drink up water and be good for another week or so.
Moisture can be the enemy with a lot of veg. I often get a prepared salad rather than individual items because, living alone, I'd rather have the variety than buy lots of individual items that might end up getting not used. The problem with prepared salads is because they're chopped already, they tend to go off more quickly than individual items. One can delay the ageing of prepared salads by sealing them up, either in their original bag or in Tupperware, with a dry sheet of kitchen towel. The towel will soak up the moisture creeping out of the leaves, so preventing them going damp and mouldy so quickly.
Another thing I found is to know what is essential to have in your store cupboard. A lot of this is down to personal taste, but I like curry so I always have spices, chick peas, gram flour, wholemeal flour, tinned tomatoes and a couple of tins of coconut milk. It's amazing what you can pull off with just these simple ingredients. You can make a chick pea salad essentially with onions, oil, chick peas and a few spices. There are loads of recipes for chickpea salad online with cucumber, tomatoes, peppers etc but don't be precious about it, throw in what you have, it'll be fine! A great accompaniment for this is the world's easiest bread. You can make a chapati with wholemeal flour, salt and a little water. Mix into a fairly dry dough, roll it flat and cook on a fairly high heat a few minutes on each side. Cheap and quick!
Another good thing to have in the store cupboard is textured soy protein which keeps forever and can be used to run up chill-con-carne, spag-bol. burgers etc. I'm not a vegan so when I'm reconstituting it with hot water I stir in a little Bovril to get a good meaty taste going on. Bovril is another store-cupboard favourite of mine that keeps for ever and finds multiple uses like this whenever a spot of umami is required.
Sorry if you are a vegetarian but now I come to one of my favourite money-savers, a whole chicken. I'm in Spain and I can get a decent sized bird for about five euros and that will feed me for the best part of a fortnight. I'll roast the bird whole. For the first week I'll have maybe a chicken salad, chicken and chips or have roast chicken, spuds, veg and gravy for dinner in the evening and a chicken sandwich or chicken omelette for breakfast. Then, as I'm down to the carcass I'll generally boil it up to get as much meat off it as possible. Then I can use that for soup, or any number of other dishes. I've found the one that goes furthest is chicken biryani. The way I do that is I'll whizz up some garlic, lemon and fresh ginger to make a tikka masala paste, throw in my preferred spices, coriander, cumin, asafoetida, salt, pepper,  chilli powder etc and add that to a pot of yogurt to make a marinade. I'll let the chicken soak in that over night, then the next day I'll make a batch of pilau rice. When the rice is pretty near done, I'll put the marinaded chicken in a baking dish, pour the rice over the top, cover with foil then bake in the oven on 180c for half an hour. When I take it out I stir it all together and there it is - the perfect 'cheats' biryani.
I find biryani a complete meal in itself though sometimes I'll put a little chopped mint and onion in a pot of yogurt as a make-do raita to go with it, but either way I'll usually get about five or six portions out of the one chicken's leftovers so as I say, the one bird almost stretches to a fortnight, which is what you need when the local police and the army are trying to discourage people from making unnecessary trips to the shops. Now if only I'd had the foresight to buy some demijohn's to make my own wine. "Alexa?..."