Thursday, 31 December 2009

¡Feliz Navidad!

Merry Christmas, in other words, though the concept of Christmas is somewhat different here in Spain. The whole period from Christmas to Epiphany is encompassed in the term, rather than the more limited time generally referred to in the north of Europe. Most towns and villages are decorated with coloured lights, often quite elaborate, and a commercial frenzy accompanies the mid-winter feast, now largely taken over by the Catholic church. I'm sure that few Spaniards are aware of the real nature of Christmas: a time to celebrate the end of the darker days and the coming of the new light, with deliciously pagan symbolism, including green trees, imitation fruits to hang on the trees (the decorations) and the Spirit of Winter himself, now transformed into Papa Noël/Father Christmas/Santa Claus and anything else but the "real" thing.

At Christmastime, almost every town and village in Spain is illuminated with special Christmas lights strung across the streets and has a tree in its main square. On a rather more traditional level, seasonal songs, of both a religious and a lay nature, called villancicos, are sung to the accompaniment of pandaretas (small tambourines) and zambombas (a small drum, which has a rubbing-stick stuck into it. Another very popular tradition is that of the Belén (Bethlehem), a sort of nativity scene, though often not limited to a mere stable; instead a complete village is reproduced, often including moving parts and running water. I provide an idea of both a villancico and a Belén (that of Guardamar) in this YouTube film.

The gathering of the family is an important part of the Spanish Christmas and this occurs on any or all of the three most important dates of the season: la nochebuena (Christmas Eve), la nochevieja (New Year's Eve), and los Reyes Magos (5 January, the eve of Epiphany).

The most important family gathering and dinner of the year is undoubtedly la nochebuena (literally, the good night). Culinary traditions vary in different parts of the country, but it is likely that some roast lamb or sea-bream will be prepared as the main course, with turrón as at least one element of the postre, or dessert. Turrón is a delicious confectionery, made of almonds, honey, and sugar, presented in various forms from soft to very hard. The meal is often followed by a visit to la misa del gallo, or midnight mass (though literally the cockerel's mass).

La nochevieja (literally, the old night), is another excuse for a family gathering, which includes the peculiar tradition of eating twelve grapes, one for each strike of the clock at midnight. ("Traditional" is saying a lot in this context, as the exercise dates only from the early part of the 20th century, when an extremely large grape harvest made the growers think of some clever way to sell more of their produce.) As well as family get-togethers, many Spaniards congregate in town squares, wherever there is a large clock, to welcome in the New Year. Partying then continues well into the early hours of the morning.

During all this time, the children are most looking forward to the night of 5 January, when los Reyes Magos (the Three Kings) come to distribute gifts. Prior to this, most towns will have welcomed the kings in large processions and the children will have been given the opportunity to either hand their letters, containing their wish-list, either to the kings in person (special podia are set up, with thrones and attendants) or through the Royal Postman, stationed in strategic positions throughout the land (usually in department stores, of course).

On the morning of Epiphany itself, breakfast often includes el Roscón de Reyes, a ring-shaped sweet bread, filled with preserved fruits, often angelica. Hidden in the bread is a figurine and a bean. Whoever finds the figurine is allowed to wear a golden crown, but the finder of the bean must pay for the drinks.

Friday, 25 December 2009

Fountain of Love

When I was younger and, indeed, when I was not so young, I loved Sherbet Fountains. They were a confectionery, consisting of some basic white sherbet and a "straw" of liquorice through which to suck it. These ingredients were packaged in a thin cardboard tube, wrapped in yellow paper that was twisted tightly around the liquorice that stuck out of the top. As you sucked on the liquorice in an often vain attempt at extracting the sherbet (which would eventually overcome its blockage and shoot up the back of your throat, into your nose causing an excruciatingly pleasant discomfort), the paper wrapped around the liquorice would gradually become wetter and gunkier. Delicious!

Sherbet Fountains became less available once I moved to Belgium, but on the occasional visit to the UK, I would stock up on them, even though they were becoming increasingly difficult to find. I countered this by simply buying a boxful at a time, much to the surprise and delight of the lucky shopkeeper. Then, as I became still older, the search for SFs gradually ceased, though even then, they were always in the back of my mind. I must admit that, now that we live in Spain, I didn't think I'd suck on the fountain again.

Well, look what I've received for Christmas: four (read my lips: four) tubes of this wonderful confection, the genuine Toot-sweet (eat your heart out Dick Van Dyke, but I forgive you Sally Ann Howes). The ingredients remain the same; well, I expect some Health Mogul has fiddled with them a bit, but they certainly look the same. The packaging on the other hand, has taken a quantum leap and now resembles something fit for launching into outer space. It's all high-tech plastic, including a super-hygienic top that imitates the liquorice tube, but is also made of plastic and must be removed to reveal the real thing inside.

Ah, joy! What a wonderful way to spend a Christmas..

My only problem is that I must now work out a rationing scheme in order to stretch out the pleasure as long as possible…

Thursday, 24 December 2009

It's Impossible

I am always amazed and saddened when someone says, "I can't," when referring to any mental task that needs to be undertaken. This usually takes the form of learning something new: a language, a way of doing something, new technologies, whatever.

"I can't" provides the perfect get-out, allowing its pronouncer to huddle down into a comfortable, easy, effortless way of life. It rarely has any significance, other than as a reflection of the unwillingness of its user to put themselves out in order to achieve whatever they insist that they are unable to do.

I have heard "I can't" so often since being in Spain. Most of the people Elise and I become acquainted with are fairly old, sixty and upward. They use the excuse to justify their apparent inability to learn the Spanish language. "I can't, because I'm too old." "I can't, because I don't speak to Spanish people." "I can't, because they speak too fast." "I can't, because they always want to speak English to me." And so on. If an excuse can be found, then these people will surely find it and make use of it to prove that "I can't."

Nonsense. Sheer, utter nonsense.

You are never too old to learn something new, let alone a language. Indeed, learning a language is a natural process that we have all gone through when we had far more reason to say "I can't," (not that we could) as very small children, learning our native language.

The oldies often think that if they go to so-called language lessons once or twice a week, then this will be sufficient to allow them to be able to learn Spanish. The lessons last all of an hour or so and, given that most of the pupils have little or no idea of grammar, even the most basic grammar, that they have not been in a classroom for forty or fifty years, that they do not have the self-discipline to pay sufficient attention during the classes and certainly not to do any homework adequately, then it is little surprise that early high expectations are soon dashed, that attendance drops and that the experiment ends in inevitable failure.

Do these people really not understand that they live in the best school there is to learn Spanish? They live in Spain, a country populated by millions of people who speak the language fluently; a country with perfectly good television and radio stations that transmit in Spanish, a country with bookshops that sell books printed in Spanish, a country with shops where the sales assistants speak Spanish.

The very best way to learn a language is to use it. It sounds simple and it is! However, it requires an effort. It means that you will struggle; it means that you will make mistakes; it means that you will not understand and will have to ask the speaker to repeat and repeat again. But the effort will be worth it and in a few years you really will be able to understand and be able to be understood. How well you will be able to do so will depend only on the amount you immerse yourself in the language: if you live in an area where nobody speaks anything but Spanish, you will become almost fluent in a relatively short time (I was almost fluent in Dutch with a year when I lived in Belgium in a similar environment); if, on the other hand, you limit yourself to only the occasional practical use of Spanish and otherwise exist in an English-speaking environment (or whatever your "normal" language is), then you will likely never become fluent and it will be several years before you will be able to partake in even the simplest of conversations.

It all depends on the amount of effort you are prepared to make! And don't come up with the excuse that I hear more often than any other: "I'm too old and can't retain things like the youngsters." Rubbish! You use a very small percentage of your brain-capacity and there is plenty of room for more information to be stored. The reason you might not be able to learn as quickly as a child is that you have other things to worry about: what's for the next meal, when is the next electricity bill due, when shall we get the new furniture (and how shall we pay for it)…?

So forget the "I can't," and instead be prepared for an effort, filled with both frustration and joy.

Use Spanish at every opportunity: shop in Spanish, go to Spanish restaurants and order in Spanish, ask directions in Spanish, strike up conversations in Spanish. Carry a small dictionary with you, or a PDA loaded with a Spanish dictionary (I found this particularly useful when I started). If you know the sort of situation you are going to have to face, then prepare yourself for it: look up the words you might need and memorise a few apt phrases; in the beginning, one of the most useful phrases is one to ask your interlocutor to speak more slowly.

Read Spanish books. Start out with the simplest of books for very small children and use a dictionary to try to follow the tale. At first this will seem like hell and it will take forever to read and (perhaps) understand even the simplest story. You will have to look up almost every word and many you will not find in a dictionary simply because you do not know the infinitive forms of conjugated verbs. Don't worry! Try to work out a meaning of the word you see given its context and if this doesn't work, then just carry on. You will be surprised how much this helps your vocabulary (which will be passive at first, but that's quite normal).

Watch Spanish television (ban Sky, BBC, ITV and any other national channels). Spain has a full digital terrestrial service (TDT and it's free), so watch the news and a few other programmes in Spanish (as a reward, you can watch a few series in English, or German, or French… thanks to the digital nature of the transmissions). In the beginning, you will understand almost nothing the presenters say, as they will seem to speak so quickly. Don't worry. With time you will start to pick out words, then sentences, and in a few months, assuming you make the effort (see, it again requires effort) to watch every day. Leave talk programmes on in the background in order to allow yourself to get used to the sound of Spanish and to hear different accents.

And, talking about accents, try to eliminate or at least disguise your "foreign" accent: don't ask for "Oon caffay con letchay, paw favaw," but attempt to shorten the vowels and roll the "r"s to make it "Por favor, un café con leche." Listen to how the Spaniards say it! Also, take note of stress marks: Spanish has a few simple rules about stress (normally, you stress the last-but-one syllable), but stress marks override these rules and indictas how a word must be pronounced. Near Guardamar is the village of Almoradí. See the stress mark on the final "i"? (It looks like an accent, but serves a different function.) Well, that indicates that instead of saying "AlmorAHdi" (following the normal rule of stress), you must say "AlmoradEE," with the stress on the final syllable. So a written Spanish word actually shows you how to pronounce it!

Have absolutely no worries about making mistakes. You make mistakes in your own language (you might not know it, but you certainly do) and it is only to be expected that you will make mistakes in a language that you are learning. I was once in a market and She Who Must Be Obeyed wanted cushions larger than those on display, so at each stall I asked the stallholders if they had "Cojones más grandes," to which I inevitably got a huge smile back, even as they explained these were the only ones available. I discovered later that I had used cojón instead of cojín and that cojón means something quite different (you are free to look it up)! The point of spoken language is to get your ideas across to someone else; if there are mistakes, it really doesn't matter (formal written language is a different kettle of fish), so don't worry about making them. Certainly in the beginning, you will have to struggle to get even the simplest ideas across, but that will gradually improve. The secret is, the greater the effort, the quicker the improvement.

Something I have found very useful in learning Spanish, or, at least, increasing my vocabulary, is to do crosswords and other word puzzles. You really need a dictionary of synonyms to start off with this, or perhaps a good school dictionary (Santillana publishes the excellent Diccionario Escolar de la Lengua Española. I also watch Spanish game shows, such as Pasapalabra (quite impossible to follow for the first year, as they really do speak very quickly), Saber y Ganar, and Password. But perhaps this is for just a little bit further down the learning line.

Don't think that you will ever truly become a totally fluent, perfect speaker of the language. To achieve that takes years and years of major effort and practice. You will never fully eradicate your "foreign" accent, but all languages have accents, and Spanish is certainly no exception, so you are just adding to the vast selection already available. Native speakers will always recognise you as a foreigner and that's fine, as they will admire your effort and determination to speak to them in their language, as befits a guest in their country. I lived for 35 years in Belgium and could speak Dutch quite well, but always with a slight accent. When I speak English, English people recognise that I am Welsh, even though I left Wales when I was nine years old! You don't get rid of your origins that easily! (That still doesn't excuse Oon caffay con letchay, however!)

To make things more interesting, learn a bit about Spanish history and culture. Both topics are amazingly interesting. I know that many towns and villages refer to their older buildings as monumentos when they often do not merit the description monument, but look further than the tourist industry's hyperbole and linguistic nuances to discover the wonderful cultural mix that Spain was before the Catholics destroyed it. A better perspective on the people and their history should make the language even more interesting to learn.

In the meantime, use the best school there is, Spain itself, and get out and try to make practical use of the language. Forget your inhibitions, forget your worries, just get on with it and, above all, stop saying "I can't." Soon you'll be saying "No puedo," and that's a lot better!

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

All I Want for Christmas

The tree in Guardamar is now fully decorated and even has a large star on the top. The base has been enclosed by wooden panels, but these still have to be covered with some green artificial grass to finish it off — someone was measuring this up this morning, so it should be just about ready for Christmas. Looks good!

When I was young and living in Wales, we naturally had a coal fire. Each year we children would write our Christmas wishes on a piece of paper, which we put up the chimney for Santa to find and act upon. Most wishes were for bikes, Davey Crocket hats, Magic Robots, train sets, and suchlike. By brother, Brian, had other ideas. He clearly had grievances. Trouble was, his problems involved his younger brother: me! He made no bones about it in his note to Santa, either, which has been carefully preserved during the intervening years (going on sixty now!).

He writes,
To fatherxmas,
David sxi is note
pleas dont bring toys
becous he wount
lendt his toys
t henebody


The rotter didn't even have the guts to sign his treacherous note, but he did have the gall to underline it.

So much for the season of brotherly love…

Take time out to spare a thought for the turkeys in the turkey farms, all reading in the latest edition of the Turkey Times about the forthcoming Great Turkey Christmas Outing: We won't say where we'll be taking you, but we promise you a hot time and that you'll be the centre of attention.

Little do they know…

Friday, 27 November 2009

Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

The Christmas tree has been erected in the town square of Guardamar.

Each year, Guardamar has a "different" tree: last year's tree was made of hundreds of white plastic bags, each containing the written wish of the person who gave the bag. This year's tree is made of a central wooden stem to which have been fixed numerous dried flowers from the many Agave americana plants that grow around Guardamar. The Agaves were first brought to Guardamar by Francisco Mira i Botella, when he used them as part of his successful plan to prevent the town from being submerged under advancing sand dunes.

Agave americana, or century plant, is the best known and most widely cultivated species of Agave, producing very large and dangerously pointed bluish-grey leaves in a tight rosette formation. The flower grows from the centre, straight up, on a stalk that can reach well over 5 metres in height, carrying many yellow flowers.

The Guardamar tree has been decorated by over a thousand children from local schools. Each child made a red decoration in the shape of a ball, a heart, or a star, carrying their name. Televisión Guardamar has a short news item about the tree and the children.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Just a Little Bit of Green

I have just finished reading How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn.

Given the author's name, the subject of the book, and the renown in which the book is held, together with the fact that I originate from the Rhondda Valleys, I felt I should read the book and would enjoy doing so.

Big mistake.

What a strange book it turns out to be, with the author offering a strangely twisted view of life in a coal-mining community around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Llewellyn seems to have the timing of the story all wrong, with lush pastures and clear streams abounding in an area apparently full of mines, but where houses still have to be built along the valley sides. By the time of his tale (never specifically stated, but identifiable through references to Victoria, the Boer War and other temporally confused events), the Valleys were already blackened with coal tips and coal dust and the mine owners had already crowded the floors and sides of the valleys with row upon row of crammed houses (now quaintly referred to as cottages, for some inexplicable reason). The rivers that cut through the valleys were already dead and blackened, unlike the trout-filled, green-sided river of Huw Morgan's valley.

If Llewellyn's timing is off, then his representation of the Welshness of his characters is just as far from the mark. The author's attempt to emulate the way they speak borders on the comical. By the time of the story, little Welsh was still spoken in the Valleys, wiped out by English overlords and the influx of outside workers, yet all of Llewellyn's main characters (and there are many of them) are depicted as doing so through the means of supposedly direct translation into English, which merely results in nonsense: "my little one" is simply no substitute for "bach", but that is just a drop from the ocean of rubbish that Llewellyn pours into his pages of conversational interchange.

The characters themselves are good enough, as is the basis of the story, but the whole is a great disappointment.

But if you're looking for disappointments, try John Ford's 1941 film of Llewellyn's tale. Unbelievably, in 1990, How Green Was My Valley was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The Americans must have a very warped idea of any of those three categories. The film makes a total mockery of Welsh (and, more particularly, Valley) culture, is historical hogwash and aesthetically a bizarre mixture of inaccuracies. Any research prior to the film being made must have been minimal at best: the geography is wrong, the accents are wrong, the houses are wrong, the location of the mine is wrong (at the top of a mountain, would you believe!)… The film is, quite honestly, a load of tat and deserves to be flushed down the great sewer of cinematography, rather than praised as anything significant at all. There seems to be only one genuine Welsh accent in the film (there are Irish, English, American, and, I'm sure, even an Austrian accent), but the owner of this accent, the character Dai Bando, is portrayed as little more than a buffoon, very different from the book's interpretation. The mountains are wrongly shaped, there is even something approaching yodelling at one stage, the houses are like palaces, massive places, quite out of keeping with the reality of the time. The Library of Congress would do better to classify it as a poor parody, insulting to the Welsh, and both culturally and historically inaccurate. Nonsense, the whole thing, and best left to one side.

The book is bad, but the film is infinitely worse. Indeed, the film attempts to condense the ten years or so of the book's tale into what seems to be no more than a year: it is neither convincing nor successful.

A far more accurate depiction of Wales in general and the Valleys in particular, as they were in the first part of the 19th century, can be found in George Borrow's excellent book, Wild Wales. An online version of the book can be found here.

(Thanks to FreeFoto.com for the use of the photo, showing part of Treherbert, in the Rhondda Valley.)

Friday, 6 November 2009

What Now, What Next, Where To…

As it was my birthday today, She Who Must Be Obeyed decided that we should visit the Museo del Turrón (Turron Museum) in Jijona (also known as Xixona). Turrón is a type of nougat, made with almonds. Originally there was just a hard variety (turrón de Alicante), but a soft sort was developed in the 19th century (turrón de Jijona) and nowadays turrón is used to refer to all sorts of confections sold in slab form, even down to bars of chocolate.

According to the museum's folder, the museum is attached to the factory, which can also be visited until the end of November, when production ceases for the season. It's 6 November today, a long way from the end of November. Nevertheless, the factory was closed (Cerrado por la crisis was given as the reason), so that was disappointing, especially as the museum visit was done with a guide, who had clearly seen everything before and was only interested in getting the visit over as quickly as possible. Pity, as the two display rooms seemed to contain some interesting items and plenty of written explanations, that served nothing, given the rate at which we flew past.

On the way home we decided we would stop in Guardamar for a meal at our favourite Chinese restaurant. But first, we'd go to the Bricolaje to buy some paint. When we got to the Bricolaje, it was closed because of death (Cerrado por defunción), so we had to find another shop that sold the paint we wanted. Then on to the restaurant, but when we got there, it was closed for holidays (Cerrado por vacaciones), so we had to find another restaurant that took our fancy.

Cerrado por la crisis; Cerrado por defunción; Cerrado por vacaciones…

At least the house was still open when we got back home.

Monday, 2 November 2009

I'm Counting On You…

Last night it dawned on me that, not only had I celebrated my 38th wedding anniversary just a few days ago and that I would be 61 years old in just a few days time, but that I had started working with computers over 40 years ago. That's a long time!

When I left school in 1967, I'd had more than enough of organised academia, but for some reason chose to go into the "safe" career of banking. It didn't take me long with bowler-hatted nine-to-fivers for me to realise that I had made a big mistake and so I started thinking about something I had already examined during my time at school: computing. I figured it was something with a future, though was warned by the manager of the National Westminster branch for which I worked (Grosvenor Gardens, I think it was — it overlooked the gardens of Buckingham Palace and was not far from the National Coal Board) that I would become a robot, a machine, and would end up nowhere. Such discouraging words only served to spur me on and soon I became a trainee programmer for what was then Elders and Fyffes and would soon become the Fyffes Group. This was in about September 1968.

Fyffes had an IBM 360 Model 20 computer, housed in a special room, with false floor, air-conditioning and a sort of air-lock entrance. The machine itself had a CPU with 16K central storage (core storage I think it was called, and, yes, you read that correctly — a tad more than 16,000 bytes), three removable hard disks, each of a massive 2.5 megabytes, two magnetic tape decks, a punched-tape reader, an 80-column card-reader, and a stunning 1200 lines-per-minute chain printer (did you get that? 1200 LPM, with each line containing 128 characters). Doing a core-dump really made the paper spew out of that machine!

Fyffes also had some legacy equipment, made up of IBM collators, tabulators, and other -ors I'm sure, which were programmed through plugboards or "control panels" that consisted of a matrix of connectors: using wires, one set up circuits between these connectors in order to achieve the desired result. A sort of hard programming, I suppose. You can see machines of this sort if you got to this page. I made a few programs on these machines whilst learning how to operate the Model 20, but soon moved to the programming department proper, where I learned RPG and Basic Assembler.

The legacy equipment was hardly used, but the Model 20 served to provide all of the sales statistics for the UK, as well as the personnel management and accounting.

Soon Fyffes decided to replace the Model 20 with a Model 30, so a big conversion was required and I also had to learn PL/1, which was a new general-purpose language being touted at the time by IBM (presumably as an alternative, in Fyffes's case, to COBOL). I wrote a few programs in the language, but soon moved, along with several other members of Fyffes DP section, to (take a deep breath) Futcher, Head, Smith and Tucker, a group of accountants in a rather run-down part of London, near Liverpool Street station. It was back to RPG there, working again on an IBM 360 Model 30.

In August 1971 I moved to Belgium. But that's for later.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

I Never Promised You A Rose Garden

Stapelia grandiflora originates from the Transvaal in South Africa and is a very common succulent. It is easy to grow and quite interesting, with a big variety of colour in its flowers. However, the flowers are not grown for their beauty, nor for their perfume, which is quite evil smelling and gives rise to the popular name for Stapelia, namely "carrion plant." The idea, of course, is to attract insects and flies that otherwise go to rotting meat, in order for them to pollinate the plant.
I've had a Stapelia for just over three years and it has produced many other plants from cuttings. The "mother plant" is still thriving, though, and has just produced its second flower this year (with several others to come by the look of things). It takes a while for a flower bud to reach its mature size, but then things go quite quickly, especially on a warm day like today. In the course of just a few hours, the flower developed fully, as can be seen in this series of photos.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Chwarae Teg

Not too long ago I had problems getting my UK passport renewed (see UK Passport Service, Passport Control, High Noon). Then, to add insult to injury, my long-awaited, brand-spanking-new passport was stolen on its first outing (see previous post) and I had to go through the passport request procedure all over again (and the procedure to report the loss or theft of a passport). Even worse, I had to pay for the whole thing over again; no less than 156.25 euro (delivery included).
But, chwarae teg, the Passport Service did a good job this time round. I sent the duly completed stack of forms by registered post to the UK Passport Service in Madrid on 8 October, just two weeks ago, and at mid-day today, yes today, the new passport was delivered by DHL, all present and correct (and still looking very much like a bird-watcher's handbook). At least this time I didn't have to phone several times to discover what had happened to my application (later to find that those phone calls cost me over 30 euro!). No, a good job this time, so fair's fair.

(Chwarae teg is a Welsh expression, meaning "fair play" and suchlike.)

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Papa's Got A Brand New Bag

Elise and I drove up to Belgium at the end of September. On the way we stopped at Girona, in the north of Spain and Albi, in the south of France. Both places are well worth a visit. The drive up went easily enough and without incident. Coming back, however, was a different story. All went well until we stopped at a motorway service area near the town of Tarragona, in the north of Spain. After filling the car with petrol, I parked at the side of the station's store and stayed in the car, while Elise went inside to make use of the facilities. Hearing someone who was clearly in distress, I looked around and saw a man on a mobile phone, just a few metres from the car, beckoning for me to come. Thinking he needed help, I went straight to him and he babbled questions in Spanish, but spoken with a foreign accent: do you speak German/how far is it to Barcelona/how much time is it to Barcelona…? Suddenly, he seemed to be satisfied and rushed off to a car that was then waiting for him. The car sped off, with him inside it. I went back to my own car, thinking he was a bit strange, but with no thoughts of ill-doings.
Elise soon returned and off we drove. After a few minutes, Elise asked where her bag was. She had left it on the floor of the car, in front of her seat, when she went into the service station's store. It didn't take long for us to realise what had happened: during that brief distraction, someone else must have quickly opened the car door and snatched the bag. A clever distraction, making use of the willingness of another to offer assistance.
As we were travelling back to our home in Spain from Belgium, the bag contained our passports, Elise's ID card, her digital camera, her sugar-level meter, her bank cards, her house keys, her car keys… a whole host of things, none really irreplaceable (other than the bag itself, which she had bought for her sixtieth birthday and was very fond of), but which require a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in order to be replaced. We first blocked the bank cards, then we made a "denuncia" (a statement to the police); on arriving home, we had the house locks changed, the car locks recoded, visited the consulates for Elise's Belgian passport and ID and my UK passport, had new photos taken, filled in and sent off all the necessary forms, visited the insurance company, and so on. All just hassle, really.
Oh, on the insurance front, there seems to be a difference between "theft" and "robbery": theft does not involve violence of any kind (and no violence was reported in the denuncia); robbery involves any level of viiolence, no matter how small -- a push might even be sufficient. Our travel insurance covers only theft, so we are likely only to receive the 200 euro maximum allowed in such a case (the insurance also covers the change of house locks). We estimate the total loss to be something over 1000 euro. Still, we were not hurt and are an experience wiser, so there are positive aspects.
It's just a pity that in future I shall think twice before going to help someone.
(The photo shows Elise in Girona, wearing the stolen bag and using the stolen camera.)

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Tower Of Strength

Spain is full of surprises. Unfortunately, it seems that even the Spanish people themselves are largely unaware of the rich variety of their country historically, culturally, naturally and otherwise. Perhaps this is because there is just so much in every aspect that they become flippant. This certainly seems to be the case with the general disrespect of nature, with open spaces sadly filled with rubbish, showing a total disregard for the wonderful countryside. I'm sure that another reason is the dominance of the Catholic church, which has channelled almost all thought to a host of virgins and a never-ending series of processions. Still, that's another matter. Here I want to point out something quite different: the highest structure in the European Union (if it isn't now, it soon will be—in this respect, see my earlier "Looking High, High, High" entry, too.)

Even the local people who live around La Torreta are surprised to hear that it is the tallest building in the EU. "Taller than the Eiffel tower?" is the most frequent response, so here's an illustration to show just how much taller La Torreta is. Incidentally, there are plenty of other radio masts that are taller than the Eiffel tower, though most of these seem to be in Eastern Europe. Still, the Eiffel tower with its 320.75 metres (including its TV mast) is quite a way down the list and is almost 50 metres shorter than the 370 metres high La Torreta de Guardamar.

If you would like to see some photos of La Torreta de Guardamar, please visit my Picasa Web Album.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Let's Have A Party

In the north of Europe we have our Patron Saints, such as Saint David (Dewi Sant) in Wales. Here in Spain the patron tends to be a representation of the Virgin Mary (a term originating from a poor translation from the original Hebrew word 'almah, but that's another story). In El Campo de Guardamar, the patron is the Virgin of Fatima's Rosary and she is honoured in fiestas that take place each year during September. This year, these fiestas stretch from 5 until 20 September.

The programme of events is as follows:

Saturday, 5 September:
13:00 Firing of rockets to announce the start of the fiestas
16:00 Start of domino championship
23:00 Fiesta speech, given by veterinary doctor Julián Huertas Aracil
01:30 Crowning of Fiesta Queens, followed by disco dance, including live group Los Chiquillos

Sunday, 6 September:
10:00 Fiesta bar is open
14:00 Traditional paella cooking competition (Tables can be reserved from 10:00. Firewood and beer provided by fiesta committee.)
17:00 Bingo with plenty of prizes
18:00 Children's fair

Saturday, 12 September:
16:00 Bar opens and domino championship continues
23:00 Game shows, including Tú si que vales (something like The Gong Show). Anyone wishing to take part should contact a member of the Fiesta Committee. Also a surprise performance…
03:00 Traditional hot chocolate and La Mata Monas (a sort of cake)

Sunday, 13 September:
12:00 Open-air mass in Los Limoneros, followed by presentation of flowers in the chapel of El Campo
19:00 Groups accompany the Fiesta Queens and ladies in waiting from the chapel to the start of the carnival
20:00 Colourful carnival parade with three prizes offered to groups of more than 5 people, each of whom will receive a prize. Prizes are offered for:
Biggest group (most participants);
Best costumes;
Best coreography.
22:00 Following the parade, fireworks display.

Saturday, 19 September:
16:00 Bar opens and final of domino championship
22:00 Dinner and dance; bring your own food, but an aperitif and the wine is provided
23:00 Musical revue
.
Sunday, 20 September:
16:00 Bar opens and final of domino championship
10:30 Bikers breakfast: come on a motorbike; each of the first 300 participants will receive a gift bag.
Because of inclement conditions last week (it rained a bit), the Carnival Parade has been postponed to this weekend:
19:00 Groups accompany the Fiesta Queens and ladies in waiting from the chapel to the start of the carnival
20:00 Colourful carnival parade with three prizes offered to groups of more than 5 people, each of whom will receive a prize. Prizes are offered for:
Biggest group (most participants);
Best costumes;
Best coreography.
22:00 Following the parade, fireworks display.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Crumbs!

When I had an aquarium, some 30 years ago, I used to bake all our bread. I know, that sounds like a very strange juxtaposition, but I found the light-cap which was used to illuminate the aquarium made an excellent surface on which to prove the bread-dough.

Of course, in those days I needed to knead the dough by hand and this had to be repeated until the final rise was completed and the bread could be baked. Usually I baked five or six loaves at a time. The dough was made with flour freshly ground at our local windmill. I kid you not! Just up the road from where we lived in Horebeke, a small village between Oudenaarde and Zottegem, in East Flanders (Oost Vlaanderen), was a wooden windmill, called the Tissenhovemolen. Such a chance could not be missed, of course—be honest, how often have you seen the flour you use actually as grains poured into a funnel to find their way between the massive grinding millstones, all the while surrounded by the creakings and rumblings of a wonderful wooden windmill? Good flour it was, too!

We moved away from Horebeke in the mid-1990s, by which time the aquarium was long gone and the only bread we baked was made in a bread machine. It was good bread, nevertheless (or so Elise tells me; I have little time for the actual process of eating anything, let alone bread). Eventually the bread machine went the way of all modern machines and wasn't replaced as by then we lived close to a real baker—someone whose shop had a full bakery behind it and who got up at about two in the morning to have fresh bread ready for his early morning customers. I must admit that I was more interested in his Tom Poesen (large custard cream slices) than in his bread, and his eclairs were also quite exquisite.

Anyway, we're here in Spain now and the idea of a bread machine appealed to Elise again some months ago. Not that there's anything wrong with the bread that is available here: for me, the barras are perfectly good and there are more "wholesome" loaves to choose from, too. But She Who Is To Be Obeyed had decided that we should have a bread machine, so a bread machine we bought. I started with the few basic recipes that were provided in the instruction booklet, and they worked fine, but lately I have been experimenting with my own mixtures and some of these produce good results, so here's one you might wish to try if you, too, have a bread machine.

Perhaps I should first mention that the machine I use is a Moulinex Home Bread. Whatever machine you have, it is important to add the ingredients in the same order in which they are listed:

Ingredients:
2 teaspoons of olive oil (or sunflower oil);
295 ml of liquid (I use half milk and half water);
2 teaspoons of salt;
2 teaspoons of sugar (I use dark brown sugar and tend to add a bit for luck);
125 gr plain white flour;
175 gr wholemeal flour;
200 gr strong white flour;
a handful of quite finely chopped nuts (I use walnuts, hazelnuts and pumpkin seeds);
1 teaspoon of bakers yeast (I use half a sachet of Maizena Levadura de panadería, which is equivalent to 7 gr of fresh yeast)

Simply put the ingredients in the machine's baking pan in the above sequence, finally sprinkling the yeast over the whole surface. I then use the programme for wholemeal bread (on our machine, that's programme 4), with the browning setting at maximum.

Enjoy.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Slippin' and Slidin'

The recent flash floods in parts of Spain, most notably in Jaén, where rivers of mud flowed through a number of villages, and the terrible mudslides in Taiwan, brought to mind the coaltip slide in the Welsh village of Aberfan.

The problems in Spain and Taiwan were almost unavoidable, caused by highly unusual weather conditions and with no warning. Aberfan was different. There, 144 people, including 116 children were killed in 1966 because of the stubbornness of the National Coal Board and, more specifically, the chairman of that organisation, Lord Robens of Woldingham.

Aberfan is a small village situated in one of the former coalmining valleys of South Wales, a few kilometres south of Merthyr Tydfil. Like most (all?) mining villages at the time, the slopes of its valley were dominated by coal tips. When I lived in Gelli, in the Rhondda Valley, during the 1950s, I would climb up the valley sides to play on the tips—they made great slides and you could get really dirty. (Heaven only knows what else was tipped there, but the lake (it was probably no more than a pond, but it seemed like a lake in the eyes of the child) in one of the tips contained a red liquid.) At the time, too, we were used to tips creeping down the valley sides, gradually approaching the rows of houses towards the bottom of the valley. There were no safety precautions for these tips, neither for their placement, nor for their further exploitation. Several of the tips above Aberfan had been built up over a number of springs, that were clearly marked on maps made prior to the initiation of tipping.

The seepage of water from the springs below the tips, combined with effects of several days of rain, had already caused warnings to be raised about the possibility of an imminent tip slide. The warnings were ignored. On the morning of 21 October 1966, just as the children of the Pantglas junior school had finished assembly and were starting classes, a huge mass of rocks and slag separated from the tip and bore down onto the school itself and the houses of Moy Road, 20 of which were literally demolished. Part of the school was simply wiped out as the slide surged into the classrooms, killing some instantly, while others had a slower death under the blackness. Despite frantic rescue efforts that went on for hours and hours, no child was found alive after 11 o'clock that morning.

Robens, an Englishman, was informed of the disaster, but instead chose to go to his own investiture as chancellor of the University of Surrey, putting a silly ceremony at an English university before the lives of the Welsh schoolchildren. The NCB's attitude was further demonstrated by its officials when the Secretary of State for Wales tried to contact Robens in Aberfan, only to be told by them that Robens was personally directing rescue work, when he simply wasn't there. He turned up during the evening of the next day, and then took cynicism a step further by telling a reporter that the accident was unavoidable and attributing it to natural and unknown springs below the tip—a blatant lie, as the springs were shown on maps and the locals remembered them from before the time that tipping started on them.

During one of the inquests, the coroner wanted to note the cause of death for thirty of the victims as "asphyxia". Amidst calls of "murderers," one father stood up and said, "I want it recorded: Buried alive by the National Coal Board. That is what I want to see on the record. That is the feeling of those present. Those are the words we want to go on the certificate." I suspect that this is not what was recorded, but it is most certainly the truth.

Robens went on to steal £150,000 from the disaster fund (almost £2 million had been collected), which he used to comply with an order to remove the tips above the school. You can just imagine him chuckling about his cleverness, together with his lordly chums in their London club (no women or Welsh admitted, no doubt). Unbelievably, the Labour government of Harold Wilson allowed this monstrosity to stay on as chairman of the NCB. The Labour Party! Brought to power largely thanks to the efforts of Welsh coalminers, now turning against their very own at a moment of high personal crisis. This might well be the moment when the Labour Party moved away from their socialist ideals and took a right fork towards capitalism.

Further information about the Aberfan disaster can be found at
The Aberfan Disaster
Wikipedia article on Aberfan
British Pathé archives: This Is Tragedy (other films available)

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

High Noon

As mentioned in my previous post, Passport Control, the email from DHL contained the promise that my passport "will be delivered tomorrow (11/08/09) before 12 pm."

I didn't fully understand the reference to 12 pm, but quietly hoped that it meant noon rather than midnight.

Well, it is now about a quarter past twelve o'clock noon and no sighting of a DHL delivery van has been reported, so I think we can safely assume that "noon" was not the intended hour.

Mind you, according the the DHL online tracking service, the package has been in the possession of the DHL courier in Alicante since 09.58, so they have had plenty of time to travel the 35 Km or so from Alicante to El Campo de Guardamar, even assuming a few other drop-offs along the way.

Isn't waiting exciting?

Update: It's ten to one and DHL has just delivered my passport! Foolish me, thinking that 12 pm meant 12 noon CET. After all, this is a British passport, so clearly the time was given in UK time (whatever that's called -- I don't think it's GMT), meaning that 12 noon was really 1 pm or 13.00 CET.

The new passport is quite posh and is filled with representations of birds. Perhaps Bill Oddie had a part in designing it. What do they call them: twitters, tweeters…? You know what I mean, "bird-watchers" in old currency.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Passport Control

I have to say that I didn't believe anything about the delay in receiving my passport was because the Passport (dis)Service had to get my details from Brussels. Ten weeks? Come off it. We live in an age of rapid communication. If the excuse was true, then it is an indication of the poor state of the service (my details should be electronically stored and accessible; if they're not, then they should be retrievable in a matter of hours, not weeks); if the excuse was untrue, then somebody needs to be removed from the service for telling porkies to a member of the public.

Anyway, progress at last, for this afternoon I received an email from DHL:

The following 1 piece(s) have been sent via DHL International GmbH on
10/08/2009 on Shipment Number 4600619542.

Notes:
Dear Sir/Madam
DHL inform you that your documents from the British Consulate General will be delivered tomorrow (11/08/09) before 12 pm.
Regards

[etc. with details of receiver, sender and package reference]


Exactly when 12 pm is remains a mystery. I've heard of 12 noon and 12 midnight; I've heard of 12.00 and of 12 hours, but 12 pm is a puzzle. I'd guess 12 midnight (12 hours post meridian is, after all, 12 midnight), but why then a specification of time?

Generally when someone has to deliver a package on the urbanisation where we live, they are unable to find the address. The urbanisation is new and there are many little roads; there is also no street map at the entrance to the urbanisation. The passport renewal request form I filled in foresaw this sort of problem (good marks!) and asked that delivery instructions be provided. With my renewal request, then, I included very detailed instructions and a street map, indicating the exact position of the house.

I wonder if DHL received this information (or did it go to Brussels…?).

We'll see tomorrow.

Before 12 pm…

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

UK Passport Service (or is it?)

We UK citizens do not enjoy the luxury of an identity card, more's the pity. Having lived in Belgium for 35 years and in Spain for three, I realise just how useful an ID card is, as I was able to use one in Belgium and can now carry one in Spain. Unfortunately, these ID cards are limited in their usefulness, as I remain a "foreigner" and so cannot use the ID card to cross borders. For this I still need a UK passport, which is far too big and far too expensive simply for travelling through the EU. Being islanders (I assume that's the reason), the British still seem to consider "international" travel as something really special. Heck, when we lived in Belgium, Elise and I would often do the shopping in the Netherlands -- the "border" (blink and you missed it) was only some 20Km from us, so it required no planning to do so. And a trip to France was equally easy, with Lille only some 50Km away and even Paris just 300Km.

Anyway, as a UK citizen (for whatever that's worth), I am required to carry a UK passport when I cross borders. Such a passport has only a ten-year validity and so I recently had to fill out a renewal request form (together with two photos, signed by a fine and upstanding citizen, who has known me for at least two years -- I ask you! Presumably this is part of the high tech battle against international terrorism) and return it to an address in Madrid. This was done by registered mail, sent on 4 June 2009; it arrived at its destination on 6 June and within two days the exorbitant charge for the renewal of my passport (some 150 euro) was charged to my Visa account.

After a few weeks of hearing nothing, I phoned the "help line". (Bear in mind that the help line is located in the UK and that a further exorbitant charge of over 1 euro a minute has to be paid in order to use this service.) This was on 7 July and I was told not to worry, as it was quite normal to have to wait so long, but that I should soon receive my passport. Do you know at what stage of the process my passport is? I wondered. No, that information was not available.

Two weeks later, on 21 July, having still heard nothing about my new passport, I phoned the help line again. The pleasant Scottish young lady with whom I spoke agreed that this was a long time to wait and promised to get in touch with Madrid to see what was wrong. She took all my details again (all the details which were already on the passport request and which she, apparently, could see on her computer), thereby costing me about 15 euro in phone costs.

Another week passed by with no news. Back to the "help line" and another Scot, though this time of masculine gender. Yes, indeed, most strange that the passport has not been delivered, as the charge has been made. Can you see if the passport has actually been sent? I asked. Er, no, that information isn't shown. Tell you what, I'll copy all your details and email Madrid again to ask them to get in touch with you. And, of course, I had to give all my details again, even though they obviously could be seen on the computer that Michael (the Scot) was using. Anyway, old Mike assured me not to worry and that Madrid would soon be in touch with me and, in case not, he gave me a case number which I should use in future enquiries (like many Scots, I suspect Michael to be a tad clairvoyant).

Madrid remained silent.

Yesterday, 4 August, I phoned the help desk again. Surprise, surprise, it was old Michael again. Aha, I thought, use the case number and this time I won't be so much out of pocket spending time giving my full name, date of birth, full address, etc. Foolish me. Michael was most surprised to hear that I had heard nothing from Madrid (Er, Michael, can I phone Madrid myself? No, no, that's not possible -- that would be too much like offering a decent customer service (that's my comment, not Michael's)). He said that he would email Madrid again, but would, of course, have to fill out another request form to do so. Oh, and the new computer system had a new template layout that he was not yet familiar with, so this might take a time, but stay on the line and bear with me. (Here you might ask why a button hadn't been scripted to copy the basic information required in every such request -- I asked that very question, but only to myself, as I figured that Michael already had enough on his mind, copying field by field.) Right, Madrid should get in touch with me very soon and I should also have my new passport in the shortest delay.

By now, I'm over 30 euro out in phone calls.

Still, bully for Michael, as today I received an email from the "Passport Support Office" located in Madrid, here in Spain. It read:

Dear customer
Further to your previous phone call to Passport Advice Line, just to let you know that your passport will be issued shortly. Then DHL Express will contact with you to arrange the delivery.

You have to note that the renewal of a lost & stolen passport take more than 10 working days because it needs extra checks. This situation has delayed the issue of the new passport.

Best regards


Hang on! My request was not for the renewal of a "lost & stolen" passport. Heck, I returned my passport with my renewal request, so it was hardly "lost & stolen". So a quick email back to the Passport Support Office to point this out:

There seems to be some confusion.

My passport request was not for the renewal of a lost or stolen passport. It was for the renewal of an existing passport, which was included with my request, sent by registered mail on 4 June 2009 and received in your offices (according to the Correos) on 6 June.


And lo and behold, a reply within the hour:

I am sorry for the confusion.

Your previous passport needed extra checks because it wasn't an machine readable passport instead of a lost & stolen passport. So, we had to request the previous file to Brussels where it was issued in 1999.

I hope that your new passport will be issued shortly.


If I read this correctly, it is quicker to get a replacement for a "lost & stolen" passport than for a standard passport issued outside the UK (in Brussels -- now that really is exotic).

At least the Passport Support Office "hopes" that my new passport "will be issued shortly".

So do I.

But this is hardly a Passport Service. Pathetic.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Man of Mystery

I've been an Elvis Presley fan for over fifty years and have my own set of Elvis-related sites, including one about Elvis books, another about original versions of songs also sung by Elvis, a catalogue of Elvis fan clubs around the world, and a list of Elvis events, as well as a few other subsites. Here, however, is something that doesn't fit into any category, but perhaps you can help.

A long-term Norwegian Elvis fan recently visited me and one of the things he brought with him was a photo of Elvis taken in about 1969. The photograph also shows a fan who looks very starry-eyed, meeting his idol. Just who is this man? Looking at his dress and the noticing that he is wearing an Elvis badge on his lapel -- the type of Elvis badge sold by fan clubs in Europe -- I would suggest that the fellow is a European on an early trip to see Elvis in Las Vegas. I might be way out, of course, so are you able to identify this mystery fan? If so, please reply using a comment to this blog.

Many thanks.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Moros y Cristianos

The Moors and Christians fiestas (Fiestas de Moros y Cristianos) which take place each year in Guardamar, date back to 1973. Francisco García Viudes, the mayor at that time, decided that Guardamar, too, should celebrate these fiestas, as did other towns and villages in the vicinity. He invited representatives of each neighbourhood to attend an inaugural meeting, but only four of these decided to attempt to organise the event.

None of the four knew much about Moors and Christians, but they had sufficient enthusiasm to arrange for an initial parade of four groups that first year: Rosario Aldeguer was responsible for Los Marineros (to become Los Piratas in 1974); Carmen Aldeguer Verdú set up Las Mosqueteras; Soledad Navarro García began Los Moros Musulmanes; Vicente Aldeguer Palomar, with the help of his daughter Mercedes, created Las Brasileñas, who were more a carnival group than a Moors and Christians outfit, so this was the only year they paraded. Still, Vicente remained part of the organising committee and continued to play an active part in all the local fiestas.

During the first few years, the parades started from the Plaza del Rosario, but they soon grew larger and moved to the longer route, which is still used, incorporating the Calle Mayor and the Avenida del País Valenciano. (This route is one of the great attractions of the Guardamar Moors and Christians fiestas, as it is unusually straight, long and wide, allowing groups to parade in full splendour to a large and appreciative audience.)

The Moors and Christians fiestas in Guardamar have grown from these very humble beginnings (the first groups had little money for costumes and there was only one band!) has grown to a huge week-long spectacle. The undoubted highlights of the week, however, remain the two nights of parades, when the now eight groups bring out hundreds of members to parade in strict lines through Guardamar, accompanied by tens of bands from both Guardamar itself and surrounding towns and villages: three hours of stunning costumes and thrilling music. ¡Fenomenal!

This year's parades will take place on Friday, 24 July and Sunday, 26 July. As a teaser, you might wish to take a look at some photos I took during last year's parades.

PS And here are some photos taken during this year's Moros y Cristianos parades.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Looking High, High, High

Guardamar will soon have the tallest structure in the European Union. Nothing new is going to be built, however. Indeed, the structure that will merit this praise has existed since the early 1960s, when it was built by the US Navy: the Torreta de Guardamar, a guyed, low frequency, high range radio mast situated just outside the town of Guardamar, in the hamlet of El Campo de Guardamar. Construction of the mast was started and completed in 1962 and the mast served the US Navy until shortly after the first Gulf War. It was then transferred to the Spanish Navy, who has since been operating it under the call sign of "Radio Estación Naval - Antena LF 380 metros - Guardamar". Its main function is to keep an eye on marine traffic in the Mediterranean, with particular attention to the submarine activity (the major submarine base of Cartagena is close by).

So why will this almost fifty-year-old structure suddenly become the tallest in the EU? Well, according to a report in the Independent, the current holder of the record, the Belmont Transmitting Station, in Lincolnshire, is to be reduced in size in order to support a new digital aerial. Belmont is 385.75m tall, but will soon see itself reduced by some 36m. The Torreta measures 370m (the Americans left a notice stating that it is 380m., but Americans tend to see things big and know little of the metric system of measurement, so the mistake is understandable).

Like Belmont, the Torreta de Guardamar is largely ignored by tourists. It is not in the tourist heartland of Spain, of course (though is reasonably close to the overcrowded beaches and urbanisations of the Costa Blanca); furthermore, its huge size is not immediately apparent, as there are few buildings in its vicinity to offer a comparison of scale. Nevertheless, it is an imposing structure if one cares to study it, and can be seen from a great distance (it can be relatively easily seen on a clear day from the El Corte Inglés store in Elche), especially at night, when it is adorned with red warning lights.

I have posted several photos of the Torreta de Guardamar to this Picasa Web Album.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Who will buy…?

In the film adaptation of Lionel Bart's "Oliver!" there is a magnificent song-and-dance scene based on Bart's number, "Who Will Buy?", depicting the various street merchants of the nineteenth century. Guardamar is one of the few places that still has its own street merchants and the only place to have so-called sarandas.

Saranda refers to both the traditional form of selling wet fish in the street and the special form of net, rather like a flat circular basket, on which the fish are placed. The saranda is then carried on a sort of wheelbarrow that the seller pushes through the streets of Guardamar. Unfortunately, the last saranda maker has retired, so one of the saleswomen has now had to resort to a more "normal" form of barrow.

Just three saranda women are left: Gloria Palomar, Encarnita García and Teresa Carreras. They learnt the trade from other family members many years ago: Gloria has been selling fish on the streets of Guardamar for more than forty years. Nobody shows any interest in following in the footsteps of these women, nor do the women themselves have any desire for their own descendants to do so. The sight of this traditional form of fish-selling is therefore destined to disappear within the next few years. Another part of old Spain will go.

The women collect the fresh fish from the Guardamar fishing quay every morning from Monday to Friday. With their sarandas full of fish that is often still alive, they return to Guardamar, where they call out their wares as they walk through the streets and stand for a while at their preferred corners. They have magnificent voices; they call, rather than sing or shout. Exactly what they call is difficult for the foreign listener to understand: I am sure it is a mixture of Valencian and whatever the local dialect might be, with a bit of Castilian thrown in here and there ("de todas las clases" seems to be a well-used phrase). It doesn't really matter, for everyone knows the sound of the saranda women and its significance: who will buy my fresh fish!

Friday, 26 June 2009

39 and holding


It was Elise's birthday yesterday. I'm not allowed to reveal exactly which birthday it was, of course, but the name of the picture file might give an indication and I can give a hint: it was somewhere between 59 and 61. Some friends came around in the evening to celebrate the auspicious occasion with a barbecue, followed by the obligatory piece of tart and the ceremony of the blowing out of the candle. A bit of a cheat, really, as we started the barbecue at gone ten o'clock in the evening and didn't get around to the tart until about one-thirty, which was officially the next day, so rather late for the birthday itself.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Bonfire Night, Spanish style


Bonfires are the thing for the Fiestas de San Juan. However, the celebrations do not last for a single night, nor are the bonfires formed by a mere pile of rubbish. In some towns, such as Alicante, there are days of parades (Alicante is basically closed to traffic for the best part of a week) and other event leading up to the big night. And the "bonfires" are veritable works of art, incorporating huge statues that take months to create prior to their brisk incineration. Each barrio (neighbourhood) seems to have its own fire, but the "official" fire is located in the square of the town hall. The 2009 fire is 20 metres high and 12 metres in diameter (!) and the square is not especially large! Firemen must constantly water down the walls of the buildings that completely enclose the square. To get an idea of some of the wonderful constructions that pass as bonfires, visit this page of photos and do a few Google searches.

Here in Guardamar, things are not quite on that scale, but the bonfires are still prepared with great care and include their own figures, usually of a comical nature, reflecting local, national or international events and personalities. The main fire, shown here, is located next to the church. The fires will be started at one o'clock in the morning (yes, at 01.00h).

Monday, 8 June 2009

All Right, You Win

The European Parliament elections have come and gone. Sadly, but very predictably, the Right has seen an upsurge in its support. Unbelievable how the sheep follow blindly to the Right when there is any sign of trouble, as is now the case with the current economic crisis. If the bah-lambs would take a moment to consider how the crisis came about, of course, they might well vote otherwise, but democracy allows even the unthinking to vote and the result is often the opposite of what is actually called for. It's fools like Bush, Aznar and Blair who are responsible for the current situation. Yes, Blair, whose so-called Labour Party in the UK is about as Left as my right hand. And why anyone here in Spain would wish to vote for the PP, the heirs to Franco's legacy, goes way beyond me. Anyway, these three, led and manipulated by powerful industrialists, landowners and others of their ilk (the rich whose only interest is getting richer, in other words) managed to head the world in a nose-dive before themselves being dethroned. The bad had already been done, however, and it will require several more years for the world to recover. Unfortunately, people look only at the present: they see problems, unemployment, businesses closing, and all the other wounds now open and festering as a result of the damage earlier inflicted, but blame these problems on the present authorities. Here in Spain, that's Zapatero's PSOE party, so this is the party that has had to take the beating for errors made by Aznar and his minions. We can only hope that things will show some improvement before the next general elections here in Spain, otherwise we shall be lumped with a PP government again and things will then go very well for a very few and poorly for the majority.

It amazes me that the PP still gains so much support here in Spain. Madrid is a PP stronghold -- has it forgotten "No Pasaran"? The Valencian Community was the final bastion of the Republicans during the Civil War: Valencia city was the final seat of the rightful government and Alicante was the final foothold of the remnants of the Republican army and its supporters, forced to the quayside by Franco's troops, many choosing suicide over capture. Yet both Madrid and Valencia now maintain apparently corrupt PP governments. Do people never learn?

The Right is the slippery slope to fascism, protectionism, nationalism and all the other ugly isms that ensure benefits to the few and misery to the many. The Right has nothing to do with the European ideals. Please think again before voting Right in the future.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Shakin' All Over

If you've read other items in this blog, you might know that I suffer from severe osteoporosis. A few years ago I started hearing about Whole Body Vibration as a possible aid in the treatment of the problem. I did some research, reading the pros and cons: the pros usually coming from studies carried out at respected universities, and the cons from people who simply didn't believe in the technique. I spoke to my doctor and then started to look for a suitable WBV machine for home use.

Earlier this week my choice of machine was delivered, a Tecnovita YV16 Active Power.

It is, of course, too early to be able to be able to say anything about the therapeutic effects of the machine, but it is easy enough to use and very quiet in operation. The booklet that comes with the machine could, perhaps, go into more detail about the exercises, but they are adequately described and care is taken to separate them into different categories. Elise and I have started with the section headed "Exercises For Older People," which seems appropriate!



I hasten to add that the video does not show Elise. I can but hope. Should the machine miraculously transform Elise into something like this, I'll not only be shakin' all over, but I'll be All Shook Up, too!

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Cacti close up

I enjoy taking photographs. It's something I've done for many years, though I've never got seriously into the art or technique of photography. I used to have an Olympus OM1 with several lenses, but that was more because I admired the workmanship and quality of Olympus, rather than because I was a serious photographer. (I've always liked well made, good quality products, which is why I use Apple Macs and drive a Chrysler PT Cruiser, I suppose.) When I was no longer able to carry the heavy load of the OM1 and its lenses, I reluctantly sold the equipment and bought my first Olympus digital camera. That was in about 2002. In 2005 I upgraded to an Olympus C750 Zoom, which I still own and use.

The C750 is a relatively simple digital camera by today's standards, but it is adequate for almost everything I want to do, and it does it well. Lately I have been taking more closeups of the cacti I own. All photos are taken in natural light, with no special equipment or setups. (I rarely use anything than natural light, even at night -- almost never use a flash!)

You might like to view some of the close-ups in this Picasa Web Album or in this Flickr Set.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Romería de San Isidro

paella cookingThis past week has seen quite a bit of activity in El Campo de Guardamar (the hamlet where we live, just outside the town of Guardamar del Segura) in connection with the Romería de San Isidro.
A romería is the whole series of events surrounding a procession to display one or more statues of religious figures and includes all of the fiestas, dancing, eating, singing, etc. A romería can last several days. Here in El Campo, the procession of the statues was held on Wednesday evening (the 13th) and yesterday the festivities came to an end with a sort of paella pic-nic.
Groups come to prepare their paellas in the open air. The "teams" are made up of people with apparently specific activities: there's the fireman, the stirrer, the taster, the ingredient-adder (two people in the case of a large paella) and the others, who watch, pass comment, and eat and drink the offerings brought by everyone. So while the paella is being prepared, appetites are piqued with cheeses, serrano ham, gambas, almonds… It takes quite a time to prepare a paella, so the "tapas" come in very handy.
The photo above shows the pieces of rabbit being browned, together with a couple of heads of garlic. Below you can see the fireman, San José de la Leña, and the stirrer, San Antonio de la Cucharazo (wearing an apron from last September's paella championship!).



Once prepared (after about an hour), the paella is brought to a large table and served, to be eaten with salad, bread, and something to drink. Our paella was made with rabbit and snails as the main ingredients, together with red and green bell peppers and, of course, Valencian rice.

Not only was it the Romería de San Isidro, the occasion also lent itself to the celebration of two recent birthdays, those of Marimar, also known as Santa Maria de los 45 Años, and Pedro, or San Pedro de la Escoba. ¡Felizes cumpleaños!

Monday, 11 May 2009

Magnificent Seven


Cacti produce surprisingly beautiful flowers. What is even more amazing, perhaps, is the size that the flowers can attain in relation to the body of the plant. I have a Lobivia famatimensis that is no more than 3 cm. tall and has about the same diameter, yet its flowers are 3.5 cm in diameter. Seven of these flowers are currently in bloom, a wonderful golden yellow, hiding the plant itself, and there are 14 buds altogether! How on earth can such a little plant support so many flowers?
The stem of the Lobivia is quite a sight, too: it is more purple than anything else, and has the tiniest spines, arranged neatly around the areole at the tip of each tubercle, which is no more than a couple of millimetres across. Here's an extreme closeup of the stem of the cactus.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

What a Whoppa!

Elise and I went to a garden centre today to buy a couple of cheap succulent crawlers. Well, that was the plan. We came out with not only the two crawlers, but with seven cacti, too. One of the cacti was this magnificent specimen, bought for a very reasonable price. Obviously an old example, this Gymnocalycium measures 15cm. tall (not including the flowers), about 10cm. diameter, with a girth of no less than 35cm. It has an offshoot growing at its base and no less than 18 flower buds on its crown, with two more on the offshoot. I have no idea how old the plant is, but it is clearly no youngster, and its shows signs of its age at the base, but this only helps to add to its character. Easily recognized as a Gymnocalycium because of its flower structure, I hazard a guess at Gymnocalycium baldianum.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Return to Sender

Some weeks ago I ordered A selection of Conophytum plants from Conos Paradise in Germany. For the next three weeks I visited the post-office in Guardamar three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. No sign of a package. Then Uwe of Conos Paradise emailed me to say that the package had been returned, with no explanation as to why this had been done. Anyway, I arranged with Uwe to send the plants to me again, this time using the address of a Spanish friend in Guardamar. Today, just six five days later, the package was delivered. The little plants were not in the best of shape: their roots looks extremely dry and some individual plants were as good as dessicated. Nevertheless, most of the plants showed at least some sign of life, so I made up a mixture of coarse sand, a little vermiculita and a little potting soil, and potted up the 22 plantlets in 6 pots, giving them a good misting to boot.

Wish them luck.

Conophytums, like Lithops, belong to the family of Mesembryanthemums, a group of unusual plants generally originating from South Africa.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Blooming cacti

Still no success with the lithops seeds, but at least the cacti are starting to put on a good show. A few have already bloomed, many are in full bud and some are currently in flower. The pink flowers above belong to the Echinopsis eyriesii. Normally they come out at night and last no longer than until about noon; this year, however, we have been able to enjoy them for almost two whole days. The large yellow flowers at the back also belong to an Echinopsis, a hybrid variety, but I do not know which. Behind these, you can just see a low Mammillaria elongata, with tiny yellow flowers The short-stemmed flowers in the middle right of the photo belong to what I believe is a Notocactus, perhaps a Notocactus macambarensis. The cactus in the foreground, again with yellow flowers, might also be a Notocactus.

Friday, 1 May 2009

And then there were none

The 1000 lithops seeds that I put into forty pots some ten days ago (see And some fell on stony ground) are showing remarkably little signs of growing. Well, let's be honest, nothing at all is happening! I don't think there's much hope now of them germinating, but I shall keep looking after them for a while yet, before finally giving up hope.

I don't seem to have too much luck with Mesembryanthemums (the group of plants to which Lithops belong), as an order I made recently for some young Conophytums has also failed to materialise. After a few weeks, the seller informed me that he had received the unopened package back in Germany, with no explanation for its return.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Baby bloomer

I have a collection of about 150 cacti. At this time of the year, they start to display their wonderful flowers. Here's a baby cactus, no more than a few years old, I should think, and it has made a sterling effort to produce a flower that is bigger than itself. The cactus is just 5 cm in diameter. As is often the case with cacti, it is difficult to know exactly what sort of cactus it is.
I have numerous books and spend hours searching through them, trying to identify my cacti, but with very little success. The closest I have got with this one is that it is perhaps a Parodia, but that's very iffy.
I have two larger plants of the same cactus, both about 12.5 cm in diameter and both of which have already flowered magnificently, as can be seen in the photo of one of them below, taken a couple of weeks ago.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

World famous… in Guardamar


Walking in Guardamar this morning (Elise was having her usual Wednesday-morning visit to the hairdresser), I came across this poster. It advertises a local dental clinic. Elise had a new crown fitted there and they have used her name as one of their customers. (This follows a recent smear campaign against the clinic, in which fly-posters were put up around Guardamar.) If you can't see the name in the photo above, here's a close-up: