Saturday, 9 September 2017

The long way round

These past couple of days we’ve travelled across a significant chunk of northern Spain, from our house in Galicia to Barcelona, by car - my partner's little Mini soft-top. Splitting the journey into two parts, it meant I saw parts of Spain that I’ve never been anywhere near. Most of those places we saw from the car, of course, but breaking up the journey as we did, we were also able to stop off and see some spots closer up - a proper road trip if you like, albeit only a Mini one. (See what I did there?)

Heading across from north-east to north west, though it’s only a very slightly diagonal route across the country, it’s still something like a nine-hour drive if you do it in one go. 

How the route looks on Google maps.
So we had a bit of a look to see where might be interesting to stop. Sometimes you get what you expected, and sometimes you really don’t. First stop was a place called Sahagún, a little pueblo in Castilla y Leon, the flat centre of Spain. A pretty place, it features Roman architecture but is dominated by a 13th-century monastery, and being on one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago, it’s full of walkers stopping off to take a break and get something to eat.

Coming into the town, the first thing we saw was a bonfire inside the walls of the cemetery. An odd sight, frankly, and it did lead to some fairly morbid thoughts about cremation corner cutting, though perhaps that reflects more on me than anything else. We stopped at a café right by the monastery, which seemed to have its own cat sanctuary attached. Beautiful, no doubt hugely valuable leopard-print cats lazed inside a caged-off, outdoor section cleverly sited right next to the establishment’s terrace. The cats worked their magic and we sat down for a drink. We’d have stayed longer than we did but two things put us off a bit - one was that the bar owner clearly regarded his place’s status as a designated Camino stop as an opportunity to charge Madrid-type tourist prices for his drinks. The other was that he’d apparently borrowed his cloth from the bar at the foot of hell’s stairway - right by the gift shop - because he wiped the tables with it and the stench it left behind, worsening as the sun baked it into the tables’ very essence, was genuinely unbearable. Get some bleach, man. Bleach! Off we went.

Once down from Galicia’s mountains and getting into the Spanish plain, birds of prey can be seen circling at least every kilometre or so, and often more frequently than that. They also sit imperiously on the top of roadside fence posts, beautiful and statuesque as you zip past them. They’re often the most eye-catching thing in sight; you’d be forgiven, in parts of the long schlep across the flat plain of Spain, for thinking you were in a desert crossing the US. Long, arrow-straight roads bisect often quite arid landscapes. Settlements are few and they’re separated by long distances. I even saw a couple of these things during this part of the journey:


But there isn’t too much to report on this section of the drive, to be honest.


Moving into La Rioja, almost immediately the hand of humanity begins to dominate the landscape and two crops prevail; sunflowers and the famous grape named for the region. For me the sunflowers were more interesting. Past their bloom, they've been left to wilt in the sun for their oil, and turning a monkish grey-black as their heads sink as if in supplication, they make for an almost devotional sight. These are not the 8ft giants you might think; rather they’re mainly around two or three feet tall. Odd, randomly spaced, taller individuals stand out, though, making the scene look like adults dotted among their more numerous and younger charges, as if in protection of them. 

We stopped at Logroño for lunch. Now the only thing I knew about Logroño beforehand was that their football team spent the nineties in the top flight in Spain and then went bust. But, assured by a friend who visits there frequently that it was a good place to eat, and being essentially on our route anyway, that’s where we headed. Initial impressions were fairly unimpressive but once parked up and into the old town, the recommendation held true. We filled ourselves with excellent tapas and could have chosen from any one of dozens of ‘proper’ tapas places, with people having a bit of lunch standing up outside the bars, a quarter of a pint or a little Rioja to wash it down. The real, Spanish way of doing tapas. Heading back to the car, a sign of the country’s still significant political divide. A stone in the wall of a church inscribed with a paean to the glory of the Caudillo, the self-aggrandising General Franco who so named himself, splashed with black paint evidently thrown at it from below. Evidence of the fury which he still evokes on the opposite side of Spain’s political spectrum, and of the ongoing respect in which he’s still held by some quarters of the country’s right wing - in Germany, for example, any inscription of that type would most certainly have been removed long ago.

After La Rioja comes Zaragoza, less interesting apart from the mountains which seem to track your progress from a distance. Never seeming any nearer or further away, I kept thinking their presence felt like those pantomime villains who, disguised as some part of the landscape, stop moving just before the hero turns round to try to catch them out. Moorish architecture, or buildings at least inspired by it, dot the landscape here. The region’s capital, Zaragoza, was another stopping point for us - a chance to stretch our legs and see what this city, well-known by name if not by acquaintance for us at least, had to offer. That Moorish influence was most clearly evident in the Palacio de la Alaferia, a sort of less famous and plainer cousin to the Alhambra. Though splendid and interesting, we fairly skipped round it because the adjacent barrio in which we’d parked the car did not do justice to its imposing neighbour. It was a bit sketchy, frankly, so we moved on again. 

The Patio de Santa Isabel at the palace. Pic in public domain.
Next was Huesca - scrubby and bland, to be honest. Even those predatory birds which so frequently marked our progress earlier are absent here. Only fields of maize or stunted bushes for company as far as the eye could see either side of the road, we crossed the Greenwich Meridian, marked quite clearly with a large arch over the road in the middle of bloody nowhere, not long after the Sat Nav had told us rather blandly to ’stay on the E-30 for next 239km’. OK, we’ll do just that and… wait, what? 239km? Madre mia! This reminded me of the sign saying ‘Barcelona - 502km’ we’d seen the day before. I realise that there are far, far larger countries you can drive across, but I just never saw these kinds of numbers in Britain. And we were still a decent drive from Barcelona even at this point.

Bull silhouette and ruined castle on the road through Huesca.
Finally, into Catalunya. An impending referendum on independence may yet mean that, some day in the future, we’d be entering another country making this same trip. Certainly the road signs’ language changes immediately anyway. Traffic thickens as we near Barcelona itself, and after hundreds of kilometres of pretty straightforward instructions from the Sat Nav (don’t get me started on ‘her’ pronunciations of all the place and road names, which had my missus laughing openly more than once), we really did need her direction to find our way around the famous city.

With an hour to kill before we needed to put the car on the ferry, we had time to have a quick walk around the Barrio Gótico and Las Ramblas and buy some snacks for the final leg of the journey; the ferry crossing to Mahón. The Ramblas were just as I remember - crowded, with people from all over the place speaking numerous languages, over-priced craft stalls etc. The recent attacks seem to have failed to keep people away, just as they did in Paris, London, Berlin and pretty much anywhere else I can think of. There was, though, as we got back to the car to await our call to board, an extensive police presence at the port itself, holding people up who’d come in from Algeria as each and every car was checked thoroughly. I don’t know if this was the case before the attacks, or if it represents a sort of Islamophobia that is just what the terrorists are looking for, but it certainly looked to my eyes to be a marked contrast to the ‘business as usual’ look of the Ramblas.

I’m typing this on board, though I’ll have to wait to upload it. The Med is, as it always seems to be, calm and blue. The crossing will take seven hours, and we’ll be in Menorca, where we’ll spend the next couple of weeks hopefully catching the last of this year’s sun. Then we’ll have to work out where to stop while doing the same journey back across Spain, this time east to west.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Sinking the unthinkable

For some time now we've been the fortunate owners of a couple of canoes, generously gifted to us by my partner's mum. They're not the sleek, pointy-ended things that you sit in and have to roll back up if they capsize while you're paddling them. No. They're sort of beginners' versions which you sit on, not in, and are supposedly all-but impossible to capsize anyway.

I think you can probably tell where this entry's going already.

Anyway, we take these canoes out fairly frequently, paddling around the lake which more or less surrounds the village. At least it used to - as I mentioned in earlier entries, the water is extremely low at the moment due to a months-long drought, and getting lower still. In parts, the lake has all but disappeared and reverted to the rivers which usually flow unseen in its depths, inundated as they have been by the effects of the dam. This is important and will feature shortly.

We keep the canoes in a sort of concrete cabin down by the village's swimming pool, where in theory they're easy to get into the water with the pontoon the council had built a few years back. It's hardly ever been used, though, because it's currently high and dry, at least fifty feet above the water. Anyway, the cabin contains lots of kayaks in various states of repair. I have no idea to whom they belong but, unlike ours, most of them are not kept chained up and people simply borrow them, use them and put them back in the cabin when they're done with them. So last week we went out with a friend who did exactly that.

We spent a good while looking round - the low water allows you to paddle under rather than over the old medieval bridges, reveals the Roman buildings associated with wine production and shows up a lot of the old stuff which can't generally be seen. At one point we came to a bit where the river had begun to reassert its flow, and paddling uphill against what could, at a stretch, be called 'rapids', was necessary. Now an Olympic kayaking course this was not - there was a bit of white water but both my partner and our friend T passed through the rocks against the flow without apparent difficulty. I tried to follow, but was spun around and sent back downriver. A second effort resulted similarly. At this point, dear reader,  machismo idiocy kicks in. The girls were both upriver of these damn rocks, so I was most certainly going to get there too. A third effort brought about inevitable consequences - the supposedly all-but uncapsizable canoe was turned 90 degrees to the flow, rolled over and pitched me in.

I was no more than 10 feet from the river bank and the water was only a few feet deep at this point, so I thrashed to the side easily enough. I could hear my partner shouting 'calm yourself down', because she assumed I was panicking - I was shouting a fair bit and even in this blog, where I feel at liberty to swear fairly freely, the language I was using cannot really be repeated. I wasn't panicking - it was the fate of my watch that was causing the shouting.

My watch was my father's, and my grandfather's before him. I spent considerably more than it's worth to get it serviced, back into working order and waterproofed again after Dad died, but had already had to have the glass replaced because of an act of my own clumsiness and could see that water had seeped in. I was, to say the least, pretty angry with myself. Fortunately, at this point, T took my watch from me because what happened next only happens in bad sit-coms. Getting back into the canoe, I over-balanced and of course tipped straight over it, throwing myself in again and hitting myself on the head with my own boat as it flipped over after me. The girls, models of concern for my well-being to this point, could no longer contain their mirth and, rightly, laughed at me openly.

Casualties - my flip flops; one disappeared into the ooze when I'd put my foot down onto the riverbed, one floated off downstream. My shades - visible in the muck but beyond our ability to retrieve them because of the strength of the river's flow. My dignity - no matter; God knows how many times I've lost that already, almost always through my own clumsiness, hubris or as in this case, both. A recorded loss so many times, it no longer really counts as a casualty. My limited-edition white Brighton shirt issued to commemorate our victory at Selhurst back in 2005. Soaked and filthy - what was I thinking, putting that at risk as well as the watch? Washable, fortunately. My confidence on the canoe has taken a bit of a hit too, but that should also be salvageable.

The watch is unharmed, happily - dried out and functioning fine. The loss of the shades has been felt rather more keenly because the weather's still pretty good here and, being driven round in my missus's soft-top Mini, I'm slightly less cool than I usually fancy myself because my eyes are so screwed up against the sun.

Never mind - it's a bustling metropolis here so nobody will ever know any of this happened... oh, wait. Yeah, of course - absolutely everybody who knows me is aware of precisely what happened. Vanity, thy name is Jason.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Cowpats and conviviality

Pretty much no matter how small your community is in Spain, you can usually be reasonably confident that there's somewhere even smaller not too far away. I've seen news items here which have featured a single, usually elderly, person being the last remaining inhabitant of some minuscule settlement. Everybody else has either left or died, the population slowly eroding to one last man or woman, who has no reason to leave their lifelong home.

Castiñeira is not quite that, but it's much smaller than Viana. This tiny hamlet sits near the very top of the local mountains - the drive there is uphill absolutely all the way. There are no shops, nowhere to drink other than the local residents' association bar in the room of a house, and no pubic transport there. Its small size has not stopped it holding its own fiesta, though, and we were invited yesterday to attend this celebration and have a bit of lunch at the house of a friend who comes from there but, fairly typically, has moved away - in his case to London.

Its altitude gives it some stunning views over the valleys below. It's quite a pretty place itself, with stone houses on steeply angled and narrow streets, all sitting right in the middle of the land which the people who live there farm for their living. Sheep and cattle regard you with cool indifference from behind dry-stone walls as you pick your way around, and the cows have left the usual tell-tale signs of their presence pretty much everywhere.


The event comprised a 20-litre tub of sangria and a visiting three-piece laid on to provide the music. 'Style', led by a chap who looked quite startlingly like Armando Iannucci, and evidently used to entertaining small gatherings like this, were taking no chances; they'd brought their own applause, cleverly hiding hundreds of fans within the speakers to reliably mark the end of each song. Their stage was quite literally the back of a van, the side dropped down to reveal the entire set. Our man Armando was quite a musician, somehow managing to play piano, drums, bagpipes, castanets and violin despite appearing to have only a digital keyboard in front of him.

However, what they lacked in spectacle they more than made up for with volume and an absolute certainty as to which music was required. At first, everybody just stood there under a hot sun and looked at them, and I thought it was going to be a bit awkward to be honest. However, just a couple of songs in, two things started to work their magic. First, the free sangria. Second, much more importantly, the Spaniards' almost compulsive desire to dance. Soon much of the crowd, which numbered the majority of the population of the village, was doing the Paso Doble to a string of what I've already seen during multiple visits to Galicia, are old favourites.

Slowly, though, the crowd started to drift away in twos and threes - past 3pm, lunchtime was at hand. A few non-verbal signals essentially told the band to knock it on the head for now, and we went to our friend's family's house for the standard four-course, far-too-much-food, stuff-yourself-to-the-gunnels-and-then-burn-it-off-with-home-brewed-fire-water lunch which marks these August holidays.

I frankly have no idea if Estilo came back for a second part of their set - we were so full of food that we didn't move for some time, sitting around the dining table to talk and have coffee. This ritual, known as sobremesa, is almost as important as the food itself here and deserving of its own entry some day. Casiñeira may be home to only around 70 souls, but the warmth of their welcome and hospitality would stand for ten times that number.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Twisted views

I had to spend some time at Madrid's Chamartin station recently, waiting for a train to bring me back to Galicia on my way home from Britain. Sitting minding my own business, I was approached by a middle-aged woman who tried to sell me some car air-fresheners. "I'm homeless. Sleeping in the car. This is my only income."

Being on my way home from Gatwick, I had no cash at all, save for a few British coins. She took these anyway, 'for the luck they'll bring', and then sat down to engage me in conversation. I indulged her because I wasn't going anywhere for some time and I figured she'd be sick of people moving away from her, telling her they didn't want her wares, generally trying to ignore her. A few minutes' company would cost me nothing further.

We chatted about Galicia - the food, the places she'd been, its beauty, the current forest fires. But it didn't take her long to warm to what she really wanted to talk about - Muslims. Now bear in mind that this was before the attacks in Catalonia. Somehow she connected people working on farms in Galicia with a giant conspiracy to poison our food, citing the recent contaminated eggs scandal as 'proof' of her claim.

She also told me about the multiple parts of London that police 'won't go into' because it's 'too dangerous' because of 'all the Muslims'. On this I was at least able to convince her of the fact that it's, frankly, bollocks, because I lived in London for 25 years so have a rather better picture of the city than her. The problem is, though, that she held this to be a fact and certainly isn't alone in doing so. I did, in the end, tire of trying to reason with her, and excused myself to go to the gents. She saw me some time later and waved at me cheerfully but I was left feeling a bit depressed at the conversation.

So, oddly, as well as the visceral horror that you always feel in response to such attacks, I found myself thinking of her when the news broke of what was going on in Barcelona and Cambrils. No doubt this would only be, for her, further 'proof' of how Muslims are to blame for all our ills. My fear that she's not alone in her views was borne out in the response of a few people - and I'll come back to this because it's important - a few people, to the attacks. One person posted a picture of one of our village's most important assets, the open-air swimming pool, on the internet, citing it as the best of the best because for miles around you 'can't see a Muslim'.

This dreadful comment, with its attendant image of the pool and by extension the town, found its way on to a website called, essentially, 'that's how it is in Spain.com'. The long string of appalled responses to the original thought didn't, of course, garner the same publicity. It's so much easier to get the clicks with the outrageous stuff than with the reasonable stuff, after all.

So what we have here is a pair of facing mirrors, reflecting their own twisted views back on each other into infinity. The warped interpretation of a peaceful religion for terrorist ends provokes the attack in the first place. It's reflected with, in some quarters, an Islamophobia which stupidly blames an entire religion for the actions of a few murderous dickheads. (I don't recall many assuming all Irish people were terrorists during the days of the IRA bombing Britain - we kind of all knew it was just a few evils doing what they do). That response is then reflected and magnified such that people think, for example, that Galicians hate Muslims. So it goes, recapitulating its own hatred until you can't see the real picture any more.

The far more widespread response has, of course, been much more balanced. The same defiance from Catalonia that came from London, from Paris etc. The same refusal to take the easy way, to bow to hatred and in doing so give the terrorists exactly what they want. It's a few people murdering innocents. It's a few people hating all of their religious brothers as a result. And it's a few people with internet access, or mass-media access, that are showing us only little snapshots of all of this and presenting us with their own, twisted versions of reality.

I can only hope that, as appears at least to be the case from my own experience talking to people here, that the filters of common humanity that the vast majority seem to have, which inform and moderate their responses to such things, remain in place if ever they see themselves caught in this mise en abyss.

(I use the Anglicised form of Catalunya/Cataluña simply because I write in English. No offence or other meaning is intended or suggested by its use as such.)

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Bad day to be an octopus

Hoy es feria.” Three words which every person living here will have said at some point. Today is market day.

Twice a month, on 13th and 28th, the market comes to town. These dates are fixed so that everybody in the tiny villages in the outlying area knows where it’ll be on any given day - on 14th and 29th it’ll be somewhere else in Galicia. It only changes if it falls on a Sunday or a Bank Holiday.

Feria days are among the rare occasions when the village feels busy, particularly in summer. People from the surrounding hamlets combine all the business they need to do in town into one visit, so numbers are up considerably, for a few hours at least.

The market places itself along either side of the roads at the top of the town, the Toral. You see what you’d see in pretty much any market anywhere; cheap clothes and toys, fruit and veg, household goods, ironmongery etc. And of course the ubiquitous knives which all Galician men seem to carry. Last time round, uncle M of Walk in the Park fame bought a penknife to replace an identical one he’d lost. It appears to my foreign eyes that the penknife is an extension of the Galego’s arm - I’ve seen M use if for everything from cutting away plant life outdoors to spooning jam onto his toast! So commonplace are they that I’ve taken to carrying one myself, since I keep being told I need to be more Galician. My own was gifted to my late father by visiting Spaniards, of course, and has elicited approving comments from the penknife cognoscenti here, being as it’s from Albacete, which is apparently a sign of quality.

The fresh produce is, as you might expect in a rural area, startling in its variety, size and quality. We just dragged home a bag containing, variously, about 200g of figs, about the same of cherries, then oranges, tomatoes, plums, nectarines, green chillies, lemons, pears, paraguayos (a sort of flat peach which I’ve seen only occasionally in Britain) and apricots. Over 5kg of fruit for a total of €10, heavy enough to have turned the stuff at the bottom of the bag into fruit puree under its own weight by the time I’d got it home.

One thing the locals look forward to more than anything on market day, though, is what follows it round: pulpeiros. The pulpeiros set themselves up outside all the bars in the town, heating giant cauldrons of water and stacking wooden plates in preparation to serve the one and only dish on their menus - octopus.


The locals adore this - boiled, chopped up and served on those wooden plates with olive oil and paprika, to many they're reason enough to come into town whether you need anything from the market or not. My partner particularly enjoys the bits with suckers on. This is one local delicacy for which I have no time - for me, it's fish-flavoured plastic with a horrible texture, which occasionally, if you get one of those suckers, feels like it's holding on to you. I don't want my food grabbing hold of me, frankly.

This view is of course the subject of some mirth and is yet one more thing that marks me out. Carrying a penknife around and enjoying a vermouth before lunch - which is eaten at 3pm - doesn't make me a local quite yet.


Friday, 7 July 2017

A walk in the park

This morning, we thought we'd join my partner's uncle M on his morning walk in the countryside, a stroll he takes daily for the exercise. At least, it was a stroll in my mind. A country walk conjures up images, in my head at least, of a pleasant amble through rolling fields, perhaps to a country pub for a ploughman's and a rehydrating pint before returning at the same 'speed' whence you came.

This was not that. Uncle M, dressed for autumn as far as I'm concerned - jeans and a long-sleeved lumberjack shirt - had other things in mind. We drove to our starting point, left the car in the cooling shade of a handy tree, and he promptly stormed off at what could only be described as a military march. I, rocking a Roobarb t-shirt, the lightest white T I own (cheers, Ruthy) and a pair of shorts, could see my immediate future mapped out in the first few minutes. Sweating. Lots of sweating. Another T-shirt ruined. (Sorry, Ruthy).

Anyway, the charge. Walk, I mean. I've mentioned already that the water in the lake is low, and our route served only to confirm exactly how dry it is. I'm no photographer - I lack the creative eye, and have no need for a proper camera because I really couldn't do it justice. So what I'm putting here lack quality but serve to illustrate where my words would no doubt not be adequately descriptive.

We were walking along what used to be the road out of town, to the next village. Unpaved and greening quickly where plants are reclaiming the land man took from them when they dammed the river many years ago, it still faintly resembles a road, with two stony tracks divided by a grassier centre, and it's from that road that you get a decent indication straight away of just how much the water has lowered:


The road I took these from would itself usually be under water, so you can see just how deeply that fisherman would be inundated under normal circumstances. It's revealed more of the old medieval stone-walled buildings that once lined the river as people farmed the valley. The trees in the right-hand pic usually have their feet wet - you can see all too clearly where it would normally be.

I confess that occasionally I did wish that we were under water, because at least we'd have been unmolested by the damn insects which buzzed around us constantly. Now I recognise we were kind of on their patch, but lads, please - there's a time and a place. I'd repeatedly warned my partner, anaphylactic as she is, not to flap about and flick her hair around whenever anything winged came even remotely near her, but of course failed to heed my own advice. I don't know if I mentioned that I sweat - a lot? This was obviously acting like those UV lights you see in butchers' shops, because they buzzed all around me all the bloody time, drawn to me by what was obviously an irresistible smell to them. (I know, right? You've never found me so attractive...) 

Using a white handkerchief in a vain effort to moderate the constant stream of sweat I was producing, of course I flapped around in exactly the manner I'd warned C not to. I looked like some kind of insane semaphorist, desperately signalling my surrender to the incessant swarm. Uncle M seemed entirely untroubled by our six-legged botherers. "Look," he said. "I'm sweating too but they leave me alone." He showed me his shirt, which looked about as wet as if it had spent the previous hour in the tumble dryer.

Anyway, back to the walk. Reaching the point where the road vanished and we could go no further, the stepped remains of the vineyards left behind by the Romans could be seen. You can never be quite certain how old any of the ruins are that you see here, but these terraces are, I'm assured, definitively Roman. (Mind you, I was assured by that same person that the battered plug-end housing of an extremely old extension cable we found in the dust was also Roman, so I would not stake so much as a cent on the accuracy of this information). 

So this shot marked the point at which we should have been having that ploughman's and pint, but instead turned more or less immediately on our heels and started the walk back.


We walked for about 5km in total. For me, that represents a proper effort, but I recognise that this is little more than a short jaunt for proper hikers. I think I'd have sweated away to a rancid pair of Converse, steaming and fly-blown, if we'd gone too much farther though. Regardless of my own toil, the insects and the lack of a pub, there is an undeniable beauty about the whole place.

The old road we walked on, near the starting point.
One last shot, if you'll permit me. Right where we parked the car there's a graphic demonstration of the old and the new, which also reiterates how low the water is. The modern road, on which we'd reached the starting point, crosses the river on the bridge above. The old bridge below is usually some 20 feet below the surface. And this in what is typically the greenest and wettest region of Spain.

The old and the new stand high and dry together.
I did at least get that beer, after all. M was kind enough to drive to the nearest bar, a place on that road where the drivers of the big trucks which thunder through the area stop for a drink and a bit of grub.

Even there, though, we weren't left alone. One of our winged companions had decided to come along for a drink with us, and I noticed it on my leg in the bar. A fly of the type that usually bothers cattle, so Uncle M assured me, and not one you want to spend too much time with. "These ones are tough," he said, and he wasn't bloody kidding; this fly really didn't get the message. It was variously swatted off my leg, smacked squarely against M's jeans with his hand, squeezed between his fingers and stepped on, twice, but still kept trying to come back. Only when it was, frankly, smeared right across the bottom of his shoe did it finally go to wherever flies go when they die. (Not a place I'd like to imagine too carefully).

Let me tell you that, when finally in a position to relax and have that drink, the first glug of that caña was one of the sweetest I've ever tasted. 



Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Fierce creatures

Growing up in Brighton and then living in London for 25 years, I haven't the faintest concept of how large a hectare is. Or an acre. I've only a vague perception of what a furlong, also originally a rural measure, looks like because of horse racing. So I'm just going to describe the smallholding - the finca - that I visit fairly regularly here with my partner's uncle as 'big'. Very big.

Placed on one of the valley's steep slopes, there are, variously, beehives, an orchard, walnut trees, potatoes, cabbages, lettuces, enormous tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, asparagus, French beans, spring onions the size of your fist, etc. I've no doubt missed some of it.

It's only about a five-minute drive from our house, and I only go, of course, with my partner's uncle Cuqui ('Cookie', to anglicise it). Now usually, in these pages, I abbreviate people's names just to single letters or only refer to them obliquely; it's just a courtesy to them in case they'd prefer not to have their name placed here in full. The people who know them will know them. I don't need to do that with Cookie - he's so universally known as Cookie that I can only use his nickname here. I've probably been told his real name but genuinely can't remember it. Everybody knows him here. His deep voice and splendid moustache are as much features of this village as the fountain in the main square.

He's an amiable fellow, of blunt and freely expressed opinion - often that if it's not Galician it's no good - who, like everybody here, really knows his food and wine. He's been nothing but friendly and helpful to me since the first time I met him, when he tried to get me shit-faced with his home-brewed liqueurs.

So, arriving at the finca with him, you're greeted by a mastiff the size of a horse laying just inside the gate. Fortunately I know this dog already so his low-pitched growling, most effective to any would-be interloper I imagine, doesn't bother me too much. Nonetheless he did his job, giving me the 'abandon hope all ye who enter here' growl when I approached the gate first. He quickly shut up, though, when Cookie approached and greeted him with a cheery 'sod off', and once we were inside the finca's walls, his new tactic seemed to be to drool me to death. A soppier dog you could not meet, once he knows you're no threat.

Another dog, an English Setter, has to be kept inside one of the buildings when his owner's not there because if left to his own devices, unlike the mastiff, he simply fucks off. Released twice daily by Cookie, he charges around like a nutcase, trying to get the mastiff to join in his games and jumping up at any visitor to see if they fancy a run about. A guard dog he is not.

The half-dozen sheep are partly there to trim the grass, because the place is way beyond the size where any domestic mower, even those posh ones you sit on and drive about, could deal with, and much too steeply sloped in any case. Not knowing me, they keep their distance from me as they patrol the finca, eating anything green and trying to find a way in to the walled vegetable areas. They regard me with a cool suspicion, and if I didn't know better I'd say the one in the middle of the shot below is giving me the skunk eye.


Their other function, of course, is to provide lamb for the dinner plate. The one male who looks after the females for this task is distinctive because of his bloody great testicles. Christ, what a pair of nads. I mean, damn... they're like a couple of coconuts in a wet shopping bag.  

There are other animals working there too. The ones you really don't want to approach, which hang around looking like an LA street gang, are the cats. Feral, of course, they're all scarred and tough-looking beasts which scurry past you and look at you challengingly - "Don't touch me, man. I'll cut you. I'll cut you bad." Seriously, all that's missing are eye patches, tattoos and neck ties. One of them in particular, the boss-man, were he to appear on film, would be played by Robert Shaw. Bent-tailed, limping, scraggy and armed quite literally to the teeth, he was the feline embodiment of Quint from Jaws

These could hardly be described as belonging to Cookie. He's merely come to an arrangement with them, whereby he brings them food and they eliminate any rats and mice that may be foolish enough to venture into their postcode and don't savage him on sight. 

Cookie brings, to feed canine and feline alike, offal. An entire set, removed all too recently from a pig - tongue, lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, all still connected in one steaming string which he boils and cuts up for them. Not a meal, or a sight, for the faint of heart. In this, the cats do at least demonstrate characteristics which any domestic cat owner will recognise. While we were busy with something else, one of the cats stole a kidney from the bag and was busy gnawing on it when we came back. When prepared, cut up and served to them, she didn't want to know that same kidney. If it ain't robbed, it obviously tastes inferior. Cat gang culture, I suppose.

There was one other cat there, clearly not part of the gang, since they largely ignored her. This little lady;


Only a few weeks old, she at least was too small to prevent me petting her. Purely to accustom her to human contact, you understand, and not because I'm an absolute softy where kittens are concerned. When we got there, her eyes were fused together with sleep gunk, and her mother being nowhere to be found (she doesn't belong to the street gang), Cookie has to perform the job of her absent mother and wash them every morning to get them to open. She also, of course, gets fed. I hesitated to ask if there were others, but if there were, they've been taken by the eagle that can be seen every day hunting over the lake, or else by foxes. She's either the luckiest or the cleverest of however many of her siblings there were. 

I would, of course, with my English sentiment, take her home and make a pet of her, appalled at her chances. But this is another difference I've quickly got used to - between urban and rural attitudes as much as between Galician and British - such sentiments bemuse some of the locals. For all that Cookie cleans her eyes and feeds her, if she disappears, she disappears and that's how it is. It's certainly not for me to rock up and tell him to do differently. I don't need to learn how to be a local to know that.

(One important point of order in all this - if I get any of this wrong, if I say something here which simply isn't true, it's almost entirely certain that it's down to my language skills, which are sadly lacking. Much more likely than having been told a whopper is that I've simply not improved my Spanish sufficiently to properly understand what I'm being told. Therefore, to coin a phrase, any errors are entirely the fault of the author.)



Monday, 26 June 2017

One week in

While I don't want this to become a sort of public diary, it's worth noting how the first week's been, now it's passed. It still feels, of course, like I'm on holiday here. When that feeling dissipates, and whether I'll notice when it does, remains to be seen. I am going to have to moderate my intake of cerveza from holiday levels to everyday levels, either way.

Anyway. We live downhill - quite steeply downhill - from the centre of the village. As a consequence, the habit among people in our little neighbourhood is not to ask if you're going into town, but to ask simply if you're 'going up'. This morning, tasked with finding Parmesan from any one of the shops, I had to 'go up'. The forecast had been for rain, which if it's coming today certainly feels some way off, and for a considerable drop in temperature. So I left the house dressed, as was my standard attire in London, entirely in black.

There are two ways up. One, the more direct, is up the main road. The other takes longer and involves a twisting footpath which offers some terrific views across the valley. That's the route I prefer. By the time I got to the point where I took this photograph, not even halfway up, I realised I'd made two newbie mistakes.

The lake, created artificially for hydro-electric power generation, is very low, revealing
the medieval buildings and petrified trees which are usually hidden in its depths.

I'd set off at London walking pace. Bad idea. The locals know that, when it's hot, the pace of your walk has to match the pace of life here generally. I'll also have to eschew my usual all-black clothes because by the time I returned to the house I had to treat my T-shirt as a bio-hazard and get a specialist team in to dispose of it. I didn't find any Parmesan either.

Another thing, and bear with me on this, is 'Cowboys and Indians'. Remember that little riddle you were set as a kid, where you had a canoe and had to get a certain number of those enemies across a river but couldn't leave them unattended with each other? The solution involved shuttling back and forth, carrying one or more of them with you in both directions, going back on yourself to get everybody safely across without a fight. That's our current situation with plug adaptors. We've brought nowhere near enough. So we can't boil the kettle while the computers are charging. If we need to use the drill, which is happening a lot at the moment while we put up our pictures from home etc, then I can't make coffee - a catastrophe here. So we're continually switching them around, temporarily plugging something in and then moving the adaptor to wherever it's next required or back to where it's been borrowed from. Anybody who comes to visit us, please bring three-to-two-pin plug adaptors!

We've been welcomed with genuine warmth and happiness, to a village of around 2,800 people, where most people know most people. This can be a double-edged blade of course, and I've already seen a little of how political things can be in a small place like this. But that's surely the same everywhere and, overwhelmingly, it feels like the reasons we came here for will be borne out fully over the long term. When I 'went up' this morning, as a reminder of the courtesies which would be considered old-fashioned in Britain, but prevail here, the few people who passed me wished me buenas dias whether they recognised me or not. What should feel slightly awkward to a reserved Brit feels right here.

I've just seen a headline on the Beeb that the Tories have reached a deal with the DUP - don't get me started on them - and will form the next government in the UK. With that, and the appalling scenes of Grenfell and the recent attacks in London and Manchester, this place feels like a different planet; tomorrow morning I'm going with our neighbour - my partner's uncle - to his smallholding, to watch him let his sheep out(!) run around with his dogs for a bit and learn a bit about cultivating vegetables here. Oh and we found an adder on our patio last week.

We hope to share it - we have friends coming from Britain over the next few weeks, and I'll be going home to 'collect' my mother and accompany her out here for a few weeks next month. We can only reiterate the invitation we've extended to our friends - come and see us. Grab a bit of this tranquility for yourselves.


Two edits: I've been reliably informed that 2,800 is the entire population of our town and all 52 of the much smaller villages in the administrative zone in which we're located, and that the village itself is considerably fewer than that. Head hung in shame accordingly.

And my partner has pointed out, rightly, that the structure of the last two paragraphs makes it sound like we wish to share the adder, not the peace of the village. We don't - that adder's all ours, so hands off.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

There's a change coming

So, months have passed since my last blog entry. It's not like there's been nothing worth writing about - the current diplomatic crises, particularly with Russia and North Korea, our own political shambles and forthcoming election, the ongoing crisis in the NHS - I could go on. But when the will's simply not there, it just ain't there. That sense of despair I wrote about after Tump's election has manifested itself in my turning away from the news - for the first time in my life - and largely ignoring it.

I've still known what's been going on, of course; in the West the news media is all but ubiquitous. But that knowledge has only been broad strokes. I haven't really paid attention. Instead, I suspect like a lot of people, I've focused on personal stuff, and taking great pleasure in things that have gone well in my own life and those of the people I care about.

One of those things has been a long time coming, but is now in the process of happening. For about two years my partner and I have been seriously contemplating selling up in London and going to Spain permanently. We could see all too clearly what some of our family members are experiencing having worked hard all their lives, and hoped to avoid the same if possible and buy ourselves a little more time off work, as it were, than they've been granted. My own father died less than two years after retirement, and for around 18 months of that he was ill. My mum's stroke, which has left her partially disabled. My partner's mum is not in the best of health either, having worked bloody hard herself just as most people our parents' generation did.

Add those personal reasons to the broader stuff above, and you'd probably think we've got a pretty compelling desire to get 'out'. Well, it's a bit more nuanced than that, of course, as I'll explain below. It's taken a year to sell the house - thanks a lot, Brexit - but it's done. We're currently in Sussex, working our notice periods and getting ready to take car and cats out there. The contents of the house are already out there - more on that particular adventure in another entry. It's nearly done. I have two days' work left as I write this.

I've written in these pages before about the village where we're going to live. The work/life balance, the pace of life generally, the character of the people, the tranquility - all are considerably different to London. This is one of those chances that you have to take, I think, if the opportunity presents itself. We know what we're moving to - Viana doesn't change. It's probably not going to for the rest of our lives. Not much, at any rate. Therein lies the appeal, of course. But therein also lies the apprehension.

I said to my workmates, before my leaving drinks last Friday, that I'm extraordinarily fortunate by any measure. I've been blessed with a happy childhood, loving parents, friends that I'm proud to so name, jobs I've enjoyed. Sometimes. A partner I can never adequately live up to or properly explain her meaning to me. I've not suffered poverty or serious ill health. And anybody who knows me will know that I'm baling out on Sussex just as my football team has finally reached the top flight again after a 34-year wait. Complaining about pretty much anything at the moment would be self-absorbed to the point of solipsism and churlish in the extreme. So to be in a position to choose to make such a monumental change, to give up something that's so good anyway. maybe I'm pushing that luck?

What's swayed us, if I can speak for both of us, is the micro and the macro. That personal stuff gave us the initial trigger, and then what's going on at home and abroad seemed merely to serve up daily reminders that it was time to go. The country moving farther to the right, with a convincing Tory victory seeming likely (assuming they don't trip over their own feet as they seem to be doing their utmost to do). The appalling response of some Brits, both triumphalist and xenophobic in equal measure, to the referendum result. The erosion of the sense of tolerance and modern thinking that has always formed part of my pride in being British.

But, in London, and both working, we've been largely insulated from feeling those things personally. It's been more of a prickling sense that things aren't right out there than a jabbing pain of specificity. We've had it pretty good here compared to most. Even my partner, who's returning to her own home town in this move, has admitted to a sense of loss. Leaving a teeming London, where your door is locked overnight but anonymity is blissful and opportunity everywhere, for sleepy Viana, where your door never needs locking but everybody knows everyone else's business, will be a seismic change.

Locals have warned me about how hard it is over winter. Long, dark nights. Cold. Not seeing the sun. (I have to misquote Billy Connolly here - where do they think I'm from? Benidorm? Brits go whole summers without seeing the sun...) But the summers there are long, warm and reliable. We'll be able to travel. Getting back to Britain to see family and friends is cheap and relatively easy. If you're a child, or of a certain age where yoof stuff is no longer important, there can't be too many better places to be than Viana. We hope our friends will come and visit us, so we can share out just a little of that good fortune in our own hospitality.

So there may not be too much happening to us specifically which prompts me to write here, but who knows? I have so much to learn about leaving the London mindset behind permanently and settling in to another culture, that it may prove a rich seam. I'll keep you posted.




Edit: having just posted this, I've just seen the appalling news coming out of Manchester. Exactly the sort of horror that only happens in places where the shock value of it can be maximised. The likely ages of the victims of this atrocity, when they come out, are going to make unbearable reading. My thoughts with families and friends of everybody affected up there.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Complete anus completes annus horribilis

You know those posters some people put up in the office - 'You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps!' - that sort of faux-cheery, cod rubbish that never made anybody even smile, still less laugh? Well, years ago, when I was just an acne-covered 17-year-old cleaning the offices of American Express in the evening for beer money, I saw one of those on somebody's desk-space wall which has stuck with me. I don't know why - it was no more or less profound than any of the others.

"And a great voice boomed from the heavens, and it said 'Don't despair - smile and be happy, for things could be worse.' So I smiled and was happy. And, lo, things got worse."

That's what it said. Now it may have chimed with my innate pessimism. I may have retained it because, like many teenaged boys, I fancied myself a cynic at the time. I don't know. But for pretty obvious reasons it came back to me this morning, as the news broke from the States.

This has been, by both personal and wider measures, an absolutely fucking shit year. My father's death, our own referendum, the refugee crises, war in Syria, terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere, the rise of the extreme right across Europe and beyond, beloved and influential people like Bowie dropping like flies - I could go on. I was, though, naive enough to hope, still, that Clinton would become the first female President of the US. Female heads of State in both Britain and the UK - even if you don't agree with their politics, even if you accept they're both a long way from perfect, that would have been something, wouldn't it? Some signs for hope, particularly in the States, that a black man could be followed into the White House by a woman.

Well no, obviously. 2016 has decided, in its apparently infinite capacity to bring forth shit, that it hasn't done with us yet. It has, finally, squeezed any last vestige of optimism from me, and left me, like so many others, in despair. I still have nothing but the highest regard for those who won't let it defeat their spirit, of course. I may not be much of a Facebook user, but I see the defiance in people I love and admire, the determination to do good, to be good people. The will not to allow Trump et al to drag them down to his hell of fear, hatred, retrenchment and isolationism. But I've got to tell you, just at the moment, I'm not feeling that. I feel beaten. Hate is winning, everywhere.

We're being told that millions of ordinary Americans felt let down, disenfranchised by a political elite they regarded as corrupted, morally bankrupt and completely out of touch with how they felt. Well I know how they fucking feel! In an America with a right-wing nutcase President-elect, a Republican Senate, a Republican House of Representatives and a Republican Chief Justice, where the hell is the voice of the Democrat, the liberal, the minority, being heard, still less represented? Don't those millions, equally appalled at the state of their nation today, also count?

On this side of the Atlantic, at least, there seems to be a sort of bewilderment that 'it' could have happened again. That a country that can elect Obama, twice, can then put almost his direct antithesis into the same seat. What happened to the America that elected him? How have people that called him a terrorist, a communist, and a Muslim, the last being intended as an insult, have had their way, when this most human of Presidents, this classiest of men, seemed only ever to want the best for his country?

The US seems to have forgotten which way round parody
is supposed to work. The Simpsons, 16 years ago. 

I wrote an entry last July about not letting this sort of thinking - this sociopathic, atavistic, solipsistic ideology that's becoming so prevalent - win. Reading it back now makes me feel like I was Cnut, sitting on the beach, watching the tide advance inexorably but still trusting to the future. He, at least, was able to leave the beach when it was clear he'd been right - there was no stopping it. The rest of us have no such luxury, and we're already in it up to our chests.

Never mind - smile and be happy, for things could be worse.