Sunday, 30 December 2012

Dreaming of a warm Christmas

So we stayed in La Fresneda, our village in Spain, for Christmas – and what happened? Not a lot.

The long term weather forecast predicted cold but sunny for us all over the Christmas period. It was wrong. I was working happily in my Tshirt on the Sunday before Christmas and on  Christmas Eve (my woman’s birthday) we sat drinking coffee on the terrace of a lovely hotel located in the depths of the countryside near here drenched in sun and in temperatures approaching twenty degrees (that’s sixty-eight for Fahrenheit folk).

The hotel is called Torre del Visco and locally pronounced with awe. Our friend Jet, who now owns a camp site nearby, used to be the receptionist at the place and was actually instructed to ask potential customers if they were aware of the prices before accepting a reservation – simply to avoid heart stopping moments when the bill was presented. But La Crisis (the Spanish name for their current financial condition) reaches everywhere and we, as the only people for lunch, were shown around the place by the manageress and treated so gushingly by her overly enthusiastic  Swedish assistant that I really believed that I could ask for anything. Yes anything.

After a siesta we set out at eleven or so that night for a pub tour of our village. This didn’t take long since there are only two bars and it was a little disappointing. The promised music and dancing in the second bar did not materialise. There was music, but just recorded stuff, and no dancing. In fact all seemed much as usual in Lo Coscoll except for two things: first of all most people seemed to be companionably drunk, and second everybody was smoking (yes they do have a smoking ban in Spain, hence the surprise).

Christmas day was cloudy but warm. We went to the bar again only to find it virtually empty and Raul, the barman, keen to close up and celebrate Christmas with his girlfriend’s family – then return in the evening to open the bar again - so we strolled around the seemingly empty, completely silent village. We did meet one person, Carlos, but he is Swiss and has obviously taken an assumed name and can therefore be discounted. Then home for the Christmas dinner which featured turkey with a pop up. Margaret had already told me about the pop up and I was intrigued. In my imagination I thought of the first Alien film: the scene where the alien pops out of an astronaut’s stomach. The reality was a little disappointing: the pop up is a white plastic tube with a red end which rises when the inside of the turkey has reached a certain temperature. I experimented with it afterwards. It works like a car thermostat I believe - based on wax. It could be placed in old people’s ears to indicate when they have been sitting for too long in front of the fire. I’m saving mine.

Boxing days I usually take a long walk. In England it is cold so I dress up well. Here it was warm and sunny. Mostly I walked in shirt sleeves.  I used the time to trace the origins of the asequias (aquifers?) that keep our land supplied with water, but didn’t reach the place where they are diverted from the main river. Next year I will find the source. For most people here the day is a normal working day and thankfully the bar was open as I trudged tiredly back into the village for a well deserved pint (half litre of Heineken actually, but when in Rome).

In the evening friends came round. We drank a lot (beer,wine, cava, port), ate a lot, sang carols, played poker dice, talked a lot and went to bed late. Usual Christmas really, but warm outside and in.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The nose knows.

A strange transformation takes place when you live in a small Spanish village for some time.  When we first came here we were both appalled and amused by the nosiness of the locals: they stared at us so openly, they peered through the windscreen as we passed by, they walked so slowly past our open garage door that time seemed to stand still, they asked us highly personal questions. Now we behave similarly.

Twelve years ago we were the newcomers, the first English people to live in the village of La Fresneda. We were exotic plants imported from foreign shores. Now we are part of the flora and hence of little interest.  “Los ingles son aqui tambien,” they might say: The English are here again.

We once felt like outsiders. Now we view the people who have family homes here and travel down from Barcelona for the main fiesta in August and other holiday weeks as intruders - even though they have ancient roots in the village. We stay for months, they for weeks.

There are three houses undergoing renovation in the village at present (there are still a number of houses that are wrecks, supported only by their better preserved neighbours in the terraces that characterise old Spanish villages) and we study them avidly. What is happening? Is it simply a repair or complete renovation, who owns it, who is doing the job? The answer to the last question is usually simple: the workmen are Rumanian immigrants and the builder is Senor Enfadafo. His real name is Boris and he is the angriest man in the village and gets all of the contracts, but is still angry. He treats his workers like mierda and they love him because he provides work.

Today Margaret witnessed the kept woman who lives near us buying cheap boxes of wine. According to Louisa, the owner of the least gossipy of our two shops, the kept woman buys two or three litre boxes of gutrot wine each day. Margaret tells me that she (the kept woman) smells strongly of tobacco and our Swiss neighbour tells us that she is pregnant with twins! The father is the brother of the local bruja (witch) who used to run the bar in the plaza and bewitched the carpenter so that he moved in with her leaving his wife (Louisa of the shop) distraught – the shop was closed for weeks. What’s more the keeper of the kept woman has been in prison and recently threatened  a neighbour with a long carving knife over a parking dispute! Crikey, who needs a TV that broadcasts soaps that we cannot understand?

Some years ago a man was taken ill in the bar and the ambulance was called. When it arrived the ambulance men had great difficulty getting out of the bar with the stretchered patient due to the villagers crowding the exit. We were not amongst them, but if the same thing happened now…

I peer into the trailers of cars and tractors as they pass below my little building site. What are they carrying? Olives, firewood,  almonds, furniture, stolen cement mixers, stones… It is all so interesting. I watch the ants carry the crumbs from my packed lunch as I sit in the sun. Where are they going, do they gossip, why do the prefer cake to bread, how much can they carry?

We have lost our intellects and are now led by our noses. We are curious about things that seem trivial in frosty Stow-on-the-Wold and more so in cloudy Oxford . What is happening? Is this the first stage of dementia or a new awakening?

Anyway, after much Internet based research into where we should spend Christmas  (ranging from Casablanca, Madeira, Cadiz and San Sebastian) we have decided to stay in our village of La Fresneda. We just have to find out what goes on here during the festive season. The lights went on yesterday!

Monday, 3 December 2012

The road to nowhere.

The village of Torre del Compte is the reason that we live in Spain. Our estranged daughter, Sheena, lived there for some years and became the landlady of the local bar. We rediscovered her, came to visit, and fell in love with La Fresneda – a nearby village - our village. Sheena found a house for sale there and we bought it.

Sheena left, but we remained. It was partly in her memory that we bought a huerto (smallholding) on the banks of the Matarranya River looking out towards her village. This is where I do my stonework. Sheena used to say that we were ‘stealing’ all her friends and it has turned out to be true. Tonight we went to a performance of Shirley Valentine by Dolors her best friend and we regularly dine out with her and husband Willy. On Wednesday next Amador, the village mechanic, will call in for whisky and dinner: he too was a close friend of Sheena’s.

The village of Torre del Compte has an aging population of less than one hundred people including just one child of under fifteen years. There is little reason to go there and many reasons to leave. I like the place, particularly the church, and of course it has these associations with our daughter and her sons. We spent a lovely fiesta night there a few years ago: following a group of guitar playing minstrels through the streets, stopping at friendly open houses for a drink, dancing in the plaza – cherished memories.

It still has a little-used bar - nowadays run by a pleasant Rumanian lady who does not even live in the village. It also has a shop and little-used swimming pool. The school closed years ago, probably as a result of my daughter leaving with her three sons. The streets are currently lit for two weeks at a time, on rotation, to save money. Spain, as you know, is in financial crisis – not a day goes by without at least one mention of ‘La Crisis’ in the news.

So why, oh why, is Torre de Compte getting a new access road? Nobody knows. A mammoth crane with a gigantic jackhammer has been cracking away at some solid limestone cliffs for all the time that I have been here this year. Slowly, very slowly, it is cutting off the sharp corners which gave the old road character and never, to my knowledge, led to death or injury. Slowly the stone is carried by a small fleet of lorries to fill the gaps between the old curves, gradually creating a straightened, widened road leading to the dangerous corner which provides, and will continue to provide, the narrow entrance into the village itself.

The road to nowhere will not create jobs, attract tourists, or stimulate the economy of the village in any way. In China we saw many new roads being built apparently to nowhere, but nowhere rapidly became somewhere as apartment blocks, shops, schools and industrial buildings followed the roads. Here, in a declining rather than booming economy, that is not going to happen.

Of course, there is a short-term effect. The road workers spend their pay in the bar and the shop, local people hopefully get some temporary work, the crane and jackhammer are kept busy.

In the long term I will benefit. Here in Spain non-degradable rubbish can be taken to the local village dump and discarded. Every month or so a digger is employed to push the stuff over the hillside where it adorns the steep slopes. Here there are dump-combers: cheapskates like myself and other incomers call around to see if anything jettisoned is worth reclaiming. Just last week I lassoed a good strong door and pulled it back up the slope from the Torre del Compte dump and it now acts as an excellent platform from which I do my stonework. The village has my favourite dump and soon, when the road to nowhere is complete, I will be able to shave at least half a minute off my journey to it.