Sunday, 30 October 2016

Chatting with squirrels

On my current trip to Spain I happened to meet two red squirrels. The first I came across on the French side of the Pyrenees. I was walking alone in the beautiful countryside around Arro and the day was sunny and hot. Just to my left came a rustling sound from the hedgerow followed by some high pitched chattering. Suddenly a little red squirrel leapt put of the hedge onto the trunk of a tall pine tree just beyond it. It looked me in the eye and chattered crossly. I responded in kind as best I could. It climbed higher our interchange took place once more. This was repeated a number of times until, with a last burst of sound, my squirrel leapt into a neighbouring pine and was gone.

I continued on my way thinking over what we might have said to each other. First of all the little creature was clearly cross and said something along the lines of:

“What the hell are you doing out here disturbing my midday snooze?”
I simply pointed out that I was an Englishman on my way to Spain and had every right to walk through the French countryside.
“English,” he screeched angrily, “it’s you lot that let those grey tree rats in and now we hear that there isn’t a red squirrel to be found in the whole of your land.”
“You mean the grey squirrels?”
“Rats, tree rats. That’s what I mean.”
“But they are squirrels too.”
“Rubbish. Just look at them man. They’re grey not red. Look at their manky tails and the way they move. Why they can’t even speak properly.”
“Have you ever seen one here?”
“Not likely. But there’s some in the north. Coming over here eating our nuts, taking over our nests. The northern reds have tried setting up a no-go area around the coast, completely stripping the trees of nuts and ­­­­­­­­­­­blocking up all the nests. But it’s no good, they always get through. Some softie from your lot takes pity on a starving family of them and, instead of leaving them to die, feeds them up and takes them inland to where there are plenty of nuts and there you go.”
“But why can’t you live together.”
“Ha, that’s what they, with their big flat faces and rounded ears, say: ‘Oh please let me share your tree Mr Red Squirrel; there are plenty of acorns for all so why don’t we share them’. Then they get to work eating our nuts and breeding like rabbits until there are so many of them that they turn to us and cry, ‘This is our tree now. Push off red squirrel, there’s not enough food for you as well’. Yes, we red squirrels are doomed, all doomed.”

And with that he leapt into the next tree and was gone.

The second squirrel I encountered was Spanish. He looked similar to the first one but was a shade browner and a little smaller. I had just walked along the lip of the deep canyon which the Rio Jucar cuts through the generally flat terrain of Castilla La Mancha. I had then climbed down into the gorge to the little village of Tolosa and began walking alongside the river to my motor caravan parked beneath the famous cave town of Alcala.  In a close repeat of the first encounter a Spanish squirrel rushed up the bole of a pine tree to my right. Surprisingly, given this squirrel’s nationality, this little chap was more reticent than the first and it was I that started the chattering. Nonetheless, once started he readily joined in before ultimately vanishing into the upper branches. This is what I imagined we said to each other:

“Hello Seňor Red Squirrel,” I said in a friendly way. “I met one of your cousins from France recently and we talked about the problem of the grey squirrels taking over your lands.”
“I am honoured to meet you Seňor,” he said shyly, his head partly obscured by the trunk of the tree. “However, I know nothing of grey squirrels and French squirrels. All squirrels are brothers and sisters and all are equal.”
“But surely you have heard that grey squirrels from another land have entered mine and taken all the food and nests of our own red squirrels, driving away all of your brothers in England?”
“All squirrels are brothers,” chattered the little brown squirrel after moving a little further up the tree.
“Are there any grey squirrels in Spain?”
He twitched his curved tail nervously and replied, “I do not know Seňor.  We live only in the valley of the Great River. My father’s father claimed that he found a grey brother by the riverside. The grey brother, sadly, was dead.”
“Perhaps it died trying to get into your valley. Life for squirrels is, I should think, pretty good here.”
He did not respond to this so I continued, “What if the grey squirrels did enter your valley?”
“We would welcome them, all squirrels are brothers.”
“Would you feed them, would you house them?”
“Of course.”
“What if they came in great numbers and took all of your nuts and your nests so that there was nothing for the red squirrels to eat and nowhere to live?”

The Spanish squirrel’s tail froze and he sat motionless on his high branch for some minutes before shrieking, “All squirrels are brothers,” then he vanished into the surrounding trees.

I continued walking through that picturesque ravine until I reached the town of Alcala. I then looked up at the morass of white houses clinging to the steep cliff side. We had visited this strangely attractive place the evening before and estimated that only a fraction of the houses were permanently occupied, so, plenty of nests there. We had also spent some time in a bar most of which was cut into the cliff face, so, plenty of room for expansion. The landlord, a confident, expansive fellow, had explained the current political situation to us as we watched Rahoy making his bid to continue as Prime Minister on the TV. He, the landlord, gave us nuts to chew while we drank our beer and I thought, “What if...?”

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Desiccation and drinking in the headless state of Spain

It is so dry here that all is dust and dusty. The snakes are sufficiently emboldened to seek any droplets of moisture that people might spil,and walking on the terraces of our huerto is like walking on potato crisps – sharp, sticky crisps. It has not rained in our lonely corner of Spain for at least six months and the country itself has been ungoverned for at least twice that time. Not that the two are connected necessarily. The drought means that we will have no olives this year, but better governed holdings have irrigated their trees and will have a harvest.

On the brighter side we are still eating our olives from two years ago, have a bumper crop of delicious purple-bloomed grapes, most of the trees in our little orchard have survived, and the Spanish continue to enjoy life in their festive tradition.

Recently we went along to the first night of partying at the fiesta of our second most favourite village in this country. On offer was a fully fledged fairground plus a dance to a live band starting at midnight (yes starting). We chose the more traditional tour of the bodegas (wine cellars) led by a large cohort of local musicians and singers. They play jota, a distinctive local music featuring guitars and mandolins together with solo or duet singers who stand in a special way and give it full belt – not a microphone or amplifier in sight. The stance is important: the singer stand proud and thrusting with hands on hips and elbows extended (or, for the more casual men, thumbs in jean pockets cowboy style). The songs have a fixed pattern. There is quite a lengthy instrumental introduction during which the singer waits patiently for a musical signal. The music slows to a near halt then, as the musicians move into the main body of the song, the singing begins. My Spanish is not good enough to understand the lyrics but most seem to be concern the village or its surroundings. Some are clearly amusing, especially those sung by a short man with a white beard tied like a pony tail with a red elastic band and wearing a strangely tied bandana shockingly exposing one side of his balding head.

The evening started in the beautiful main square of Cretas when a small group of young ladies from the village set off a rocket at nine o’clock precisely (9.30ish Spanish time). Then, nothing. The crowd continued chattering animatedly unril, at long last,  the joteras climbed onto the stage. There were roughly twenty-five of them and so the show began with a few short songs. Following that, the troupe began their musical meander through the narrow maze of streets which make up the old town. First stop was outside the church so no wine there, yet the waiting and  their singing was making me thirsty. After a few songs the players led us on a long walk through the newer part of the village, singing and playing as they went.

“Oh no,” I said half-jokingly to Margaret, “they’re heading straight for our camper van.”
“And we only have one bottle of wine,” she replied dryly.

Fortunately they turned into a nearby restaurant and we piled in after them. It was a large place where one long table had been spread with plates of ham, olives and bread together with bottles of red and white wine. The musicians sat down at the table and began to tuck in so I grabbed a glass and made for a bottle. Margaret restrained me, hissing that the stuff was solely for the musicians. I watched carefully as the rest of the audience descended like locusts on the food and drink, then joined in. Soon the music began again with the owner of the restaurant doing a solo and to my amazemnet she was followed by a young girl. I had noticed this teenager at the church: an attractive girl with thick black hair and a pretty but elongated pale face. She wore that sullen, teen-style expression and displayed the body language of someone who clearly did not want to be there. Yet she sang so clearly, so strongly, so convincingly that the experience went straight to the heart and brought the greatest applause of the whole evening.

After this a melodious walk back into the old city for more food and wine in a large garage. More again in a dead end street where there was cake, sweet wine and, of course, always the jota. We ended a memorable night at about two in the morning in another garage, this one, strangely enough, dedicated to bull fighting. Finally, that seemingly recalcitrant, but actually rather shy, young lady sang a magical last song and we wandered happily back to our van.

Despite the lack of government the main bar in our own village, our favourite bar, has changed hands yet again. At first we thought that our friends Miguel and Anna had left and handed the business over to their cook Vincente. We were told that they had gone to Barcelona or maybe Adalusia, yet one day Margaret met Miguel in the local shop – they still live here, they have merely given up the bar. Vincente is very fat, just as cooks are supposed to be. He says little beyond an initial greeting and final goodbye. His wife is from South America and looks it. Margaret thinks her exoticism may prove a retainer for the old men who are the bar’s main clientele (though not income). We will have to wait and see. Meanwhile we have decided to share our alcoholic largess between Vincente and Ramon. Yes, he of the bar next door. He who almost drove us from the village when he ran the, then only, bar. Earlier blogs relate his rapid demise from enthusiastic greeter to resentful barman, followed by his re-emergence as the owner of a new, bigger, and perhaps better, bar next door.

Think of us then in England as the pound falls to near parity with the euro. Then, think again when I tell you that Vincente’s beer is a little over two euros a pint! Meanwhile we think of our recent escape from a two week traverse of France where six euros a pint was not unusual!

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Irish and Sovereignty

I like Ireland,­ and the Irish who live there. Ever since I was briefly befriended by the then prime minister’s (Teajoc’s) brother on my first flight to Dublin some years ago the people of the south have gained a special place in my heart and mind. I have so many tales about experiences there, usually based on the warmth and sense of humour of the people.

Our latest visit was occasioned by two events: our youngest son had acquired a son and house. My wife could not wait to get her hands on this latest grandson (I quote) and my acquired skills as a house renovator were needed to kick the other project off. And project it was. The house is not too far from the centre of Dublin where prices are soaring and, from first impressions, I found it to be a basket case in a dubious area. After two weeks hard labour where I provided a new shower and loft tank, rewired the kitchen area and fitted up a new kitchen I changed my mind about the house and the area – and reinforced my opinion of the Irish.

Just one example: the house is part of an old corporation estate and bordered by a scruffy lane which serves the next door launderette, Chinese takeaway, electrical supply shop and so on. We were living in our motor caravan, the house unfurnished and uninhabitable. There was nowhere to park, in fact most people parked on the pavements. So where were we to go? Luckily my son had spotted an unusual location near to his densely populated area: a dead end street overlooking a pleasant park and dribbling stream called the Poddle. At the end was a large space in which cars and lorries could turn. Great – we took up residence, nervously. Surely the permanent residents of this enviable plot of greenery would balk at gypsies moving in?

On the first evening an old man approached with his dog, presumably to complain. “Is it alright to park here?” I asked in an effort to pre-empt the onslaught, adding, “it’s just temporary while we help our son do up a house.”

“Oh, to be sure, you’ll be safe enough there. Nobody will bother you,” he said as my jaw dropped in astonishment. He then went on to tell us the history of the place, of his wife’s death and how his daughters supported him and finally to introduce his new “wife”, the dog, a little scrap of a thing whom he said, “never nags. Oh, and if you want you can park right outside my house”.

We became regulars at the Four Roads pub where we quickly made friends with the previous landlord and major contributor to the karaoke session on a Monday night. It was here that we saw a spitting image of Anne Widdicombe wiggling her bounteous hips whilst belting out Elvis’s ‘Teddy Bear’. And it was not just the Four Roads that welcomed us - we were chatted to by people in almost every pub that we entered.

My son allowed us just one day off work so we escaped to the coast south of Dublin. Finding it camping car unfriendly (not surprising, there are so many of the things nowadays and so big) we turned inland finally drawing to a halt above Parnell Park in the village of Rathdrum. The village was small but lively and we had a great evening of good, basic, Irish food, some quaffable local beer and visits to two pubs with live music. 

Next morning I ran around the park, learning a little more about Parnell who was born nearby and was a great and dogged proposer of home rule for Ireland in the 19th century. Perhaps appropriately the park also had a plaque celebrating the constitution of an independent Ireland which I read with great interest. Two words leapt out at me, particularly because of the recent Brexit referendum in the UK. The words were ‘sovereign state’ and the context , of course, independence. My eyes widened as I read this at a time that the Irish government had just been reprimanded from Brussels for giving favoured tax rates to the likes of Apple and Google and ordered to accept unwelcome refunds! And, hang on, wasn’t sovereignty the major issue in the UK referendum?

Now, I know this is a long shot, but could it be the great change that is Brexit might be the context for a united Ireland with free trade links with mainland Britain and who know what else – sovereignty perhaps? Yes, just as long as they do not lose those palatial pubs of theirs where the greeting is genuine rather than corporate policy and the drinkers are there to talk and sing rather than adulate mobile phones.