Tuesday 7 December 2010

Working Stone

Have a nice holiday. That’s what people say to me as I leave England for our place in Spain. I try to explain that I am not going on holiday. They smile and say - enjoy your holiday. After all that’s what Spain is for isn’t it? Holidays. Though why anyone would come to Spain, certainly the Spain that we know, for a holiday in the winter beats me. Rather than holidays we think of electric blankets, portable gas heaters, wood fires to be lit, fed and cleaned; and my wife misses central heating in the way that I miss real ale.
Nowadays I spend nearly all of my time with stones. I carry them about, I hit them with hammers and chisels, I cut them with a diamond wheel, I split them and I talk to them. Yes, I confess, I do talk to them. And they talk to me!

The stone in our area is a form of sandstone. It can vary in colour between straw-yellow through orange to red. When exposed to the atmosphere it very gradually blackens and greys like an ageing person. All of the older houses are made from stones that vary in size from a cricket ball to a boulder. Some of the stones, especially the corners, are worked to provide a flat, scored surface; but the bulk of the stone presents a naturally occurring ‘face’ to the beholder. Traditionally the stone walls of houses and farm buildings were bedded in clay, a cheap natural material now replaced by mortar. Some time ago the stone of most homes was covered with a soft mortar probably to prevent the drafts that developed as stones moved and clay cracked. Later the mortar-covered walls were painted a violent blue for disinfecting reasons or looks or both. Picasso lived in our area for a while and some claim that visit as the beginning of his blue period. Nowadays much of the blue paint and mortar has been removed exposing the old stone which has been cleaned, chipped out and pointed in modern mortar. The restored houses look really good, but I would prefer the unpointed walls of the many casitas and animal shelters that blend so well into the arid countryside.

So I bought one! A casita that is. It sits in what the Spanish call a huerto (think of a large allotment garden in terraces with irrigation channels passing through it). Traditionally people who worked the huerto lived in the stone casitas during the growing and harvest seasons as did the animals, implements, tools, etc. This was sometimes called stone camping and has mostly been superseded by the availability of motor vehicles. We intend to return to the earlier way of life.

Our casita was quite small but had two floors, the one above for the bats and below for the rats. It was not inhabitable. So I’m making it bigger and cleaner and will one day install solar electricity and a water system, even a shower and some form of toilet. But first I have to make it bigger. The existing walls are traditional clay and stone and are a half meter thick. I am copying them, though I am filling the space between the inner and outer wall with mortar not clay. Hiss, hiss say the traditionalists. But they are wrong, mortar is better, they just didn’t have any in the old days.

The rate of my building is so slow that increases in height are only detectable by monthly photographs – like those films of flowers growing, but slower. I spend most of my time wandering between my many piles looking for the right stone for the current space. The job is similar to doing a mammoth jigsaw where none of the pieces quite fit and there is no picture to copy. I have names for the sort of stone that I am looking for: flat-bottomed sloper, angled dipper, etc. The stones want me to place them in the wall. They shout, “Take me, take me”, but until I find a suitable candidate for a trial I reject them with comments such as “too fat, too round”. Those that I carry (or roll for the larger ones) to the wall for an audition are often rejected; they then lie near the wall hoping for a second chance. Some are cheats. They pretend to be near fits then, when I work them with the hammer and chisel; they display hidden faults and break asunder. These are punished. I use them as fillers in the interspace where I put the mortar: they will never see the light of day again.
Locals think that I am mad and perhaps you do too. They admire the work and sympathise with the slow progress by saying “poca a poca”, but in their minds they wonder why I don’t use concrete blocks like everyone else.

Just what has all this to do with a blog attached to a bookshop (www.robsbookshop.com)? Well, almost every day I make notes about the work on the casita and the huerto so one day there will be a book – or a set of stone tablets. Don’t hold your breath.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Culture in Teruel Province

In Spain we live in a province called Teruel (pronounced Tear Well as in tearing a piece of paper –well). Many Spanish say this is the place no one comes from and no one goes to: it has an incredibly low population for its vast size. Here drivers proudly display a ‘Teruel Existe’ sign, in case of doubt. There aren’t any big cities of course. Our nearest is AlcaƱiz and it’s small.
The decision to go to a concert there was a last minute one – it was Saturday night and we were already going to a play somewhere else. The play started at 10 pm (really); the concert started at 7 pm – so we had time to do both (everything is arranged around dinner which is at nine). We arrived at the Teatro Municipal on time. We then had to wait for Spanish 7 o’clock to arrive. Still it gave us time to look around at the audience which contained a frightening proportion of children: a fact that does not bode well for a classical concert. But it was cheap and in aid of a charity for the disabled. And the theatre was warm, plush and comfortable.
At last a tall, elegant lady appeared on the stage in a sparkling, figure-hugging, dark-grey dress. She gave a long introduction and the curtains then opened to display the orchestra (actually a banda). Shock and horror – no violins – and some very young musicians mixed with some older ones. They were not good. Dvorak rose from his grave and committed suicide during the mercifully shortened version of his ninth symphony. Still they tried. It is, I believe, very difficult to synchronise wind instruments. I was fascinated by a large white-haired man who stood, without moving a muscle, to the right of the orchestra during the entire first half. He played no instrument, held no baton, showed no emotion. He just stood there. Why?
After a short and noisy break, a long announcement, awards given to various members of the audience, a present for the announcer which she unwrapped while we watched, a box of sweets for the players, and individual introductions to a large proportion of the banda the second half finally got under way. It was very good: especially the rendition of Gulliver’s Travels. I suppose the first part included rising musicians, the second the top echelon. However, my enjoyment faded after a while, the brassy effect of a wind orchestra began to offend my ear so I started to watch the audience.
Amazingly, late comers kept arriving until almost the end of the show – and they were still allowed in! Some stopped to chat to people they recognised as they made their way to a seat. One member of the orchestra, a youngster, got up from his seat in our row and went into the corridor to play with his friends! We could hear them running about. Two little girls in front of us were fighting. They were separated which started multiple trips to the toilet, then conducting from the floor, then playing with their parents’ hair. A little girl behind me clapped a lot whilst the music was playing. She also wandered around the aisles smiling at anyone who would respond. At last the performance seemed to be over. Everyone had been hugged and kissed, the curtain had closed, and the audience had risen to its feet. Then the encore started. We slipped out.
The journey to Cretas took over half an hour. We just had time for a quick carajillo in a nearby bar then into the place where the wine festival is held for the play. It started at 10 pm which was odd. Actually it started at 10.20 pm which is normal. Why so late? People have to have their dinner, explained Willy, a friend from our village and the reluctant husband of one of the stars. This is the first play that I had seen which was entirely in Spanish, without sub-titles, and where I knew everyone on the stage – including Patchy who is a part-time barman, part-time builder and the play’s producer, writer and performer. He is a big man and, on stage dressed as buxom female civil servant, he seemed gigantic. My Spanish understanding was too poor for me to follow the play, but it was fun to see Dolores (the wife of Willy) perform as the unwanted grandmother who the daughter (Christina, the tour guide in our village) was trying to commit to a home, and to see Dolores real daughter Sandra appear as her marijuana-soaked granddaughter. The performance was enthusiastic, the stage set fragile, the audience large and mixed in age, the ticket price zero, the length of about an hour just right. After the curtain call Patchy whipped off his wig to show his glistening baldhead and to thank everyone of the cast by name and individually. The Spanish like to glow. And so ended our night of culture. It was good. Not at all like being in Oxford of course – but when in Spain...

Tuesday 23 November 2010

The magic of olives

Where we live in Spain there are three important topics: olives, almonds and football. Or, if a person is not interested in football (how I miss the football free pubs of Oxfords) and is not keen on nuts then there’s olives. The trees drape the slopes of the valleys and climb upwards until they finally loose the battle against the high altitude pines. They fill the fields of red earth so carefully cultivated and rolled to create a neat pattern of swirls around the trees. They line the roads and caminos and are even planted in parks. They vary from spindly youngsters to centuries old gnarled and split-boled survivors. They are beaten, shaken, plucked, pruned and robbed of the valiant suckers that sprout gaily from the roots each year. They are capable of bearing intense cold and heat and withstand droughts that would deprive a camel of its hump.

We have a huerto (a sort of veg garden with water) and our bottom terrace has seventy very young trees of variable conformance: from bushy trees of some three metres to sad sprouting which could hardly bear the name of a bush. Last year just one tree had olives, twenty of them, but when we returned to harvest them in the early spring they had gone. This year we tried to sneak up on the fruit and were delighted to find the very first tree laden with black berries. Then we became progressively depressed as we found many trees with none, others with meagre green fruit and a few with wrinkled berries as if prematurely aged. We also had to beat our way through weeds that are almost as tall as the trees themselves, and this after paying a man to cultivate our grove in spring!

Still, we took a small harvest; we bought a black rubbery bucket and filled the bottom of it with a hundred or so fine specimens. I am now washing them daily before placing them in brine. Some say that washing is unnecessary. Others that they should be place in a vinegar and solution. Some that they should be kept for a year, others a month. There are probably as many recipes for preserving olives as there are for apple pie – no, there are more. It’s all quite fun and we may be eating our own olives by Christmas. In the meantime we are eating some given to us by a Dutch couple who run a wonderful camping site near our village. Many people give us the things – is there any point of having our own?
One day we hope to have enough to make oil. The author of the book I’m reading on olives (see my bookshelf at www.robsbookshop.com) is obsessed by olive oil. He barely mentions eating the things. He travels from mill to mill around the Mediterranean basin talking to growers and millers about the production and pressing of olives. Each visit ends in a marvellous meal cooked in – would you believe it - olive oil. I can’t get too excited about the oil. For one we would never have enough to get our own back from the press, and for another the oil, it seems to me, is a means to an end in a meal: as a salad dressing or as an addition to garlic-rubbed toast or, most likely, as hot liquid in which to fry the food itself.

Today, as I took my lunch break away from my main obsession here (extending the stone casita on the huerto so that we can become seasonal migrants) I looked out over our little grove. The wind was fairly high sending waves of disturbed air through the silvery green leaves of my little trees (also through the reddish brown of the weeds) and it all looked very beautiful. At night the trees look ghostly in the lights of a car. In the sun they glint as light winds turn the narrow leaves. As you may notice I am coming under the spell of the olive, which may not be a bad thing. After all it is the symbol of peace and the name of Popeye’s girl.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Travel broadens the mind

I have neglected my bookshop blog! My excuse is simple: I have been travelling. It’s supposed to broaden the mind you know, and I was ready for a broadening. This time we travelled to Spain the easy way, or so I thought. We travelled in our small motor caravan to Bognor Regis for a breezy night in the car park of a seafront pub. Why Bognor Regis? Why indeed. It is not a mind-broadening place especially in winter. Deserted for the most part and possessing very few buildings of stature or beauty and very few pubs with decent beer, it was not a destination of choice.
But coincidences do happen. A few years ago we were teaching English for a few months in Yan’an, a city of much greater fame than Bognor – at least in China itself. Whilst there we had a minder: our foreign affairs director, Mark. He became a good friend and we owe much of our detailed knowledge of that vast country to him. A few months ago he emailed to say that the local government of Yan’an had provided a grant for him and other English teachers to attend a course in England, at the University of Chichester, based at Bognor. Our ferry to Spain went from Portsmouth which is very near Bognor so, naturally, we went to visit Mark.
He was impressed by England: the way everything works, the cleanliness, the buildings, the prices. We were impressed by the changes in China: Mark now owns a car, has a new flat which is outside of the school grounds and the school has expanded dramatically. Meanwhile there are too many people in China with degrees so getting a job as a teacher now requires a ‘surcharge’.
I introduced Mark and his colleague to real ale and we left them tottering into the distance to get the bus back to their ‘host family’. Mark’s  colleague was awed by the number of single parent families in the country, awed that so many of them were female led, and amazed that most of the host families were from this category.
We sailed for Spain the next day and for the first time ever we took the expensive ferry all the way to Santander. It is a beautiful port: the very best ferry port I have ever entered and, to complete the experience, a three-masted sailing boat followed us into the bay.
 Our first view of the north-western coast of Spain was very positive, then we dipped down to Olvideo and encountered a frenetic featureless city in which we were swiftly lost. We stopped outside a large hotel to consult the map: where else could we go at seven o’clock at night? In the event nowhere. When I turned the ignition key the engine did not turn. We spent the next few hours finding a mechanic then jump-starting the van so that we could sleep in the football stadium car park nearby. We had a good evening though. The potato plus menu in a restaurant called Papakins was great, as was the wine consumed from a pint glass!
Next morning the mechanic came to jump-start us again. We drove to his garage where he replaced the battery and its cables for a mere 200 Euros! We reached our goal, a village called Ordes roughly halfway between Santiago and A Corunya at about seven in the evening, exactly the same time that my friend and Spanish conversationist arrived there – another coincidence.
Jacobo and Patricia showed us the cities of A Corunya and Santiago and took us to a typical lunch at Jacobo’s parent’s huerto (vegetable garden). We had a great time and will treasure memories of Galicia despite the rain and the Pope’s visit.
It’s a long way from Galicia to our own place in Aragon. We passed through Castilla y Leon, Rioja, and Navarra to get there. We took overnight stays in two Spanish villages along the way (one called Carrion!) and visited the cathedral of Leon which must have some of the best stained glass in the world and the cathedral of Burgos which happens to be my favourite in the world: lightness, whiteness, highness – you name it.
On the road from Zaragoza to our Spanish home I experienced the first blow-out of my life. Blam went the nearside rear tyre in a deafening explosion followed by an inexplicable clanking and shattering vibration. I pulled into the side of a very fast road having no idea what had happened. One glance at the gaping, wire-shrouded hole in my rear tyre convinced me that I had to put on our dubious spare wheel. Still, we were lucky: it could have been a front tyre; I could have been surrounded by traffic.
We finally reached our village of La Fresneda at about five o’clock, seven days after leaving Stow on the Wold. Here we were greeted by friendly locals in the bar and friendly waiters in the local restaurant. It’s nice to be home. Travel does broaden the mind – but it also lightens the purse.