Tales of the Lecrin Valley

A personal view of life in an andalusian village.

Having a view of the Sierra Nevada mountains from my house I am fascinated by the cloud formations that roll over them.  Clouds you only ever read about in meteorological books or see on the news are commonplace.  And because of the great difference in temperatures betwen the mountain tops and the sea, only thirty kilometres away, there are often clouds with ruler-straight undersides at the head of the valley where the hot and cold air meet.  This winter has been fantastic in the valley, cloudless skies and temperatures into the twenties during the day, and marvellous starlit nights with the temperature well below zero.  I was up at sparrers this week doing something or other and the ground was frost-covered and the rivers running to the lake and the lake itself were both steaming.  As the water was part snow-melt the air temperature must have been well below freezing.  I was so taken by the sight I took some photos.  Here they are.Lake steamingLake steamingRestabal 

River steaming

 

 

 

 

 

It has happened to me all my life.  If I am sitting in an empty bus a nutter clutching a brown paper parcel will get on board, sit beside me and whisper,

‘It’s an elephant’s foot, the right foreleg I believe.  One of Hannibal’s elephants.   I’m off to have it re-soled in Dartford,’ or something similarly astonishing. 

 Having lived the first fifteen years of my life next door to a Mental Hospital these things go almost unnoticed, unless there is someone with me who will dine out on the story for the rest of their lives.

So when I was in Casablanca and attending a flamenco concert in the Instituto Cervantes it came as no surprise when a young couple sat next to me and as soon as the music and dancing started they got out their smartphones and started frantic conversations by SMS.  The girl had one phone and was going for gold, but was beaten hands-down by the lad next to me who had TWO smartphones and was ambidexterously using the pair.  I don’t have any idea what he needed two for, but I supect that he was acting as a go-between between a boy and a girl.  Relationships, or even friendships are closely monitored in Morocco and often youngsters go behind their parent’s backs to carry out even a harmless friendship.  Of course, when you are young a bit of forbidden fruit makes things that much more exciting, but whatever it was, three flashing LCD screens in my peripheral vision was extremely annoying.  Not once did they look up to see the flamenco artist strutting her stuff, and as there were many turned away for lack of seats I was a little annoyed at their selfishness to say the least.  Being British I didn’t say anything, just harrumphed a few times and gave them both a meaningful look which fell on deaf ears, their profiles only being shown to me as they sat hunched over their phones.  But it made me feel better.

Then last weekend we went to a concert here in the valley and were entertained by a quartet called Jolís.  At least I think it was the whole foursome that were called that but suspect it was the singer only, as his name was Jose Luis.  It was well attended and the seats were packed tight together with little legroom or space between them.  So I found myself shoulder to shoulder with a bloke who, as soon as the first song began, delved into his pocket and brought out a Kindle electronic book, switched on its built in light and proceeded to read a chapter or two.  The venue had had the lights dimmed for the ambience but this bloke seemed oblivious to the fact that he was causing a nuisance, to me at least. The Kindler He merrily hummed and nodded his bowed head to the music which sent the beam of light dancing around like an anti-aircraft searchlight, illuminating my trousers as well as his, the jacket of the woman in front and glinting with kaleidoscopic brilliance when it encountered anything the slightest bit reflective.  I thanked my lucky stars that I had had my eyes lasered a few years ago and didn’t have to wear glasses anymore.  If I did I would have had to put up with rays of light flashing across my bottle bottom lenses as well.  Carmen was amazed and looked at me with that look she has when a Brit is doing something unthinkable in Spanish society and that added to my annoyance as I felt embarassed for him, although it obviously bothered him not a jot.  So, although the concert was good, it was marred for me by this ASBO contender alongside whom I had the misfortune to find myself.  I think I prefer the nutters.  At least they say what they have to say and then sidle away to annoy someone else.  I had this clown for an hour and a half.

In England we give presents on Christmas Day but in Spain this is put back to January 6th and is called Los Reyes Magos, or the (Three) Magic Kings.  There are a variety of ways in which this is celebrated.  On 4th January myself and a couple of other fathers were coerced into dressing up as Melchor, (obviously me as he is depicted as being blond with blue eyes,) Gaspar, who in this case was six feet two with a fearsome bellow, and Balthasar who was blacked up to represent his supposed origins from down south somewhere.  We went to the nursery where children of up to three years old spend the day and prepared to give out presents.  The kids were terrified when two giants (I’m six feet tall) and a black man dressed in outrageous pantomime costumes entered their classrooms and waved and uttered rubbish in deep bass voices.  The poor things screamed their hearts out and ran for cover, except the oldest class who seemed to understand what was going on although they were very reticent about taking their presents.  We Three Kings left feeling more stressed than the kids and I think we successfully ruined their Reyes Magos and left them emotionally scarred for life. 

The next episode in the Reyes Magos saga here in the Valley of Happiness was on 5th January when it is traditional for the villagers to chip in and buy sweets and small gifts for the children.  These are loaded onto an elaborately decorated trailer behind an equally elaborately decorated small tractor which drives through the village with three pantomime kings aboard throwing the sweets to the children. 

Decorated Reyes Tractor

Decorated Reyes Tractor

Our office is in the church square and this is where the tractor makes a stop to discharge sweets.  And I use the word ‘discharge’ advisedly.  The Three Kings get a bit emotional at this stage and hurl the sweets and toys about with extreme volence, often trying to hit the parents.  We shut the shutters to protect the office windows and the wise among us use opened umbrellas as protection against the incomers.  We made the mistake this year of leaving the office door open and I had remember thinking what the insurance company were going to make of my claim against damage caused to computer screens caused by high-velocity confectionery.  After the tractor has moved on to the top square a most sinister scene evolves which involves the children and the old women of the village scrabbling about on the ground to collect sweets.  I swear I saw a few elbows being stategically deployed by some of the elders in the darkness and a few little fingers being trodden on, but I may have been mistaken. 

Sweet collector skulking in the shadows

Sweet collector skulking in the shadows

Soon there were no chldren to be seen, probbly as they were following the tractor for easier pickings.  After a tour of the village the tractor ends its trip in front of the Casa de la Cultura and the Tres Magos go inside to give out presents donated by families to their kin.  As these are generally older kids there is not the furore that takes place in the nursery, and things are mellowed by the presence of a ridiculously cheap bar for the fathers upstairs.

The 6th is a family day so I have no idea what goes on in other houses in the village, but ours was the height of decorum and of genteel present-giving and receiving.  I got socks.

What with Twitter, Facebook and Blogs, I am a little confused as to what I have written on what.  Anyway, just to tell you all that I am still alive and that as the resident hawk in the Valley of Happiness can tell you that from flying around the valley like a madman trying to get all the houses ready for clients staying over Christmas and New Year, there are some real bargains to be had now.  In fact, Carmen and I are putting our feet in the water again as there are some bargains just too good to miss.  We have our eye on something for a couple of years now, and it has now been reduced by 66%.  Even at the original price it was worth the money.  So, things have reached rock bottom and now is the time to buy if you have ever considered doing so here in Andalucia.  A lot of the prices on the website are now just wishful thinking, but pride and prevents owners from putting lower prices for all to see.  If  there is something that you really like the look of, write or phone and I can almost guarantee that the price on the website can be dropped, sometimes dramatically.

At last I have nothing looming on the horizon and can get back to work and make some plans for the immediate, if not long-term future.  We spent the week before last in Morocco, commuting between Rabat and Casablanca, seeing friends and taking part in Eid el Adha, or the Feast of the Lamb.  It took seventeen hours to get there vice the usual seven, thanks to the large number of people travelling home for the feast, delays in loading and unloading the ferry, the inefficiency of Moroccan Customs and awful weather for the drive.  But when we rolled up at our hotel, the El Pietri in Rabat, at one in the morning we were greeted like old friends, which we are having stayed there numerous times during the last year.  Eid el Adha celebrates Ibrahim’s sacrifice of a lamb in lieu of his son Ismael and is the biggest festival in the Muslim calender.  The whole country resounds to the sound of lambs bleating in the days preceding the feast, vans scurry around the towns carrying lambs to and from the various lock-ups to which they have been brought from the farms surrounding the cities.  From there they are sold to those wealthy enough to afford one, or to those with a good reason to make a sacrifice, such as the birth of a child during the previous year.  It is not unusual to see sheep’s heads  peering over the tiny balconies of a block of luxury flats, wondering what on earth is going on.  On the day itself it is traditional to offer a prayer and then cut the throat of the sheep with its throat pointing towards Mecca.  It is then skinned and butchered on site, be that a garden or the roof terrace of a block of flats.  If there are a number of wealthy and devout residents in the block, the terrace soon becomes a veritable charnel house with blood and guts everywhere.  The animals waiting to be dispatched, having seen what is to be their fate, nervously stamp, bleat and relieve themselves, adding to the overall chaos present at any Moroccan gathering.  After the slaughter it is traditional to wrap bite-size pieces of the liver in caul fat and barbecue them.  I love both caul and liver so this is a delight for me but Carmen, being a doctor and knowing the functions of every part of the body, doesn’t eat any kind of offal and shies away from the offered kebabs.  From midday on Eid el Adha and for the next few days there is a wonderful smell of charcoal fires and barbecuing meat wherever you go and lamb tagines, lamb couscous and anything else to do with lamb greet you whenever you visit friends.  The skins are taken to specialists who quickly clean and cure them and the resulting rugs are then kept in houses to remind people of the sacrifice they made and why they made it.  After a few years and a lot of kids it is almost impossible to get through the door for sheepskin rugs.  Somehow, the parents and each of the children know which rug belongs to which child, but this knack has eluded me with any family with more than five kids.  An interesting if exhausting week but I hope that helps to explain why I haven’t written for a while.

What a fantastic week this has been weather-wise.  Temperatures in the high twenties, not a cloud in the sky, and what a beautiful deep blue sky it has been.  Cool in the evenings, which is great after the heat of summer, and cool crisp mornings ideal for walking in the hills hereabouts.  A great reminder of how lovely it is to live here in the valley.  There are so many fruits in season at the moment that jam-making is a full-time occupation and the oranges in my garden are starting to turn colour, reminding me that November is not that far off, even if the weather belies it. Business-wise, house sales are at an all-time low, which is hardly surprising considering the state of the world’s economy, but surprising if you see the fantastic offers there are to be had now.  Anyway, if I have to suffer a depression anywhere, this is the place to do it.  Rentals are starting to pick up for Inmaculada and New Year and I am feeling a bit less annoyed with Consuls-in-General, but I’m sure some other kind of bureaucracy will soon sort that out.  Quarterly tax and VAT bills spring to mind.  Seems that I am supporting the rest of Spain with my contributions to the Social Security at over thirty per-cent per annum.  Slightly exasperating when you see all the unemployed in the bars spending their dole money and I am too busy working to join them.  Hey-ho.  Still have my health so can’t complain.

Consuls and Competence.

I haven’t written in this blog about the Spanish Consulate in Casablanca or the thirteen hours we spent in the waiting room there while the staff huffed and puffed and blew their credibility out the window.  The Vice Consul in particular deserves mention,  A typical diplomatic wannabe in an over-tailored light grey suit with high waistband and calf exaggerating trousers, too-tightly tailored jacket with the stitching visible around the edge of the lapels as if he had rushed out of a fitting before the tailor had had a chance to finish his work, a light blue sea island cotton shirt, pink silk tie, slip-on shoes and his hair slicked back with half a jar of gel.  This martinet’s arrogance was only matched by his ignorance and both were surpassed by his incompetence.

So it was with a certain sense of national pride that I phoned the British Consulate in Malaga to get a visa for my adopted Moroccan daughter to visit my family in England, thinking that I could show my Spanish wife how things should be done.

‘We don’t deal with visas any more in the Consulate,’ I was told.  ‘You have to contact the United Kingdom Border Agency for an application.’

My heart dropped and I mentally adjusted my rucksack for a long, hard tramp through bureaucracy.   A few years ago I worked as a Customs officer and spent years in ports of entry.  We knew everything about smuggling and revenue collection, HM Customs and Excise having been in existence for many hundreds of years.  Alongside us were Immigration Officers who knew all there was to know about immigration rules.  Next to them were Police Special Branch Officers who also knew their stuff.  Then the Labour Government decided that all this expertise counted for nothing and formed the UKBA, a supposedly catch-all agency who, from my experience gained from many trips through entry channels since their inception, were unlikely to catch anything that came their way.  So I went through the website of the UKBA and found that they had outsourced to a company called Worldbridge and that I would be required to pay ninety nine euros to them for the application form alone.  So I did, there is no other way to get an application, and downloaded half an inch of paper telling me that I would have to learn about British culture, learn to speak English and a host of other rubbish.  The application form was about two-thirds of the way though the pile and I filled it out and was told that before I could submit it I would have to pay three hundred and fifteen euros for a one year visitor’s visa plus fourteen euros postage.  So I did and was then allowed to print it off.  I looked at what I had to do next and found that I was supposed to have booked an appointment in Madrid to process the application at the same time that I had made the application, but there had been no chance to do so as the relevant link had not been open, there being no interviews in August.  I tried in vain to get through to Worldbridge to see what my next step was, but was told that before they would answer the phone I would have to give my credit card number and I would be charged fourteen dollars.  Dollars, I thought, for a British entry visa?  So I did and was put through to a call centre in India who said that I would have to get in touch with the Consulate in Madrid.  I tried but that was impossible as they do not answer the phone but just refer you back to India, or to another advice centre in Budapest, but this time for only one euro eighteen cents a minute.  So I phoned them and they patched me through to a fax machine.  Three times.

I waited three weeks and then my wife became so incensed she got in touch with the Consulate in Madrid somehow, and they said,

‘Oh!  No need for a visit if the visitor is a baby, just send the application and the passport in with any supporting documents you feel might help your case.’

So I did, with a heap of stuff that I thought may help my case and a few days later was phoned from the Consulate telling me that they were not the documents they wanted.  ‘How do I know what you want if you don’t specify, surely the way you are running this is a little bit subjective?’, I answered.  A lot more words passed between us and I suspect they sensed my ire.  So I sent by fax what they wanted and sat back to wait.  A few days later I received my daughter’s passport and a form telling me that the application had been refused as I had not supplied the right documents that I had not in fact been told to supply and that there was no right of appeal.  I managed to get in touch with the Consulate and was told that ‘Those are the rules and there is no right of appeal but you can apply again.  You will not need an appointment if you wish to present the documentation yourself, I will leave your name at reception.’

‘And I pay another three hundred and fifteen euros plus fourteen euros a go?’ I said.

‘That’s right,‘ they said.

‘Jobswuth,’ I thought.

So I phoned friends of mine in the Foreign Office in London and Milton Keynes and to a man (and woman) they were astounded at the decision taken and the lack of a right of appeal.  To add insult to injury my daughter’s passport had been tainted with an ’entry clearance denied’ stamp.

So the process began again.  I paid and as soon as was possible the three of us, my daughter, wife and I, got up at four in the morning and drove the four and a half hours to Madrid.  We entered the modern tower block and were surprised that a member of the Consulate was in reception on the ground floor and that she knew of me and seemed to be waiting for us.

‘What’s this all about?’ I thought.

Suspicion loomed in my mind.  Ambush drills came to the fore and I looked around for Diplos hiding in the shadows, ready to pounce and smarm and charm me to death or explain that forms must be filled in and submitted correctly or I must bear the consquences.  They would glibly explain that they are only doing what is lad down in Directive X and are not allowed to waver from that and employ common sense.  Nuremburg Defense.

I was hurried through the booking-in formalities and sent on my way to the Consulate on the thirty-eighth floor.  The security staff there also knew my name in advance and were expecting us and were quickly shooed through and sent to a private cubicle in the Consulate, away from the rest of the waiting applicants, presumably in case I started a ruckus.  As we went I marvelled at the youth of the staff dealing with applicants in the main section there.  They were barely out of their teens and I felt that it must have been one of these makee-learnee box-tickers who had handled my first application.

The woman who dealt with us was obviously a senior member of staff, both by her age and her calm ability to deal with people.  We weighed each other up and she began with a Righteous Attack.  I repled with a Castigated Defence and showed her the document that she insisted had been needed for the first application.  She glanced at it and said,

‘That’s what we needed.’  It could have been a parking ticket for all she knew, it was written in Arabic and she told me that she didn’t read Arabic.

In an envelope in front of her I had the expensive new application and duplicates of all those documents submitted with the first application and a few unnecessary ones in case they needed them.  By the speed that she had scanned the document and the speed with which she decided that all was in order and the visa would be issued I knew instinctively that she knew that there had been an iffy decision made with my first application and that she was just trying to get things over and done with with a minimum of fuss.  She decided that she wanted to see our marriage certificate, the one document we didn’t have and an immaterial impertinence to my mind, but when I said I didn’t have it she said it didn’t matter.  As several of the women adopting children had been single mothers I wondered where that question came from but I shut up and decided to live and fight another day.  But I felt like a naughty boy who had had his homework marked and found wanting and was being made to pay for my slackness.  And pay dearly.  I was already composing my blog entry in my mind.

‘Do you want it valid for one or two years?’ she said.  ‘It’s the same price.’

‘Two years, please,’ I answered wondering at the reasoning behind that particular decision.

And then she handed the document back and said that the visa would be ready in ten minutes.

It was, and then we drove the four hundred and fifty-five kilometres back to Granada, nine hours driving, all told, all of which could have been avoided by a simple phone call or a proper list of what was required with a visa application.

I still smart from this particular shafting and understand now how the British dominated the world for so long.  Paint them into a corner, be nice, take their money and keep squeezing them until the pips squeak.  They didn’t even offer me a nice cup of tea to ease my frustration and in two years I have to go through it all again.  I don’t know which I prefer, sitting in a Spanish waiting room for thirteen hours for free or a month of hassle, a trip to Madrid and a lightening of my wallet by six hundred and fifty eight euros courtesy of the British.  Carmen is still smirking. 

There’s a wonderful Billy Connelly sketch on You Tube about booking a flight before computers came on the scene, which tells how simple things were then.  And so were visa applications before outsourcing.  Progress so often goes backwards these days.

Our six month sojourn in Casablanca is over and we are now back with our new daughter, Aya.  She is a lovely little two year old, bright as a button and full of fun.  She is lapping up her new life here in the Valley of Happiness and is living up to the valley’s name. 

 August has been hot this year, with temperatures regularly climbing into the 40’s and the drop this last week to more manageable low 30’s and cooler evenings is very welcome for those of us who didn’t have the whole of August off, but had to carry on working.  We have been reliably informed by the cabañuelas http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caba%C3%B1uelas that the weather will be fine until December and who are we to argue with them???  I don’t know if Manolo the local supermarket owner who told us this is a member of this ancient sect, but nothing surprises me any more in the valley so he could quite well be the head honcho of ACECA. 

September brings a very abrupt halt to the holidaymakers here in the valley and on Saturday I managed to park in the Saleres church square for the first time for over a month.  Anyone know the Spanish for grockles?  There were the usual sons and daughters here to see the family in their Mercedes, (it’s too much of a coincidence that everyone who left Saleres to work elsewhere has made it big-time, so I wonder if they save up during the rest of the year and hire a Merc to impress the rest of the village in August) and that made for lots of parties and drinking outside the houses in the cool of the evenings.

I will endeavour to be more forthcoming in the future as the silly season is now over, so please keep looking at the blog and bump us up the Google rankings.

We are now back in Spain after almost six months in Casablanca.  A lot has changed since we have been away but Lidia and Maria Jose have done splendid work looking after the office in our absence.  A lot of businesses have closed with the crisis now starting to bite and a couple of new ones have opened, showing that there are still optimists around.  I wish them all the luck in the world.  There seems to have been a lot of public work going on with the residue of EEC money that was asked for before the entry of many Eastern European countries and the entrance to the valley in Talara and many other villages have now built miradors for relaxation.  I hope to write a lot more soon, but first have to catch up on what has been happening in Viasur.  Keep reading!!!

One can’t visit Casablanca without going to Rick’s Cafe and Carmen and I are no different, so off we went one evening.  We had seen the place often as it is very near the part of the Medina where Asiya and her family live, just in front of the Naval barracks.  The building has been very well restored and is not too kitsch.  It hasn’t religiously followed the film set although the bar is similar, and of course there was a piano waiting for Sam to arrive and do his thing.  We arrived early and had a drink at the bar, and tried to chat to the barman, although he wasn’t too hospitable, being more interested in chatting to his colleagues.  We were the first ones there and had a chance to look around.  Several tables had been reserved, as one would expect on a Saturday night, and a stool at the far end of the bar also had a reserved sign in front of it, I guessed for the owner,and we waited for Humphrey Bogart to arrive.  I am not a stranger to bars the world over and this had a nice atmosphere, although more from the people who were now arriving, expecting something different, than the ambience. 

File:Rickscafe casablanca.jpg

We weren’t sure whether we were going to eat or not but asked for the menu and decided that we would.  We were given the best table in in the house in front of the piano, surprised that it hadn’t been reserved and wondered if the proximity to the piano would ruin conversation when Sam started to play.  The owner arrived, dressed in a silver lamé suit, and took her place at the bar.  She had dark, almost black lipstick, and had her shortish hair done in the American, CNN presenter style, the kind where the hair never moves no matter what the owner does.  She appeared to be in her fifties and looked around her bar to suss the punters.  We ordered our meal and a bottle of Moroccan wine, the price of which would have paid Asiyah’s rent for a fortnight, and got stuck in.  The food was good, obviously French influenced, and the filet mignon I had was perfectly cooked, although with not too much taste, but I had found this with other fillets in Morocco.  The owner rose from her stool and ghosted, there is no other word for it, around the tables welcoming diners and asking if all was O.K.  I have never seen anyone so bored and so mechanically doing what seemed to be such a chore.  The waiters were a bit reticent at first but we soon got them to loosen up by practising our Arabic on them.  Then Sam arrived, or rather Issam, as he said was called but which seemed a bit too close for authenticity.  He played a very pleasant medley of tunes, asking us if the music was too loud, which we said wasn’t.  We waited for him to play ‘As Time Goes By’ as is mandatory and we finished our meal and left.  A pleasant enough evening which was nicely rounded off as we were leaving with a voice from behind us which suddenly said, ‘ ‘Ere, hang abaht,’ in a thick London accent.  We turned to see a Moroccan man dressed in a jellabah and fez offering us some publicity about the bar.  It turned out he had lived in London near Vauxhall Bridge and had picked up the argot there.