Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Last days

Today to the north.

A little resentfully on my part because I wanted to go to the beach and swim rather than go to some historically significant part of the island for cultural reasons. I was however mollified by the fact that we were going to see the tomb of Robert Graves, a writer who I will always remember for his more than vivid description of the colourful stages of decomposition of rotting corpses trapped in No-Man’s-Land while fighting in the trenches in the First World War.

In the event, after a tiring journey via circuitous roads and hindered by various idiots who meandered their way slowly in front of us, we were more than happy to give Robert’s last resting place a miss as we had had our fill of donkey created roads and donkey headed drivers and we had lunch instead.

The town we visited had a converted monastery which had the distinction of having had the notorious couple, Chopin and George Sand for a winter in the late nineteenth century. The monastery had been ‘dissolved’ with all the other religious houses in Spain two years before the lovers arrived. The property had been sold off and the couple had rented a couple of the monks’ old cells and did their thing for a number of months.

Chopin wrote some of his music there including the Raindrop Prelude (?) while Sand produced a book, “A Winter in Mallorca which seems to have had the same effect on the Island that Mrs Trollop’s disquisition on America had on that country. The most interesting item on display was the typed and corrected manuscript of Robert Graves’ introduction to a critical account of Sand and Chopin’s visit. It displayed his usual robust and opinionated style and was an eloquent peon of praise to his adopted island.

The port of this town was reached by a hair raising series of hairpin bends down the side of a sizable mountain with the usual vertiginous views only tangentially obstructed by the minimal barriers which ostensibly were there to keep wayward transport from falling hundreds of unobstructed feet to destruction.

The beach itself was minimal and very rocky and did not meet with the general approval of the family and so after a brief swim we moved on.

This is our last night in Mallorca and we walked down to the town after our dinner to get a coffee and an ice cream. The denizens of night life were beginning to take over the place and it was obvious that this was a young person’s resort. The predominant nationality is German and it is a relief to be shocked by the behaviour of another nationality other than my own!

I think I’m getting old!

Monday, July 30, 2007

An island revalued

Visiting relatives can be very trying: especially if they are not your relatives and they have desirable houses!

Carmen has contacted some of her relatives who still live on the island of Mallorca and the first set we went to see had their summer home in the north. This was a four bedroom villa set on the coast with glorious views. They apologised for the near beach being overcrowded but, as they explained, it was the weekend. If that was overcrowded then they obviously haven’t been to the Costa del Sol, or the resort on the south where we are staying! The meal they gave us was delicious and when we finally set off the next set of relatives my eyes were a decided shade of green.

The light green became emerald when the next house turned out to be a traditional Catalan style ranch like house (with air conditioning) with a decent sized pool in the garden. After availing ourselves of the pool we had to get changed to meet the rest of the relatives which turned out to be a Grand Gathering of the Clans as more and more cousins and second cousins turned up. The evening meal here was eaten outside and I had to field one or two snide questions about what I would have been doing if I had still been in Cardiff. The answer, of course, would have been sheltering from the lashing storms, but let is pass, let it pass.

The next day we visited a place that I had heard of from my parents when, after one holiday, I was presented with an EP (extended play) 45 rpm record with a bizarre picture of rock formations on the front and a gaping space where the discrete spindle hole should have been. Before I could say anything, my mother pre-empted my bemused questions by saying, “I couldn’t think of anything else to buy you!”

The record had to be centred carefully on the turntable, judging by eye the exact placement. This was never exact so when the needle started its spiral course towards the Great Nothingness at the centre the music sounded, you might say, a little idiosyncratic. To this day I cannot hear Offenbach’s Barcarolle without putting in the Doppler-like effects that I was used to hearing on the EP. My mother’s horrified response to the travesty of music that came from the speaker was that, “It sounded very nice if you were there!”

The “there” was the Caves of Drac; a remarkable cave system discovered by a French speleologist in the nineteenth century and containing a fabulous wealth of every variety of stalagmite and stalactite you could wish to see. I must admit it made the Cheddar Caves seem a little parochial! But the high point in the visit comes at the end of the system, when the pathway through the limestone wonderland opens out into an amphitheatre which can accommodate a few hundred people. At the bottom of the amphitheatre is a lake and with the lights extinguished illuminated boats appear on which musicians play classical music and yes, they did finish their short programme with the Barcarolle and yes, it did sound very nice because I was there to hear it.

I resisted the temptation to buy a CD containing all the music played by the nocturnal musicians in their floating cavern: some things are best left to sketchy memory.

The beach we went to after our Cave experience was another confidently spectacular place: a narrow beach surrounded by wooded hills and just too pretty to bear!

Today we have been to the very north of the island and visited two beaches. The first was yet another attractive location, but swimming obstructed by stony swathes; the second was just about as far north in the island as you can get and combined all the characteristics of the place that make for wonderful photographs and a slightly unreal sense of being there. The crystal clear water lapped a narrow beach which was fringed with pine trees. The pine trees spread up the hills around the water and, in the distance you could see the fantastic formations of the bare rocky mountains.

If you, as I did, swim out and simply revolve in the water you have a panorama of beauty that is thoroughly and selfishly delightful. As I revolved I wondered how many people were going to be able to go on holiday this year and have such an experience of natural landscaped delight as I was – and that is anywhere in the world. Mallorca has a lopsided reputation based on the mass tourism that has made the island so much money and defaced so much of it, but there are areas and places which (although developed) still retain the dignity of their beauty.

And I hear that some parts of Britain have actually had one day without rain!

Such luck!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Holiday Delights!

There has been a gap in my blog which will be filled by the following diary.


Toni is a front seat driver.

He is the sort of front seat driver that is just a few points lower than the ‘grab-the-wheel-and-scream’ passenger, so setting out on a first journey to Barcelona to visit Habitat (old shopping habits die hard) was one which was destined to failure from the first.

As we set out o an epic journey of what should have been about twenty minutes driving, Toni managed to give the impression that Barcelona was as foreign a city to him as it was to me. This was a little surprising as he had lived in the vicinity of this major sea port for most of his life, but we pressed on with the dogged determination of Scott of the Antarctic, though obviously a littler warmer and without the ponies.

As we were headed for the centre of the city, a sign invitingly informing us that we could get to Gran Via tempted us, and we duly fell. The Gran Via in question was, it turned out, obviously not that of Barcelona and, although as a sort of bonus, we found out where our local IKEA was, we were soon more than a little lost.

Signposting was uninformative and, in the various tunnels we travelled through, unobtrusive to the point of insult.

When we finally emerged into what was obviously a fairly major sort of city we were greeted with the delightful reality of a major conurbation in which the traffic lights were no longer working. There was not, I have to admit, the amount of apocalyptic chaos there would have been in any fair sized British city, but closed roads and policemen on most intersections (except where we drivers were allowed to battle out priority for ourselves) did not lend itself to calm driving and accompanied as it was by a triumphant denial of recognition of any streets, landmarks or directions from my passenger we were both a little stressed by the time we eventually decided we were in Barcelona and found ourselves a parking space.

We did make it to Habitat: triumph! But found that our proposed purchase weighed over 50 kilos and came in two wooden crates.

All things considered, our journey from the car park at the bottom of the Ramblas to the side street where we could pick up our purchase was less fraught than might have been expected. And our journey home showed us just how near our flat actually is.

Nevertheless, it was all worth it, because our balcony is now the unique possessor of a Habitat water feature and Toni has grandiose plans for its further beautification so that we can enter the Best Balcony Garden Competition in Castelldefels; in which, of course, we will win second prize!


In spite of having done only the most cursory packing we went to the beach.

I needed the rest to collect my wits to attempt ironing. I am not an ironer and I have failed in all my attempts to find that calm, Zen-like peace that people have told me you can find in this activity. I am very much with Lao Tzu who in one of his more enlightened moments pronounced that, “Only in non-ironing can true ironing we found; he who irons embraces the obvious and denies the world – which is wrinkled.” How true that is.

The plane was, of course, late – though this didn’t necessarily stretch one’s patience as travelling from Barcelona to Mallorca is only thirty minutes by plane!

A couple of passengers a few rows ahead of me seemed to embrace the short time and each other in a rather public attempt to join the five mile high club – though given the shortness of the flight I’m not sure that we made it to those heights: neither we passengers nor the eager lovers!

We arrived in Palma airport at some ungodly hour of the morning to find that the car which had been booked to transport all seven (!) of us around the island wasn’t really booked in the sense that it was waiting for us. Or indeed had been booked at all. There is something about the empty wastes of modern airports in the early hours of the morning that empties the soul of hope but, on the other hand, it wasn’t my fault and that is something which always give a spring to my step.

By using two taxies we eventually arrived in the hotel and settled down to a hot night. Quite literally: the briskly turning fan on the ceiling merely seemed to stir up the heat not dissipate it in any way. But there again that is what this island is famous for and there would be precious little tourist trade if the heat became only moderate!


A visit to Palma to refresh the memories I have of the place from the last visit. It turns out that I have virtually none and I begin to wonder if I actually visited the place at all!

Our lunch on a street flanking the cathedral was of paella – a dish I could quite happily eat in its various forms throughout the week – and this gave us the internal nourishment to tackle a visit to the cathedral.

The cathedral of Palma is a gothic masterpiece. The outside is dominated, to my view, by the odd buttresses that keep the place together. Although there are the usual curved plying buttresses with ornate caps there is also a series of rectangular buttresses which give the appearance of a Soviet series of blocks of featureless flats. I don’t know if these are contemporary or if they are a modern, unsympathetic attempt to curb gothic cathedral spread and destruction!

The space inside the cathedral is wondrous; that’s the only word for it. The height is impossible, and it hardly seems conceivable that the structure can be supported by the delicate columns which hold up the roof. The rest of the accoutrements of this building signally do not live up to the space.

Gaudi’s baldachin looks like an exercise in wire supported extravagance, but in the lighting that the cathedral gives this extraordinary construction is looked rather forbidding and the unlit lamps look uninspiring.

The glass looks depressingly modern and the great east window looks like something that a department store could use in their Christmas window display.

I am used to Roman Catholic Cathedrals having side chapels which look as though they have escaped from the Chamber of Horrors in Madame Tussaud’s, but Palma Cathedral has produced the chapel at the end of the east transept as something which seemed solely designed to give kids nightmares. I think that it was supposed to represent the creation of the world with the dark glass in the windows seemingly scratched with white gashes to represent the power of god. The walls have been used as the backdrop to a stitched plaster skin depicting a ghastly vision of creation with fish, faces and geographical features erupting from the surface. Most unpleasant.


A trip by rickety wooden, electric train to a town called Soller. The train starts from the Plaza de Espana and then the lines take it through the streets until it heads for the mountains. The single line cuts through solid rock until it arrives in a town which must have the only station in the world to have two museums to Picasso and Miro as part of their waiting rooms!

A further trip by electric railway takes you into the port of Soller which is part beach resort and part marina. The narrow beach is circumscribed by the tracks of the electric railway and the hotels and bars and shops are penned in by the range of wooded hills which surround the town. Beyond those hills you see a vista of ragged, stone mountains which meant that our lunch was eaten with a spectacular view as a backdrop.

Just outside the station in Soller was a pastry shop which sold a mouth watering array of goodies which Carmen forced us to choose. I chose a chocolate confection with added hazelnuts, all of which, I was informed was for me to eat alone.

Which bring us to . .


Which I have spent, so far, in bed with a bad tummy.

It is now four in the afternoon and I am going to venture into the town, a thinner (don’t ask) and a wiser man!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I've read it. Have you?

There are times when altruism pays off.

I was searching through the bookshops of Castelldefels for an Ellis Peters novel, which I had recommended to Carlos and which I thought would make a suitable present for his birthday.

I had been to the one shop that I knew sold a range of books with a concerned if ineffectual bookseller: his fluent Spanish commentary on my request for any Peters’ novel was incomprehensible but I recognised failure when I heard it, even if I didn’t fully understand the words. My request (in fractured Spanish for other shops in the area which might sell the novel) was greeted with a despairing shrug.

It took a couple of days (and a certain amount of buying substitute presents because I couldn’t find the precise author) before I found in a bookshop in a side street which actually sold a variety of novels by Ellis Peters and, staring me in the face, lying on the counter, was the latest Harry Potter novel. In English.

I decided that Carlos was not the only one who was going to get a present!

I spent the rest of the morning reading the novel then I had to go to Terrassa and the birthday party. After which I resumed my reading and eventually went to bed at some unearthly hour of the morning. I mean really unearthly. I mean just about getting up time.

Once again the compulsive nature of Rowling’s writing was obvious and, like the other novels, it was a real page turner.

It is very easy to dismiss the literary quality of Rowling’s writing: she enjoys cliché and is a shameless ‘padder’ when it suits her. Her plots are like Gaudi cathedrals: full of bits and pieces; looking as though they’ve been made up as they were being created, but essentially interesting.

The set pieces are more than competently handled and the series comes to a satisfying conclusion; including an ‘epilogue’ for all those people who want to know what happened next. If I’m being cynical, the epilogue does give the opportunity for the author to expand the series by doing a ‘Next Generation’ twist on the well tried characters.

As most people will not have read the novel yet I will not give any ‘spoilers’; I will merely say that I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to the inevitable film.

We now have a date for the rest of our property to be delivered to Castelldefels: the third of August. As we will not be back from Majorca before the first of August this does not give me much time to make arrangements for the realistic accommodation of the Books. This is a problem which is going to cause chaos, but I will think tranquil thoughts and hope, with Mr Micawber, that something will turn up.

Apart from my books!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Driving is such sweet sorrow

I’ve been searching for the right adjective to describe the driving approach of massive articulated lorries on Spanish motorways.

‘Frisky’ or ‘skittish’ come to mind. I feel that these words embody that ironic little-lamb-like quality of animals gambolling along oblivious to everything as they make their way to the inevitable carnage of the slaughterhouse.

To say that motorway driving in Spain is bad is like saying that the country has occasional snatches of sunshine in its weather patterns. The use of indicator lights means that the driver can execute the planned manoeuvre at once; a driver’s glance at an oncoming car means that he is allowed to pull out immediately; overtaking on the inside is de rigueur; all motorcyclists, scooter drivers and moped users are spawn on the devil and, short of actually driving over your car, they can do what they like.

Motorway driving is an exhilaratingly apocalyptic experience, especially when getting nearer to Barcelona when the coordinated lorry blocking of up to five lanes of a motorway with your poor car locked somewhere in the middle of moving walls of steel is a scene reminiscent of the deadly car/lorry chase in ‘I Robot.’

But I am safely back in Castelldefels now, to the more leisurely and casual ignoring of traffic rules in an altogether more domestic highway environment!

Ramon’s surprise 60th birthday party yesterday, Thursday, went very well. The party had a Western theme to it with Carme providing a sinister ‘cactus’ made out of cardboard tubes covered in green crepe paper and kitchen film to heighten the general Wild West ambience!

The meal was superb: a never ending series of plates containing cold meat, fish, squid, mussels, clams, prawns, etc. all washed down with an equally never ending supply of sangria. Ahhhh!
Ramon looked well pleased with his supply of goodies which included a battery operated plastic colt rifle from me and a Tag Heuer watch from his daughters: the alpha and omega of gifts!

Tomorrow: Carlos’ name day or birthday – does this partying never end?


Choices, always choices!

[This is Wednesday 18th July's blog - the internet has been very reticent recently!]
Which to start with? The beauty of the sunset over a multicoloured sea or the oven?

A microwave is, I think most people would agree, a perfectly suitable cooking apparatus for the full extent of an annual holiday in the sun. It is not, however, I would submit, an adequate cooking facility for a letting which is of a year’s duration. I put this proposition to the letting agents (thieves!) and asked them to ask the landlord to consider buying something which can actually grill and heat in a conventional way.

Having made the request? The response: nothing!

[Just by way of enquiry: how would you have punctuated the last ‘paragraph’/line? When a child I used to think (encouraged by my grammar school) to think that there was a right answer to all grammatical and puncuational matters. Now, in the security of maturity, I am not so sure. So, how would you have done it? Do let me know so that I can mull over the various possibilities.]

The response: nothing! Until now! A phone call out of the blue which, in halting English, told me that there had been various attempts to reach me (!) to allow a person in to look at the possibilities for providing some sort of oven facility.

When the guy finally arrived he explained in high volume Spanish that: 1. the kitchen was badly designed. 2. There shouldn’t be a pan drawer at the bottom of the ‘hole’ underneath the range. 3. You can’t put an oven there, mate!

Bearing in mind that what I asked for was a multi purpose microwave with conventional oven and grill – like the ancient one at ‘home’ now in the grip of the evil couple who bought my house. Further bearing in mind that I did my homework and found a suitable oven in Miro’s for 189€: not a fortune. I am bemused by the sending of a Panasonic person to do a recce.

I await with interest the next instalment of this saga-in-the-making.

Today has been one of those days which would have been problematical if you were on a limited duration holiday in Castelldefels. The day started off hazy; developed into cloudy; became overcast; revealed a gloriously sunny afternoon and early evening; culminated in an understated explosion of muted technicolour visual pleasure.

Sitting on the balcony and watching the colours of the evening develop was a reminder of the sort of landscapes and seascapes that Monet taught us to see!

I do hope that it wasn’t raining in Wales.

Tomorrow back to Terrassa for the next in the series of family celebrations that characterize this week.

Next week off to Majorca!

It’s a hard life; but someone has to live it!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Culture comes at a price!

Joining the cultural elite in Barcelona is fraught with difficulties.

The desire to see my first opera in the Liceu prompted me to try and get a subscription ticket for the 2007-2008 season. From the internet and from the limited publicity that I had to hand it was not clear how to set about this, so we phoned. From this vaguely unsatisfactory conversation the one salient fact that we did manage to glean was that ‘public booking’ was available from 9.00 am on Monday the 16th of July. I decided to pre-empt problems and visit the Opera House in Person!

We didn’t get there until ten, and by that time there was a very settled looking crowd of, shall we say, mature people looking dejected.

From the two charming members of staff positioned at the doors we eventually managed to understand that we would have to ‘get a number’ and then wait. My number was 241 and, on the improvised number indicator was a number so low and far away from mine that, even at this later date, I cannot bring myself to type it. We worked out that we were certainly safe for an hour or so and we could look for ‘name day’ presents for the two Carmen’s in Terrassa. This smooth sounding utilization of time gives a wholly false impression of what actually went on in terms of accusation and recrimination between Toni and me, but to El Corte Ingles we went.

Much later we returned to the Liceu and found that the tickets being dealt with had reached number 106; and stopped.

All the computer systems for ticket allocation were down – so everything stopped.

There was controlled fury on the part of the patient supplicants for tickets. There we all were, clutching our supermarket type tickets, sitting (mostly) in the chandeliered splendour of a baroque vestibule of a major opera house looking like petitioners waiting in an anteroom for some official of the Sun King to take pity on us and give some attention to our wants.

And no tickets!

We went to lunch and eventually wended our weary way back with Toni in what could only be described as an openly rebellious mood, and me? Well, I had some experience of culture Vultures waiting to make a kill and I was resigned to a long waiting game.

The numbers did change, but it was noticeable that some people, when it came to their turn to get their tickets, were wholly selfish. They seemed to use the opportunity to have long chats with the ticket sellers and to make telephone calls while debating which seat to choose. I was later told that some of they had had long debates with the sellers about comparing the relative merits of cast with seat position and day: the permutations were endless; and that just about summed up some petitioner’s time spent in front of me!

When my turn finally arrived the girl with the computer screen did her best to get me reasonable seats with decent views at affordable prices. It still ended up, however with a vast sum of money being paid or a dozen operas which should keep me occupied from next September to July 2008!

The works range from firms favourites like Aida and Don Giovanni (though the latter in a very controversial production which I saw on it’s first night in London and which was roundly booed) through classics like The Diary of One Who Disappeared to Wagner: I shall look forward to reviewing the lot of them! Be warned!

Protestants have always had an ambiguous relationship with Saints. Anglicans have created none and have relied on the Roman church for its holy men. Some, like the mythical Saint George, can be treated as figures of fun, notwithstanding his position as national saint of the area in which I am now living. Others, like the notable Welshmen Saints David and Patrick can be accepted by reason of consanguinity. But there are myriads of Saints whose lives, miracles, works, deaths and sayings read like the hallucinogenic productions of a literary team composed of William Burroughs, Salvador Dali, Boris Vian and Pete Dougherty!

As a fairly sociable sort of person myself, I have always been awe of those ascetic rejectors whose particular act of religious demonstration took the form of the hermitage or the solitary. You know the sort of thing: the sort of person who lived for fifty years at the top of a pole; or someone who lived (always without washing) in a small hole in the middle of the desert. What devotion! I used to think. While also thinking of the clinical lunacy that must have prompted these self denying demonstrations in the first place.

I have changed my mind. These men (usually men) had it easy. What they should have done if they wanted to demonstrate their selfless giving of themselves to another was: live with a two year old child.

My admiration for parents who have to live day after day with children knows no bounds. The physical pain of standing on one leg on a pointed rock in the burning heat for thirty years pales into insignificance when trying to cope with the 360 degree energy exhibited by a small child in thirty minutes!

Parents continue your heroic work!

I need tax paying workers to ensure my pension for many years to come!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Culture calls!

I feel that I am nearing making a definitive statement about the driving qualities of Catalan drivers.

But not yet.

I would like to spend a little more time in Spain before I make my removal from the country a matter of national pride!

The next step in my assimilation into the life of Catalonia is to try and get a subscription series ticket to the Liceu in Barcelona. As far as I have been able to ascertain, tickets go on sale from Monday 16th at 930 am at the ticket office. I intend to go to Barcelona and try and get a reasonable package for the next season. I will have to take my passport because I am sure that the eventual price will be eye wateringly reassuringly expensive and so I will have to use my card and to use that you need some form of identification like an identity card or the most photocopied document in Spain which I happen to have in my possession.

From past experience in trying to understand the almost mystical process that is buying a season ticket for concerts in St David’s Hall in Cardiff, I am prepared for a much more taxing experience in Catalonia. At least in Cardiff, with orchestral concerts, they were on one particular day; with operas you have to select a day, which complicates the process, especially when one performance may be sold out at the seat price that you are prepared to pay.

If nothing else it will be a test of my Spanish, patience, understanding and bank balance. On the other hand it will give a cultural structure to my first year in Spain.

I am also looking forward to going to some or all of the concerts that Sitges puts on as part of its summer music festival. These range from run of the mill orchestral concerts to rather more specialised concerts; the latter are sometimes softened by the proffering of a drink of some sort at the end (or sometimes the beginning) of the concert!

Last year (was it only a year ago?) we had flamenco in a power cut and accordions in a firework display – although firework riot probably best defines the experience. We felt like that bit in Doctor Zhirvago when the aristos are eating sumptuously while on the other side of the windows the masses are starving in the snow! We were listening to bizarrely attractive arrangements of popular classics for two accordions, sitting sipping cava on the upper terrace of a sort of palace, while all around us a glorious pyrotechnic chaos reigned! The power cut in the flamenco concert provoked a spontaneous display of mobile phone illumination, but just before the screens of a score of telephones brought a semblance of order to the proceedings, for a fleeting moment, I was kleptomaniacally aware that within ten feet of me was a very attractive and very portable Picasso.

I managed to resist the urge so the only Picassos I have are reproductions. But that museum is only a few miles down the road now, and I’m sure that the electricity supply to ancient buildings is no more reliable this year than it was last; so temptation may raise its head again.

A Picasso would look nice on the blank wall opposite the chimney breast.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Snake in Paradise!

I do not regard a car as a gadget.

You would have thought with my love of things mechanical and electrical that I would have been a devotee of the sleek and on-board computer type vehicle and idolised it. But I’m not and I don’t.

I like cars because they make transportation easy and they give you independence. In purely practical terms, living in a tourist resort, they allow you to leave your immediate (and expensive) surroundings and go to supermarkets where the cost becomes more realistic.

Obviously they do have to have certain things – like an on board computer that gives you more information than you need or know what to do with and little figures on the dashboard that go green when people have put their seat belts on. And electric windows. Obviously. And air conditioning. Obviously. And it must be a nice colour. But care about it? Not really.

As if to punish me for this generally uncaring attitude towards a commodious lump of metal (Do people really give their cars names?) the parking space attached to the flat (worth its weight in gold, difficult to find, etc etc – I know all that) is fiendishly difficult to get into and get out of.

At present I have been allowed to manoeuvre tortuously and with the painstaking care of the newly qualified maiden aunt driver without the added complication of having someone wanting to get into another space in our subterranean garage and watching me try to get into my allocated space. When that does happen you may see a grown man cry!

The festa del mar with pirates was something else. It reminded me of a chapter from an E F Benson novel. The scene was set on the beach with a square castle (with crenulations); various stalls of fruit; a small vegetable patch; a few bales of hay and other indications of civilized life. Behind screens, near the water’s edge, triangular sails denoted potential pirates’ ships.

Drums indicated that the pageant might be about to start and there was a sort of procession of the various people involved in the future drama: including various peasants; three soldiers; two members of the aristocracy and a ragamuffin collection of pirates. I should also include people wearing official t-shirts and ostentatiously using mobile phones.

The action of the piece (such as it was) concerned a peaceful community beset by drink fixated pirates. Although the pirates scored an easy victory – having to defeat just the three members of the soldiery – their exultation was short lived when a sinister, black cloaked wearing, flaming torch wielding, figure appeared and precipitated the positive conclusion to the piece when, from behind the castle a doubled headed fire breathing dragon appeared and scattered the pirates.

All of this was accompanied by a commentary in Catalan which, mercifully, I was unable to understand!

The evening eventually ended with a display of fireworks. There is no way that the municipal expense of fireworks can be justified, but they are just so bloody good! I think the aspect of fireworks that is appealing to me more and more is the rarefied appreciation that is the appreciation of the spent smoke trails of past fireworks illuminated by exploding ones: I’m sure that there is a wonderful photograph to be taken to illustrate what I mean, but I’m not the person to take it. When fireworks go off I am the one staring open mouthed in amazement like any five year old child. I am profoundly grateful that fireworks can thus keep me in touch with a younger version of myself.

I’m sure that must be a positive aspect in some way that I haven’t worked out yet.

And I don’t intend to work on it yet awhile!

Friday, July 13, 2007

There's always a first time!

I feel confident in asserting that no one else since the dawn of time has listened to Virgil Thomson’s “Four Saints in Three Acts” on the beach at Castelldefels until I did so today.

Liking that piece of music, and publicly admitting it is like boasting about having a sexually transmitted disease. Not that I’ve got one, you understand, it’s just that I imagine that the odium that you get if you . . . this metaphor is already out of hand. My point is that “Four Saints in Three Acts” is an acquired taste that not very many people have bothered to acquire once they have heard it.

I picked up an old RCA recording in my first year of teaching in Kettering on the strength of the fascinating photograph on the front cover and the libretto having been written by that great American pseud Gertrude Stein. The music was extraordinary and the libretto was shameless gibberish containing, I found to my absolute delight, the original use of the line, “pigeons on the grass, alas!” which I recognised from a sarcastic Thurber short story. Who, in all fairness, could ask for more?

If nothing else, the preceding paragraph will give you a graphic illustration of what sort of guy I was in my first year of teaching!

I had my comeuppance when I went to a rare performance of this seminal American masterpiece in a performance by ENO in London. I loved it, even though I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew the music more thoroughly than most of the singers. At the end of the performance, with tears of pure joy in my eyes, I turned to the lady of my left and said, “Wasn’t that great!” To which she simply replied, “No.”

Ah well, you can/t win them all. I really do recommend at least a cursory glimpse of the ‘libretto’. Any musician who sets, “Having happily had it with a spoon” to music has my vote – in the same way that Benjamin Britten deserves immortality for setting, “And a box of Swan Vestas” in one of his operas. And before you say anything, yes, I do know which one, but I do not want to appear too full of it. So there.

Talking of culture, I was forcibly reminded of Gericault’s ‘The raft of the Medusa’ while taking my customary swim at the end of the day today.

A group of kids had taken out one of those pedalos and were swarming over it and, for a split second, it was a perfect picture; even down to the raised arm waving to form the apex to the compositional pyramid. I have to admit it was a little unsettling; one felt that one ought to do something when confronted by a living representation of one of the great social canvases of the last few hundred years – but it soon passed and I returned to bobbing gently in the sea!

Tomorrow is the fiesta Del mar with pirates and fuegos artificiales.

It just goes on getting better!

Thursday, July 12, 2007


Today has been the sort of day that I think I had in mind when I wanted to come to Spain.

A leisurely morning and an easy drive to Sitges. A quiet laze on the beach and a gentle swim in the warm waters of the Med. A reasonably priced menu del dia and the collection of information about the Summer Music Festival. A slightly more taxing drive back along the sometimes vertiginous but scenic coastal road. A swim in the pool and ipod enhanced sunbathing. Collection of fresh bread still warm. Salad and sangria. Coffee with turron. Reading the Independent.

Not the sort of day to change the world, but a day when the world seems like a pretty good place in which to be living!

This cannot last of course. Reality has to rear its ugly head at some point. Happiness has to be paid for – in hard cash. We do need to find jobs of some description.

But that is something for tomorrow.


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Trying Things

Having managed to get my car safely (eventually) into its appointed subterranean parking place, the real excitement for today is getting it out again.

The Road to Gava beckons so that I can increase my collection of significant numbers by which, for the Spanish, I am defined. The only blockage on this road is the garage which appears to have an unnatural affinity for my NIE and they seem unwilling (or, more disturbingly, unable) to return this document. Without this piece of paper my attempts to finish the necessary administration for my residence in Castelldefels is impossible.

The garage is proving to be more than usually evasive about the NIE and after a number of inconclusive phone calls we think that it is in another town where the bloodsucking parasites known as notaries have it – for some unexplained reason.

As far as we can work out, someone from the garage is now going to get the document and deposit it in our flat. Meanwhile, of course, time is running out for the completion of the next bit of paper shuffling as the office in Gava to which we need to take it closes at 2.00 pm and doesn’t open again today. As we also have to get an updated padron and probably revisit the doctors’ surgery; time is limited and we will be pushed to be able to complete this today!


My NIE was delivered personally with no real explanation about what had been happening to this well travelled piece of paper. Our trip to Gava was completely pointless. We had been directed there incorrectly; apparently. Our exasperated return to the doctors’ was even more pointless.

Let me explain. Although I have ‘retired’ from school I have decided not to take my pension until my normal retirement age. At present I am therefore: not in work; not getting a pension; not being paid by the government in Spain or in Britain – in short I am “living of mine own” as I believe Tudor kings were urged to do. While this is fine and dandy and well in keeping with a staunchly Puritan sort of life style (not that I aspire to that, of course) but one likes to feel in touch with one’s historical and moral roots, it does create problems when confronted by officialdom.

For this surgery (at least according to the functionaries who staff the ‘information’ desks at the entrance) there are three types of people: those in work and paying taxes; those out of work and drawing a pension; those impoverished and paying nothing to anybody. I do not fit into one of these categories and therefore there was extended (and on Toni’s part, acrimonious) discussion which ended, I have to say most unsatisfactorily.

It turns out that I will have to pay something like 87€ a month to join the Spanish health service. This, I am disinclined to do. My stuttering accusations in broken Spanish about the unfairness of it all, along the lines of, “In my country you would have full access at once to all the services of our great health organization,” did not go down well at all; and with Toni virtually demanding to speak to the Health Minister the atmosphere was decidedly frosty.

Having decided to pay the extortionate demands of the selfish Spanish health service we approached another of the self styled experts who fronted the medical facility and asked for the appropriate documentation.

This was produced with a demand for a photocopy of the NIE and also a photocopy of my passport (!) The photocopy of the NIE was to hand – for reasons too bureaucratic to go into – but I only had the original of the passport. I asked, not unreasonably, as every other organization in Catalonia has made a photocopy of the bloody thing, if the surgery would make a photocopy. No, I was told, it would be better if I did the photocopy. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” was the response, “we are not a photocopy shop.”

At this point, I finally lost the will to live.

Toni was absolutely livid and demanded we rethink our top spot for obdurate, bloody-minded, inept, unhelpfulness (previously held by bank, property agency and car dealership) and substitute the front of house staff of the surgery. Toni said that their attitude reminded him of the jobsworth attitude which used to predominate in the Old Spain.

To be fair, the governmental agencies we have had to deal with have been, in general, helpful and efficient. Yes, there have been some astonishing quirks, but they have done their job with consideration and dispatch. The non-governmental organizations – representing major segments of modern society have been mind-numbingly, customer dismissingly obnoxious.

With my money!

Still, let me not overreact (!) (sic.) I have to say that my experiences so far have been far less Kafka-like than I expected.

This shows how deep my pessimism runs!

Tomorrow Sitges and details of the summer music festival.

I hope.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Have wheels will . . . be thankful!

We are now getting to the nitty-gritty of living in Castelldefels: getting a doctor.

For Toni with his Spanish identity card this was plain sailing for me, however, not so easy.

I came prepared: my passport (for the inevitable photocopying); my NIE to show that I was actually living in Spain; my Padron – or proof that I was living in Castelldefels – everything in short, to show that I was entitled to medical help.

The sorrowful smile on the receptionist’s face and the slow shaking of her head seemed to indicate that my overweening pride in official preparation was destined to excite the anger of the gods leading to the inevitable reversal and my tragic recognition of my parlous state: all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy. There was much conversation in Catalan whose import was that I was not going to be registered when, like a cheap card sharp finessing an ace I produced my European Health Insurance Card! This was greeted with sighs of relief because it had a nice long number on the left hand side.

Alas! My triumph was short lived; it was a mere anti-climax before the final act of failure. No registration was possible: my padron needed to be more recent than twelve days old and I would have to ‘Go to Gava’ where, it would appear, all the more bureaucratic circles of official hell exist. I need another number; I cannot get it in Castelldefels, so to Gava I must go! ‘Tis the way of the world on this part of the coast!

The major excitement today is the promised (absolutely promised!) picking up of the car. So far I’ve had to scan and send a picture of my passport (makes a change from the usual photocopy – the garage machine was unable to delineate my subtle features and just produced a black blob for my face) and the insurance people have phoned up twice about payment. It makes me feel less than confident about the promised (absolutely promised!) pick up time. Still, at least I won’t have to Go to Gava.

I trust those words won’t come back to haunt me.

Only partially was the response to the last sentence. They were not, of course, ready. The guy who sold me the car in the first place and his manager had a stand-up row at one point and had to continue the altercation behind closed doors. No reason was given for the delay but I was asked for my bank details again as the photocopy of the cheque used to buy the car was not clear! I’m still trying to work that one out. By way of compensation they photocopied my driving licence again: why? The file connected with my simple purchase of a car has now reached the girth necessary for official complacency in Spain. I fail to see how, “I want that one; here is my money,” can possibly merit so many pieces of paper – all of which have been photocopied more than once. And one piece of paper, namely my NIE, I think that they have lost!

And we think of the Chinese as inscrutable!

However, after many inexplicable delays, worried faces, comings and goings, I do actually have the car. And very nice it is too – though I find myself unable to enthuse much about a mere car; I am far more interested in the effect of a car rather than its physical appearance. Heresy!

It is cooler this evening than for the last few days and the waves look bigger: I wonder if this presages a change in the weather. And my knee is playing up – surely that means something? I rather fancy myself becoming sage in the ways of the weather and looking knowingly at the sky and tapping the side of my nose and uttering gnomic pronouncements about the future. But the simple fact of the matter is that every day is a revelation to me and my assumptions about whether the cloud will go soon, stay, increase or dissipate have all been wrong.

However, and this, dear reader is important; we have not had a single day of continuous rain. Not one. A shower of two – usually during the night; cloud cover making the weather sultry; but no rain. You really do have to live in Cardiff for most of your life to relish these statements!

And believe me, I do!

Monday, July 09, 2007

A car! A car! My sanity for a car!

[This is the blog for Monday the 9th of July - blame erratic internet connection!]

The battle with bureaucracy continues with yet another delay before I get my hands on the steering wheel of the car!

I have got the impression that, wherever I have been in an official sense, I am the first foreigner to have asked for something. In the bank; in the estate agent; in the garage: all of them virtually threw up their hands in despair when I asked for things that would be run-of-the-mill in Britain. Then I remember Toni’s experience with Barclay’s Bank in Rumney when the whole of the branch ground to a halt when he tried to get his money from Terrassa to Cardiff. It took months; much to the mystification of the Catalan side! It seems that legislation designed to thwart ‘International Money Launderers’ means that Joe Public has to suffer the indignity of multiple delays while various checks are carried out to ensure that the law is being obeyed. Once again the law abiding are discommoded while I’m sure that the law denying laugh openly at weak rules that they can ignore in their stride, without losing an illicit penny!

The latest delay is because of some sort of law about people new to Spain buying cars; or more particularly not being part of the Spanish tax system. Official Spain has only just started to define me by numbers; and numbers are what count in Spain. The transfer of my bank account from Gran Canaria to Terrassa was reduced to farce because my passport number was different from the passport number that I had given in the Canaries. This, I patiently explained, was because I had had my passport renewed since I opened my account. This, while accepted as a form of words, did not make much sense to the official brain where, when a number is attached to a person, it stays with him, and is part of his official definition.
It took hours to sort that out and I dread the expiration of the next period of ten years and having to explain all over again that numbers to official in the UK are mutable!

We have also started the Search for Work.

This entailed leaving Castelldefels and going by train (no car: see above) to the next stop down the line, to Gava. This is where the equivalent of the Jobcentre is located.

After following rather expansive and generally incorrect directions we described a large circle of the town and eventually ended up not far from our original starting point.

Although the fairly small office seemed crowded, we were seen quickly and Toni was dealt with first. He produced his identity card and the process continued from there. The advisor seemed efficient and generally supportive and Toni was quite impressed with the improvement since he last had to deal with this part of life – admittedly more than fourteen years ago!

When it came to my turn the computer screen was blank. A clean page! There were various difficulties, especially with the translation of British qualifications into their Spanish equivalents – but an address and a telephone number were provided of an office in Barcelona that could help.

The most disturbing element in this (one sided) conversation was the importance attached to my lowly success in achieving an ‘O’ level in French. With a few taps of a computer keyboard it transpired that I was being offered jobs which entailed translation or interpretation! I was reminded of a moment in a Woody Allen (?) film where a man in a white suit appears as a translator and listens to the English and then repeats the English with a foreign accent until two attendants appear with a net and take him away! “The sleep of reason produces monsters!” I seem to get nearer and nearer to that Goya etching!

The end result, to my ineffable relief, was that I was given a piece of paper with a number on it and Toni informed me that I was now officially recognized by Spain; and I could work if I could find a job.

I have also been given a helpful book of courses, some of which are in Castelldefels – though I am not sure if I am expected to join them and learn, or offer myself as a suitable teacher! Time and a little translation will tell.

The flat continues to please and the view astonish. There is something about living so close to the sea that stirs up the atavistic elements in one’s soul and activates those Jungian images at a very basic level; and it’s nice to look at.
I think I will go and count the waves!

A watched beach never palls!

Part of the devilish compact that you agree to when you start writing blogs is, at the very least, to be regular contributor.

There is nothing worse than the expectation of inconsequential froth being denied by the wayward attitude of a supposedly confirmed blogger. I can only appeal to the anti-literary effects of family to excuse my tardy response to my reader anxiously waiting to hear the most recent moan from a newish arrival in Spain!

As a compensation for the day’s rest from literary labour I promise that I won’t moan once during this screed. Whoops! Wrong word to use if I am to keep my word!

Living so close to the beach (ahem!) it is only to be expected that I have begun to analyse the Spanish attitude to the littoral.

It is a disturbing fact that on the beach today in Castelldefels I only saw two black people – and both were trying to sell bootleg CDs and DVDs. Although all the people around me were ostentatiously trying to achieve a darker hue that the one which they had been given at birth; there were no people for whom that darker hue was by nature theirs. I have no idea how much of the population of Spain is black, but I’m sure that Castelldefels is not representative. I will keep my eyes open and report back when I have a few statistics to bandy about.

When I visited Castelldefels for the first time, I picked up some tourist information and emblazoned across one map showing the beach and very little else, it said, “Castelldefels: More than a Beach!” I thought it sounded a little desperate, but a cursory jaunt around the town would give the lie to the assumption that this was a community anxiously hoping to find another reason to exist other than the swathe of sand stretching into the distance. Castelldefels is a thriving 365 day town which, according to Toni, boasts a population of 150,000. I don’t quite know where they keep this number of people; there are only so many that you can pack into flats!

But, let’s face it; if you have seashore along the Mediterranean within easy reach of a major city like Barcelona, you’re not exactly going to pretend that it’s not there! In other words, my adopted town is used to a tourist or two dropping by to take the waters and a bit of sun.

The differences between Spain and Britain are instructive. Spanish people expect sunshine when they come to the coast; it’s their birthright. British people hope for sunshine and, if they get it, they treat it like a treasured gift to talk about later,

Virtually everyone in Spain, especially if they visit the coast in a family group, will have a parasol, which they will use. In Britain taking a parasol to the beach is usually looked on as an affectation with the person obviously boasting that their last holiday was to a place where such a thing might have been needed.

The Spanish also have a different approach to sitting on the beach. In my youth in the late 50s and early 60s there was a craze for sun loungers. These were metallic contraption which folded up to a size just too big to carry easily and unfolded into a coffin shaped piece of furniture of stretched canvas on a skeleton of hollow metal tubes. They were excruciatingly uncomfortable and the canvas not only rotted after the first year but also stretched and sagged in a most unbecoming way. And, yes madam, your bum does look big in that as it swung low on the metal tubes with flesh almost touching the sand.

The Spanish have made a virtue of necessity and their furniture of choice is a sort of truncated folding garden furniture chair with a long back curved at the top with a sort of lip. Since this is virtually on the sand, any sagging looks intentional rather than embarrassing. This counter intuitive seating contraption also has a ratchet mechanism which allows the back to recline which gives the illusion of a real Spanish ‘hamaca’ but keeps your feet, literally and firmly on the ground. If you make the mistake of relaxing in a recumbent position then you will probably find yourself unable to rise with any degree of dignity and will have to wait until the people around you have gone back to the city before you assay a resurrection!

I am also fascinated by where people choose to plonk themselves when they go to the seaside.

Most of us are like timid lemmings who lose their natural urges at the last moment and flock only to the water’s edge and stake a claim to 'our bit of beach', so that by the middle of the afternoon the waves are lapping on a crust of humanity lying around like flotsam strewn along the beach by a particularly savage storm. But that does not account for everyone.

There are always a series of lone wolves and whatever she-wolves are called. Some of these adopt the approach of the yellow Labrador bitch who, in any family, never wants to be obtrusive so she finds an innocuous out-of-the-way place in which to sleep: like a doorway – so everyone has to step over her! In the same way these lone wolves place themselves cunningly on a major sandy thoroughfare and try and look unconcerned or vaguely annoyed as everyone traipses past them.

Then there are those who place themselves to see (mirrored shades are de rigueur so eyes can flicker unseen but see everything) or who place themselves to be seen (mirrored shades are de rigueur so that people can see themselves reflected and realise how inadequate they are compared with the shades wearer.)

And I think that I am not keeping my promise that I made at the beginning.

So I’ll stop.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Trials and tribulations!

A day without a blog!

As my old surrealist drinking mates in Zurich used to say, after a few beers and when we had stopped taunting Lenin about his grandiose ideas, “A day without a blog is like a fish without a corset!” How we laughed!

The reason for the lack of a blog yesterday was because of the news from home: nothing disastrous, but deeply disturbing.

As a past hardened teacher, I really should not be surprised by startling mendacity but, given my touching innocence, I always am. Even in Chaucerian England when, according to the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, all members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy were indulging in the most ostentatious denial of their founder’s naïf precepts, they did so as ‘fallen’ members of the Christian church: they might have been poor Christians, but they were Christians and, if pushed, they could probably have admitted that they were, in the Wife of Bath’s wonderful phrase, “wandering by the way.” So, bad though they undoubtedly were, they at least knew which set of moral precepts they were ignoring: they were Christian thieves, rapists, cheats and philanderers. In other words, though moral and immoral were clearly distinct; the immoral knew where they should be.

It is therefore something of a shock to come across a couple whose whole raison d’etre seems to suggest that they have no moral guidelines at all; no centre line from which they might be deviating; no commonly accepted code of values which they are ignoring. They present as a sociable, if oddly matched pair, but their motivation is almost distilled selfishness. To this end no lie or distortion is too breathtaking; no falsehood too difficult to accept. Their perception of the world is so narrow that all events can only be assessed in terms of how they impact on their self centred existence.

I reckon that I have done pretty well to write this much without giving you, my reader, very much information on which to build an opinion. Who they are; what they’ve done; how they have responded to others – all of this is a closed book to you. Suffice to say that this pair of prime liars has sought, by criminal means to ameliorate imagined wrongs constructed by their own warped and mendacious take on what you and I could call ‘reality.’

If it wasn’t for the incredulous outrage of friends at home who called the bluff of this outrageous pair of ruffians and managed to restore the situation to something like normality, I would have been impotently gnashing my teeth in Spain while unscrupulous chancers took their opportunity to exploit a fortuitous opening for unfair gain.

To those who know I would advise them to ask Paul and Paul Squared for the details (if they want a particularly partial and excitable narrative then concentrate on Paul Squared!) To both of them my thanks and congratulations; without them and their expeditious foiling of the blaggards’ noxious schemes, I would have been so much poorer – and lost the opportunity to write a more than gnomic blog!

Today was going to be the day when I took possession of my new car. It has all been paid for and as far as I am aware the totality of the documentation required has been signed, sealed and delivered.

While doing some shopping in the excellent, vast shopping centre L’anec blau at the far end of the Olympic Canal, I thought, in that ever trustful way I have, wouldn’t it be a good thing if, instead of trudging all the way home to the flat, one’s fingers gradually turning black from the restrictions which the thin handles of plastic bags cutting into the flesh often produce, wouldn’t it be good, I thought to myself, if my car was ready already and I could drive home with all the goods!

A swift telephone call plunged me yet again into the sort of soulless despair that trying to match life and Spanish bureaucracy often produces. My car was not ready for me to collect. My car would not be ready for me to collect. I would have to fill in a paper which was necessary for those wishing to buy a car in Spain before the tax system had pinned down exactly what your status was. Yes, I don’t know what they hell they are talking about either. But the car will have to wait. I have been told that my car (for which I have paid, as I think I may have mentioned before) might be ready for me on Monday. Perhaps. Maybe. Possibly. Or, indeed, not. As the case may be.

To compensate for this further frustration, we did do a little light shopping in Zara Home: the interesting bit of the rather boring clothing chain store.

We have bought two glasses which characterise the real differences between the drinking habits of the Spanish and the British. The first glass which caught my eye was a version of the traditional toothbrush glass with the chamfered glass sides; but this glass was on a truly Brobdingnagian scale, easily able to take a decent slug of beer which will be acceptable by any drinker of Albion. The other glass was a rather stylish tankard in an almost ostentatiously chunky Swedish style which while promising much by its weight actually only accommodates a very small amount of drink – certainly not enough to qualify as a ‘beer’ in any part of Britain; but more than acceptable in any part of Spain!

Such differences illuminate my discourse!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Beach life in all its variety!

The sea is a slate grey today as lots of interesting shaped sun denying clouds fill the sky. The morning flights into Barcelona airport are winging their way over the flat and I’ve moved some of the furniture around as a way of proving that the flat is ours and not the landlord’s.

My much prized and greenly vaunted piece of equipment that, using solar power (sic) should charge up all my various gadgets, is not working. As I have, as it were, put all my electrical leads into one power source, I am now finding that everything I possess is slowly running down.

Camera, hand held, phone, everything that makes modern life acceptable is fading away before my very eyes. It is like a science fiction story in which you wake up and find that modern civilization has ceased and the survivors have to eke out an existence using the dregs of power left in batteries before the darkness sets in! I’m sure that such pessimism is merely a reflection of the sombre look of the day. A day without sun is like Fideuá without pasta. So there!

But of course, this is Spain and not Britain, so in spite of clouds, when I got back from buying a carbon squandering power pack to get my gadgets back on line, the beach was bathed in sunshine!

My painstaking research into food continues with a visit to Cel Bleu near the beach at the end of our road. The menu: gaspacho andaluz; Fideuá mariscos; salmon a la plancha; helado; vino tinto; cortado – 10.50€ I’m not even going to translate that into pounds sterling – it’s too shaming!

A little foray onto the beach with desultory paddling and then a plonking of myself down on a deserted stretch of beach to watch the succession of planes swoop into the airport.

When I sat up again a couple (not young) had established themselves on my right, with the man in a state of considerable undress! They then proceeded to disport themselves in a manner more befitting the matrimonial bed than the pubic (sic!) beach. As there was no one within the vicinity I hoped that the performance was not for my benefit. I returned (defiantly) to my observations of aeronautical preparations for landing.

When I next resumed the vertical position my unclothed companions wandered significantly, and threateningly, to my left – and much, much nearer.

At this point, as it used to be written in the more scurrilous Sunday newspapers, your correspondent made his excuses (to the waves) and left; deciding that a swim in our sequestered pool was an altogether more salubrious alternative to encroaching sexual abandon of ageing nudists who really should have known better!

Domesticity has taken a further step forward with the first use of the washing machine – I mean in this flat! It is making all the right noises so I assume that everything is normal. There is no tumble dryer (!) so I will have to utilize the wire contraption which I think is used in such circumstances. This object looks like a mixture of a surrealist take on an ironing board and an early Barbara Hepworth, but I am sure that utility will become apparent when necessity demands a dry towel!

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

You pays your money and you takes your choice

Monday is the day that little old ladies hobble to their banks to talk to their money.

You can’t get near a counter for little old ladies lurching from the arms of their grown up children towards the tellers and asking incomprehensible questions that necessitate the combined efforts of teller and children to pacify the questing oldster. Who, presumably after seeing that the money is safe and well and untouched, hobbles home to gather enough strength for the next foray to the bank in a little week’s time.

Having experienced at first hand exactly how Spanish banks treat their customers I think that the older generation have something to teach the rest of us. I have discovered the bank book: this you can feed into a cash machine which then automatically types out the transactions that have occurred on your account. You therefore have some proof about what is going on with your money. It is the first line of defence against the incursion of unscrupulous bankers – is that an example of tautology?

I must get away from what is rapidly approaching an obsession with the state of Spanish banking; but when you are as intimately involved in the machinations of those organizations as I am in these first few weeks of settling in and scattering money about me as if it were bankers’ profits then you must allow me a little leeway to scratch the itch of my hatred!

The next stage in settling in is to get our possessions from Cardiff to Catalonia.

This has not started well with my phoning Pickfords to start the process and their not phoning back, in spite of an assurance that they would be in touch within the hour: that was this morning and it is now half past two in the afternoon. Even allowing for the hour’s difference this is not acceptable. And the weather, by way of pathetic fallacy, is overcast with the Mediterranean looking a lot like the Atlantic. I could have got this colour of sea in Penarth, though it has to be said that even though it is overcast, in some way peculiar to this area, the sun is still managing to make the waves sparkle!

Our first domestic disaster: the sink in the kitchen is leaking! Though to compensate for this, the tap is broken and refuses to give any water. The tap itself is a fairly dated used-to-be-cutting-edge sort of thing which has one spout (on an extendable hose) which is operated by a side lever which also regulates the temperature. It took us (at one time six of us) some time to work out how to operate it and it was only by brute strength that water was urged out of it. The physically demanding nature of the water experience meant that it was a breakage waiting to happen and perhaps it is a good thing that it’s happened sooner rather than later. I am not convinced by the positive nature of that particular piece of kitchen philosophy; especially as I have to wash the dishes in the bathroom (I was going to say in the loo but that gives entirely the wrong effect!)

The first clash about the flat is over. I have been to the den of thieves who took a whole month’s rent as commission and asked them to do something about the tap and dripping sink. I also pointed out the inadequacy of a year’s rental for a flat without an oven: unthinkable. We will see what happens. Thank god the person I had to deal with spoke a form of English. I spoke a form of Spanish and we got on famously!

The blustery conditions on the beach today have brought out the wind surfers in force. And very impressive they look too as they leap along the waves at a speed which is totally inappropriate to the flimsy contraption on which they are standing. As I watched their exhilarating failures to stay afloat they prompted me to think about their activities.

There is a whole area of human endeavour which, while fascinating to watch, is totally unthreateningly participation free – for the thinking person. What sane entity would actually want to risk life and limb to bump along the waves at frightening speeds with one foot attached to a board which could fly off in any of the 360º that a circular motion can propel the thing to choose? And limbs are eminently breakable!

Like skiing: a ‘sport’ for the mentally deranged.

My grandmother regarded the onset of winter with personal hatred, and snow and ice with particular detestation. She hated slipping; it was almost a phobia for her. Slipping meant loss of control with possible injury: bad. The reasoning was simple and unquestionable and I find myself more and more in agreement with my maternal Grandmère.

But skiing is enjoyable to watch; in the same way that motorcycle racing is rewarding viewing: they might fall. Let’s face it there is a whole range of ‘sporting’ activities where the only pleasure in spectating is the possible crash, smash, collision, double cartwheel or other disaster that relieves the tedium of watching the ‘sport’ at its soulless worst when nothing is happening except for the practioners, well, practising. The perfect example here is, of course, formula 1: how unbelievably tedious is that hi-tec boredom when all the drivers are doing is driving - round and round and round?

There are other sports where spectating is marginally worse than participation: potholing, for example. Potholing and hang-gliding were two sports that I had to promise my mother I would never, under any circumstances, indulge in during my time in university. It says much for my mother (and little about me) that she insisted on non-participation in insane sports rather than full participation in moral rectitude as one of the preconditions for leaving home for the wild excesses of Swansea University. I think there might be an element of irony in that statement; though quite where is a moot point!

Tomorrow I want to buy something for which there is no possible justification.

And I don’t mean membership of the Conservative Party.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Eating is not enough!

There comes a time when endless listings of menus for next to nothing or graphic lyrical panegyrics on sunny days begins to pall.

I have to admit that this hasn’t happened for me yet, but who knows what my reader is thinking!

La dolce vita is, I suppose, only of interest to those who are living it and it is more like the infliction of a Great Wen (courtesy of Doctor Johnson) when it is experienced at second hand.

I have tried to be scrupulously fair when pointing out that the dream of living by the sea comes with a fairly hefty price tag; not only in terms of the financial implications of living somewhere where lots of people want to live, but also in terms of the day to day frustrations of dealing with officialdom in all its various guises. Maggie has pointed out that in Italy you need a certificate to prove that you are actually alive; I only hope that the Spanish authorities don’t find about this as they will leap on this as a serious omission in their paper work that needs to be remedied at once – in duplicate (with photocopies.)

Like so much else in the lunacy that masquerades as normal bureaucracy, a graphic illustration of its essential ‘otherness’ is to be found in ‘Catch-22’. One is reminded of Doc Daneeka who disliked flying, but as a doctor in the air force had to do a certain number of flying hours. His name was added as a member of a flight crew in a plane that crashed and afterwards he had to try and prove that he was alive. Needless to say he failed in this endeavour and wandered ghost-like among the living ever after: a non person, even though everyone recognised him as Doc Daneeka.

Joseph Heller has been haunted by the success of this novel and has been constantly asked unfeeling questions about his other, later, novels which have never achieved the success of this classic novel. One question that he has fielded expertly is, “Why haven’t you written anything as good as ‘Catch-22’ since its publication?” His answer: “Who has?” Full marks for a response worthy to be in the novel itself!

Tomorrow off to L’Anec Blau to find a frame in which to put Ceri’s sketchbook page. I don’t think that I can go on living with any degree of artistic validity with the choice of art that the landlord has used to bedeck the flat; I want what I like!

The car is bought! Not, of course that I actually have the car: I think that you are forgetting that this is Spain! My passport and licence have both been photocopied (again) and the photocopy of the NIE (my proof that I actually live in Castelldefels) has been – in a novel twist – given back to me in exchange for the original document. This is all so that the car can actually be registered to my name. I must admit that I am rather disappointed that no one has asked me for my blood group!

I have to say that the Spanish themselves find this sort of thing funny too. I remember seeing a comedy sketch on Catalan TV in which a person was handing over documentation to an official who had asked for birth certificate, passport number, identity card number etc. and then asked for things like, favourite film – which was passed over in the form of a cassette; book last read – handed over; the last request was for a urine sample which was duly handed over in a specimen jar from the commodious bag that the applicant had with him. The official looked at the sample and then announced that the liquid did not reach the minimum level and that nothing therefore could be done! I laughed at it, but have discovered that it is only a slight exaggeration!

It is a good thing that I actually called into the bank to check that I could use my bank card to pay the full amount owing on the car. Of course I couldn’t; why did I even dream that such a thing was possible? The bank clerk went through an incomprehensible search for my account through scores of computer screens of information which also, at once point, involved ringing Terrassa and a general kafuffle was enjoyed by all. After some light photocopying of my passport (the photograph of which is now visibly fading after all the exposure it has had to strong light) she seemed minded to write me a cheque. After this was done and presented to me I had to resist a strong desire to knuckle my forehead in servile gratitude to this charitable figure who had graciously allowed me to use my own money for what I wanted.

The ‘buying’ of the car seemed a good excuse to continue my gastronomic exploration of Castelldefels with the menu del dia of Miguel Angel, a restaurant and bar opposite the more stylish Lancaster where I had eaten previously.

The meal came to 10€ (£7) and comprised: bread, red wine, a Spanish take on Chinese fried rice; lightly battered cod covered in ketchup on a bed of thin fried potatoes; pink and white ice cream and a cortado to finish of course. This was a much more basic meal with few frills but still excellent value for money. The rice was probably a little too bland for British taste and the cod was too salty, but a good, basic lunch.

It rained last night and that seemed to be the prelude for hordes of biting insects to seek out my tasty flesh and feast themselves to stupefaction. I am, as a result, a little bumpy today and may take chemical precautions to prevent a further onslaught this evening! This is the first time for years that the winged fiends have singled me out for sucking; I do hope that my foreign blood is not to their taste in the future.

Where is my crucifix?

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A flat life!

Another part of the dream slots into place as I type this; sitting on the balcony looking out over the swimming pool towards the beach and the sea. Admittedly, to be perfect, there should be flawless skies and a burning sun, but, alas the sun is intermittent and the people sunbathing are doing so defiantly rather than languorously. This however is Spain and not Britain, so there is a general expectation that the sun will appear it all its glory; unlike the (fully justified) pessimism that characterises the phlegmatic British approach which expects the solitary cloud in a British summer sky to block the sun throughout the time that one is on the beach. And, true to form, as I type the sun is now out and shining!

One preconception that has been destroyed is that of the peculiarly British obsession with the weather being something mystifying to the foreigner. This is clearly not so as, during my time in Spain so far, virtually everyone I’ve met at some time has said something about the heat. You see, it’s the same but different: we talk about the rain; they talk about the sun!

I have received various communications from my bank, BBVA, the first letters to the flat: how piquantly appropriate! One of them purports to be some sort of statement in which a thousand euros magically disappear into the coffers of the bank. It is my personal belief that BBVA were there in force in the early years of the first century and their activities probably prompted Jesus to start his campaign of cleansing the Temple. I look forward to my next brush with them when they have to change a cheque for pounds sterling into euros and deposit the results in my account in Spain. I shudder to think how much they are going to charge bearing in mind the massive risks that the bank runs in accepting a cheque from one of the major financial houses in Britain. It is at times like this that one has to remember the sage advice of Mr Meagles in ‘Little Dorrit’ to “count five-and-twenty, Tattycoram” to emphasise the quality of patience in those given to imprudence; but one should also remember the reaction of Tattycoram who, when pressed to the limit, “stopped short, looked me full in the face, and counted (as I made out) to eight. But she couldn't control herself to go any further. There she broke down, poor thing, and gave the other seventeen to the four winds. Then it all burst out. She detested us, she was miserable with us, she couldn't bear it, she wouldn't bear it.”

Now that sounds more like me and my relationship with my bank. Any day now I’ll only make it to three and then go for the jugular.

I am having to learn again how to live in a flat. This is nothing like the same thing as inhabiting a house. A flat is an exercise in communal living whether you like it or not.
The arrangement of balconies means that you are intimately involved with those to your right and left and below. To the right is a balcony at right angles to ours so their life is our life; to the left is a brick partition which separates us visually but not audibly. The flats below, which are on the ground floor, have (unfairly) large patio areas and are ostentatiously visible to us flaunting their own personal access to the pool!

There is a definite hierarchy of recognition in flats. It goes from ignore; look; stare; nod; grunt; speak - to eventual conversation. So far only the early stages have been reached but, as I am fond of pointing out to all and sundry, I am here for at least a year in my flat by the sea, so there is plenty of time to be sociable!

I have eaten very little since yesterday lunch time so I feel justified in a little more scientific exploration of the differences between British and Catalan food by going to a Japanese restaurant.

I will leave that conundrum to fester.

Bon appetite!