Monday, 30 March 2009

Enough sight-seeing, now for some serious stuff!

In this country of contrasts, homosexuals can legally marry and a transsexual from Jaen has temporarily stopped his/her sex-change in order to take advantage of being still officially female and claim her/his right to fertility and IVF treatment, thus becoming the first transsexual ever to become pregnant with twins, but still anti-abortion organisations rallied 10,000 people (using Facebook and other electronic communications media) to demonstrate in Madrid at midday yesterday against the Spanish abortion bill. Toledo and Madrid had smaller demonstrations with 300 and 4oo people respectively and in Girona police had to intervene in clashes between pro- and anti-abortion groups.

Today has seen a flurry of comment about this. El Pais reports the Health Minister, Bernat Soria, seeing other motivation behind the protests, pointing out that when the Partido Popular was in government more than 500,000 abortions were carried out in the country without any demonstrations. Similarly, on television I have heard the the Vicepresident of the Spanish Government, Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, wonder exactly what the demonstrators were protesting about since in the twentyfive years that the bill has existed there have been no other demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Cayo Lara of Izquierda Unida has criticised the Conferencia Episcopal Espanola (Spanish bishops) for their anti-abortion campaign. Huge posters have appeared displaying a toddler and an Iberian lynx. The lince iberico is a protected species and the toddler wonders why he is not also protected. Mr Lara points out that neither the toddler nor the lynx is un feto and objects to the fact that all tax-paying Spaniards, regardless of their views, have paid for the campaign. Apparently the church receives 0.7% of income tax.
And so la iglesia continues to exert power of sorts.

Semana Santa preparations are underway, on Principe they are selling plaited palm fronds in ready for Palm Sunday and in Bella Novia, the bridal shop down the road you can see a splendid display of First Communion outfits: white dresses for the little girls and military or naval uniforms for the little boys!

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Wandering around in the windy weather.

Yesterday Vigo once again celebrated, or perhaps just continued celebrating, La Reconquista. There was a craft fayre in the casco vello which looked remarkably similar to the medieval fayre I saw a few years ago in La Coruna but I suppose that craft did not change much over that time. Lots of people were in costume, the gaita band was playing and in the Plaza de la Princesa a sculpting competition was going on: lots of artists hammering and chiseling away in the clothes of yesteryear.

Although the sun was still shining, the weather had definitely changed; the temperatures had dropped and the wind had an edge to it.
Una ola de frio (literally a wave of cold) was forecast for the whole peninsula with snow alerts in some inland places. This is perhaps a consequence of my having bought (and worn) sandals this week and having made gazpacho yesterday. Hmmm, I wonder if it works the other way round as well!

Nevertheless, in the afternoon we set off for a small seaside place along the coast from Pontevedra, O Grove, where they seem not to be aware that the elections are over - or maybe they are still hoping!

The chess team was playing there and once more I was going along for the ride ... and the tourism. The match was played in Pub Vinilo, the Vinyl (as in the old pre-CD records) Pub. An interesting venue with a low, beamed ceiling, a clock on the wall made from an old 78 record and a couple of rows of seats which could have been liberated from a superannuated cinema, it was well worth a visit. Above the bar were two-foot high figurines of Humphrey Bogart, Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, Groucho Marx and, somewhat incongruously, Robert Smith of the Cure. Other items of decor were a printing press dating from 1958, long before printing went digital, and a chess table superimposed on an old treadle sewing machine frame complete with its foot pedal and drive wheel.

The chess team played on a sort of stage at one end of the bar under the spotlights where presumable musical acts play at other times. At one point someone paused on the street outside to observe the progress of one of the ganes through the window. Celebrity of sorts! On the door was pinned a notice: Xadrez Bregoan, silencio entre 17.30 y 21.30. Anyone who came in for coffee was duly shushed!

While the games got underway I went for a walk, re-exploring a place I had last seen one very hot summer's da
y in 2007. This late Saturday afternoon, the sun was shining most of the time but the wind was biting. Although the tamarind trees were in bloom, the wind was blowing the clouds over and even the seagulls looked cold. The water looked even colder. It had been my intention to walk across to the nearby island of La Toja, a local beauty spot, slightly upmarket and boasting a casino. However, by the
time I reached the bridge my hands were turning blue and so I headed back to the Vinilo for a cafe con leche to thaw me out.

After the match, which was won by the way, we made our way to A Solaina,
a seafood restaurant on the (very cold and windy) seafront where for around 20 euros apiece we feasted on a range of delicious fishy odds and ends including, just for a change, pulpo.

And finally, on our way home I discovered a common interest with one of the Spanish chess players: cookery. New man DOES exist in Spain! He and I swopped recipe ideas and mutually bemoaned the difficulty of finding the right herbs and spices in Vigo!

Friday, 27 March 2009

Midday - late March - on the streets of Vigo

Despite the weatherman promising us rain for today, the sun was still shining by the time I had finished breakfast and so, late in the morning, I set out with a list of errands for this Friday.

First I headed to the Alianza Francesa / Alliance Francaise where tickets were pressed on me for a French film tonight and information about other activities to come. From there I continued down to
wards Policarpo Sanz, where the protest whistles were blowing for the Banco de Santander. It's noisy enough at that corner at the best of times with road works that have been going on ever since we arrived here if not before. The Union General del Trabajo, armed with red flags, were picketing the entrance, making all the bank customers stop and look at their banner with its protest about job cuts.

Further along Policarpo Sanz, in the Caixa Galicia bank all was quiet. Even though it is only a short distance from the Banco de Santander, once you enter the building all street noises disappear. I was there to collect tickets
for a concert. Apparently the online ticket-sales agencies don't trust Spanish postage and send all tickets to the branch of Caixa Galicia of your choice. There was some confusion there because the machine dispensing tickets to tell you when it was your turno was not dispensing tickets. However, after some huffing and puffing from people who had been quietly sitting and waiting we managed to form an almost British-style queue.

I decided to extend my walk a little, going the long way round instead of directly back towards El Corte Ingles on Gran Via. And I was rewarded, for on Garcia Barbon I discovered that an almost medieval-looking stall had popped up selling sweets to rot your teeth and teas and concoctions to cure you of almost every ailment possible. Also on sale was the mysterious Holy Rose of Jericho which claimed to be able to relieve stress and get rid of misfortune and bad luck. Just folllow the instructions!


In the meantime Rosalia de Castro, the street not the Galician poet, was decked out in flowers, well, blossom on the trees, reason enough in itself to stroll along the street. Outside La Porchaba, where they serve an excellent range of tapas, tables were out on the pavement under the tree and people were already having a pre-lunch beer.


However, in that strange anomaly in modern Spain, the throwback to a former time, the men-only bar with its barrels for tables, it seemed that serious drinking was already going on.The gentlemen drinking there did not object to having their photo taken but the barman insisted that there should be no more photos and so I continued on my way.

There was just time to pick up a few things from El Corte Ingles. So I tramped back up the hill towards Gran Via which had gone all Amsterdam on us and covered itself with tulips.

Errands finished, the time had come to head for home. The sunshine was making me feel positively summery - this was the day to make gazpacho for lunch!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Price of Eating Out.

Having just spent the grand total of 15 euros at La Cafeteria Sevilla, way up at the top of Gran Via, for two of us to have lunch - spaghetti with prawns for me, garlic mushrooms for Phil, chicken in onion sauce, fresh fruit salad, a large glass of wine each, as much water as we wanted to drink, coffee to finish off with - I feel moved to talk about the cost of eating out.

One of the excellent things about Spain is the menu del dia, fixed price meal of the day, usually but not necessarily only available at lunchtime, Monday to Friday or sometimes Monday to Saturday but rarely to be found on a Sunday.

Around the corner from our flat you can lunch on ensalada mixta, pollo (chicken fillet fried with garlic and served with chips), postre, 1 vaso de vino + cafe for 8,50 euros each. If you venture down towards the harbour, on Republica Argentina, you will get a bit more choice and often rather more wine for the same price at Rias Baixas (I and II - sister restaurants). La Cepa on the edge of the old quarter serves its menu del dia fancily arranged on square plates, trying perhaps to go a little nouvelle cuisine but still charging only 8 euros apiece.

Now, you may find the choice of postre somewhat restricted at all these places - flan, arroz con leche (rather like cold rice pudding), natillas, helado - but who really needs a fancy dessert anyway?

Of course, it is possible to eat more expensively a la carte, although some smaller places have nothing but the menu del dia, but for routine eating out it hardly seems worth the trouble. And I wonder how MacDo and Burger King keep going here when the local reataurants offer such good deals.

And then, of course, you can go to the other extreme and pay over the odds for a meal. Now, that is what I think actors Hector Alerio and Jose Sacristan did the other day in Bilbao. They were interviewed for El Pais in a restaurant there and the article finished with a copy of the bill for their meal:

Ensalada de lomos de atun: 7,92 euros
Tuna salad

Cocochas en salsa: 12,40 euros
Cheeks of hake - one of the few dishes I really dislike
and the only one I have been unable to finish in Spain
but that is only my opinion

Besugo al horno: 56,16 euros
Baked seabream

Dos botellas de Baron de Ona 2004: 20 euros
Two bottles of
Baron de Ona 2004

Cuatro cafes: 2,80 euros
Four coffees (very good value this item)

Cuatro orujos: 10,05 euros
Four liqueurs

Total:109,33 euros.

Now, I'm sure it was all very delicious (well, except for the cocochas!) but I find almost 110 euros for a meal for two people just a little hard to swallow!

Monday, 23 March 2009

Sights and Sounds of Spring/Summer

Early(ish) this morning I heard the sound of high voices twittering, most definitely twittering, out in the street. On looking out of the window I saw that it was the parvulos, the nursery class, out on a walk, probably to a nearby playground. One supervisor held onto one end of a rope at the front of the line, all the tiny children held on at intervals along the length of the rope and another supervisor held the other end of the rope: a perfectly good way of walking a bunch of three and four year-olds along the road. Spring has definitely arrived: the tiny people are out for walks!

A short while later, when I went out to buy bread for breakfast, I saw a lady walking along on the other side of the road with a fan, a good old, traditional Spanish fan, colour-coordinated to match her smart outfit. As she walked, she fanned her face to keep cool. When I remarked on this to the
panadera, she laughed and said that she had also noticed her going past the breadshop. We both agreed that no es para tanto - there's no need for that. The sun is shining and the spring flowers are out but it's nowhere near hot enough to need a fan yet. What will that lady do in August?

It is hot enough though for my Phil to venture out to the barber's shop. The spring/summer sun has been making him feel hot-headed, so time for a haircut! Also, it seems that it's time for the seagulls to start thinking about nesting in the chimney opposite. Apparently this is becoming more common, not just here but Europe-wide. The gulls find that the tall city buildings make perfect artificial cliffs for them to nest in. This causes problems as they can become quite aggressive protecting their young. It's already quite enough that, like the pigeons, they feel they have the right to land on the tables of cafe terraces to eat the leftovers, knocking crockery onto the ground as they arrive.

Even if the seagulls are abandoning the beaches, it seems that people are not. Many still hanker after that house close to the sea despite laws in recent years forbidding building too close to the coast. Unfortunately the law seems to have come in too late for some parts of Spain. According to El Pais,
el periodico global de noticias en espanol, la sociedad se ha emborrachado de cemento - the country has got drunk on concrete.

Satellite photography shows that in Malaga and Alicante provinces, areas where an awful lot of Britons have their holiday homes, 52% of the first two kilometres of land on the coast has been built on, while in Barcelona province this reaches an astonishing 68%. In the province of Cadiz, down in the south, there are as many as 50,000 illegal dwellings (ie too close to the beach) in 17 coastal boroughs!

Galicia fares a lot better with only 24% of the first two kilometres of the coastal area of Pontevedra province being built on. There are, after all, some advantages to not having had wall to wall sunshine during the big periods of tourist development!

Sunday, 22 March 2009

On Pueblos, Prams and Long Weekends.

This weekend is the official start of Spring! Much has been made of it on the television and we are promised little rain and gently warm weather. It also coincides with el puente de San Jose, Saint Joseph's long weekend. Thursday was el dia de San Jose. In the best Spanish fashion, if a saint's day falls on a Thursday you can add Friday to it and make a bridge (puente) to the weekend. The television news has just informed me that there are atascos (traffic jams) in Madrid as people return to the city after the weekend.

When there is a bank holiday in the UK, most people head for the beach: Blackpool, Brighton and so on. The same happens here but many also rush off to spend the weekend in their
pueblo. Thursday's yoga class was concelled because of the puente, everyone wanted to know where I was going to spend it and then went on to tell me that Vigo would be very quiet because lots of people would have gone to their pueblo.

Certainly, in the little group of ladies who go for a chat in English with me after the Club de Lectura on Wednesday, one was heading off to nearby Arbo where she still has a house, well, one floor of a house; they have had
reformas done and now she and her sister have a floor each. She goes there whenever she can at the weekend for peace and quiet. Mind you, she needs Vigo for her clubs de lectura (French, English and Castillian/Gallego) and her art classes and her visits to exhibitions. Another has a finca, which sounds very grand, as though she had an estate in the country. In fact, it's more of a house in the country with a terreno, a piece of land about 200 square metres in size where she has fruit trees, her husband grows vegetables and they have a few hens, whose eggs she has presented me with before now: No tiene hormonos! She and her husband were planning to spend the weekend there.

The return to the
pueblo is not just a Gallego phenomenon. Going back to your roots exists throughout Spain. I recently re-watched Pedro Almodovar's film, "La Flor de mi Secreto". The central character, having escaped from the pueblo in her youth, to get away from the place where everyone knows you and comments on what you do and gives you advice that you really don't want, goes back there as a grown-up person to recover when her "successful" city life gets too stressful. Jose Arroyo, writer and expert on Almodovar, gives an introduction to the film where he talks about the importance of this aspect. His point is that the great majority of Spaniards are still only one, two or at the most three generations away from a rural life, the pueblo.

Now, it may be officially Spring but to me, with my Northwest of England sensibilities, it feels more like Summer. Today could have been a fine June day and we would have been very happy with it. The temperatures are 20+, the lizards are out in the Castro Park, the sun is shining and I'm already reaching for the sunblock! Many Spanish women, though, are still wearing their boots and, in some cases, scarves, which seems a little over the top to me. But then, I suppose that if you have bought a nice new pair of boots for the winter, you want to show them off as much as possible. At the other extreme, babies in their prams have their vulnerable little heads exposed to the sun. I find myself tempted to shout, "Put a bonnet on that baby! Put a parasol on that pram!"

That leads me quite nicely to prams and babies. It seems that statistics at last show an increase in the birthrate which for a long period was causing concern as Spain had one of the lowest in Europe. That has now changed, apparently, and Vigo is certainly doing its bit to help for there are plenty of babies and toddlers around on Principe and in the various squares and on cafe terraces.

One of the things that you notice here is the number of good old-fashioned prams that there are around. These may not not quite be 'Mary Poppins' nanny style baby-carriages but they are still prams, as opposed to the contraptions for putting the baby carseat onto a set of wheels. You do see plenty of these as well but there is still a good, healthy number of true perambulators where
mama, and sometimes papa, can have a little chat face to face with baby as they stroll along.

Now, in most British cities prams of this kind are rarely if ever seen. The only explanation I can come up with is city living. In Spanish cities, people live in the centre: people of all ages, families with children and not just the trendies who want to be close to the action such as those who live in the Hacienda development in central Manchester. As a result a true pram becomes a viable option, unlike the situation in the UK where almost every outing seems to entail putting the hi-tech buggy into the boot of the car and driving to the place where the baby is to be pushed around. Even a fairly small old-style pram just does not have that versatility. Now, it may well be, in fact it almost certainly is the case, that most Spanish
mamas also have a lightweight buggy for trips in the car, hopping on the bus and actually going into the shops on Principe and Urzaiz but the fact remains that the pram is alive and well here in Vigo.

Another factor, without doubt, is the continued, healthy survival of the
paseo. Young families stroll around, often accompanied by proud grandparents, taking advantage of this opportunity to share in another favourite Spanish pastime, admiring babies!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Patatas, pulpo, pimientos de Padron ... not necessarily in that order!

If you look carefully at the statue of Jules Vernes sitting on an octopus in front of the Club Nautico down by Vigo harbour you will notice that it has only four tentacles instead of the usual eight.


Now this may be because the rest have been served up for someone's lunch or dinner. Pulpo is a Galician speciality; the tentacles are sliced into rounds and lightly fried and usually served on a wooden platter. I have stood at a wooden table in the market at Betanzos, near la Coruna, and eaten pulpo that way with a glass of cold red wine. It is, of course quite possible to go to a specialist pulperia, or indeed to almost any restaurant where you can have your pulpo as it comes or a la gallega, in other words, served on a bed of potatoes.

Which brings us, inevitably, to potatoes. It is said that Galicians feel that a meal is incomplete without this vegetable. I have been told by Gallego friends that Galician potatoes are the best in the world. And Manuel Rivas claims that a Gallego child's first word is not usually
Ma-ma or Pa-pa but, in fact, pa-ta-ta! Potatoes certainly feature in a large number of Gallego recipes. Furthermore, like the Irish the Galicians suffered from the potato famine in the 1840s, adding to the numbers of emigrants. It could be said that potato blight led to Gallego flight!

A couple of years ago I accompanied a group of A-level Spanish students to Cambre on an exchange visit. We arrived late one afternoon and the students departed with their various host families, not meeting up again until the following day at the Spanish school. The next morning I was greeted by an excited student who told me, "Anthea, I have eaten something amazing: little green peppers, fried and sprinkled with salt! What are they? They are
fenomenal!" He had, of course, eaten pimientos de Padron, a speciality of the small town of Padron, not far from Pontevedra and Santiago de Compostela.

For years I have been wondering why these are not exported to the UK as I quite agree with my former student that they are delicious. Apparently there is even a special
pimientos festival in August in nearby Herbon. Most of the small peppers, despite their resemblance to chilli peppers, are not spicy but as the season progresses you have to be careful because very occasionally you will come across a hot one which tries to burn your mouth off! True pimientos de Padron can only be bought in the summer in Galicia but I have found (inferior) imposters during the winter, grown in Morocco! Like every other fruit and vegetable nowadays, it is possible to buy them all year round if you really want to.

Another speciality here is
pescaditos fritos. Now, when I have ordered this item in Malaga, for example, I have received a plateful of whitebait, quite literally little fried fish, delicious in its way. What is served in the Rias Baixas restaurant in Vigo is a different, more interesting item altogether. On your plate you find a range of small(ish) fish of various types, none of which I have really been able to identify (after all they eat tasty fish here that never make it to English markets) but all very good to eat.

No item on food in Galicia would be complete without mentioning
cocido, basically stew but one so heavy in meat content- beef, pork, lots of bones - that when you have eaten it you really do not need meat for the rest of the week. It also contains, of course, potatoes and grelos, young turnip tops. It is considered to be a great treat. One of my companions at the yoga class told me that she was making it especially for her husband on his birthday: his favourite dish!

Restaurants will but up notices announcing, "Hoy hay cocido". I suspect that if you really wanted to you could probably eat it every day just by seeking out different restaurants. However, this is not advisable. Even Gallegos, making gentle fun of themselves, will agree that it can be hard to digest at times and is definitely not to be over-indulged in during hot weather. And in that spirit, this cartoon appeared in the ADN free paper recently:


The poor, suffering man asks for alka-seltzer and the chemist replies, "Don't tell me, overdose of cocido!" No further comment needed!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

That language thing - again!!

Looking at El Pais on-line this morning I discovered, with some interest and amusement, that the Real Academia Espanola is removing from its dictionary the use of "tonto" (stupid) as a synonym for "Gallego". They still however include "una gallegada", meaning a group of Gallegos or a typical Gallego expression or action. Some Gallegos will be indignant to discover that there is no equivalent "catalanada" for the Catalans. A typical Catalan expression or action is described in more cultured fashion as a "catalanismo", the ...ismo ending having rather more refined status than ...ada!

Galicians of my acquaintace are already expressing concern that the new president of the region, Feijoo, will speed the decline of the use of Gallego. His proposals about parental choice of the language in which their children should be educated also worry some people. What, they wonder, will be the future of bilingual nurseries? And what will
become of their friends who are currently training to be bilingual nursery teachers? Will they have difficulty finding jobs, especially if they want to live in smaller towns?

Now, according to statistics from the Seminario Linguistico de la Real Academia, comparing the situation in 1992 with that in 2004, Gallego speaking certainly seems to be on the decline. In 1992, 10.6% of the population of Galicia never spoke Gallego; by 2004 this had increased to 25.8%. While villages of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants still have 76% of their population speaking mainly or indeed solely Gallego, in places of over 50,000 inhabitants this figure is only 24%.

Even though Gallego is more regularly used in rural areas, even these are seeing a decline; 55.3% used Gallego as their main language in
1992 whereas only 40.5% did so in 2004. The trend is also noticeable among the young; in 1992, 46.5% spoke mainly Gallego compared with 29.4 in 2004. The Seminario Linguistico also revealed that 32% of the total population never speak Gallego at all: in Ferrol 85% speak mainly or only Castellano while in Vigo and La Coruna the figure is 81.9%.

The ladies in my Club de Lectura, some of whom are very committed Gallegophones who insist on speaking Gallego even when addresse
d in Castellano, were discussing these figures this evening. On the whole they took them as proof that the politicians were wrong to state that there was prejudice against the use of Castellano in Galicia but rather the opposite: Gallego is under seige. This despite the fact that almost all local government dcouments and websites appear in Gallego first!

Now, to me this decline seems natural and inevitable. I can understand the concerns about the loss of traditions and culture and a part of me can
sympathise with Rosalia de Castro's statement that Gallego is "una lengua que sigue siendo extranjero en su propio pais" - a language which continues to be foreign in its own country. The fact that there are modern novels written and published in Gallego must be going some way to remedy that situation. However, the presence of national television in in almost every home must lead to some standardising of language use, despite the existence of regional channels. The English writer Melvyn Bragg apparently grew up speaking Cumbrian, a language/dialect which has largely disappeared. While regional accents abound in the UK, many local and regional expressions have disappeared, to be replaced by more nationwide expressions spread by soap-operas and pop songs to a large extent. At any rate, that is my view of the matter.

In the meantime Feijoo wants all parents to have the right to choose the language of their children's schooling, provoking this cartoon in the local free (Gallego-language) paper.

The teacher is saying, "Right, today we are going to revise Maths topic 6. Those pupils who want to follow this subject in Castillian, press button 1 of the automatic translation system, those who want to do so in English, press button 2, those who want ...."

Is Senor Feijoo, I find myself wondering
as I note the presence of a chalkboard behind the teacher, going to ensure the installation of the necessary technology to make this possible?

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Chess Champions of Galicia

I suppose it was inevitable that our choice of city for the great IDEA would involve chess somewhere along the line. For years now, whenever we have spent more that two or three days anywhere in Spain we have had to play what I now think of as "Hunt the Chess Club". Many tourist office employees have given us strange looks as we have explained that we would like to know if there are any chess tournaments in their town this summer. Many a happy afternoon has been spent walking the more obscure streets of some Spanish town looking for an address found on the internet, usually only to find that the address is the private dwelling of whoever is secretary of the local chess club and that he is away on holiday, like any sensible chess player. In fact he is probably playing the same game in in Bournemouth or Eastbourne or Grange over Sands!

Be that as it may, the summer before last we struck gold. In Santiago de Compostela the tourist office was obviously up to speed and told us about a one-day tournament going o
n just outside the city centre. We found the venue, my Phil signed up to do battle with the chess pieces and I went to see what kind of victories I could score in Zara and Mango in the local shopping streets.

Shortly after that we
moved on to nearby Pontevedra. This time we drew the usual blank at the tourist office and had just about decided that we had been lucky to find anything at all chessy in Galicia in the summer when I noticed some people playing chess outside a cafe. Well, of course, we had to wait until their game was over and then introduced ourselves and asked the usual questions. Lo and behold, they were able to tell us about a tournament taking place over several evenings at the Revira Centre, "un local social" - a kind of social club - near the Basilica Santa Maria. They were not exactly sure about all the details but we should go and ask, which we duly did.

The venue was not easy to find: a small, quite unprepossessing place which you could walk past without noticing. We had to get through the language barrier as they made a point of speaking Gallego but we were determined and persuaded them to speak to us in Castellano. And so, finally, Phil ended up not only playing in the tournament (while I went walkabout or sat in a cafe drinking iced coffee and reading the paper) but winning it.

On the last day he was presented with a rather large trophy, somewhere around twelve inches tall! We tried to persuade the organisers to keep the trophy in the Centro Revira. After all, we suggested, it was a little unfair for an unknown Englishman to walk in, win the tournament and walk off with their trophy! We should leave it there, possibly with a small, tasteful inscription, and return the following year to see if Phil could repeat his triumph! But, no, they were insistent. He had won it fair and square and DESERVED to take the trophy home! So, somewhat fearful that we might exceed the luggage weight allowance on our budget flight, we put the trophy in the suitcase and away we went. Phil's picture later appeared on Revira's website: a little moment of fame!

In the meantime, we had discovered Vigo but on that occasion only spent two separ
ate and very hot days, walking up to the Castro in the heat of the day and taking a boat across to the Islas Cies. That was not the right moment to investigate chess clubs.

So it was not until we came on our reconnaissance visit last April that we googled, discovered and investigated Xadrez Galego.

This time our investigations took us to what looked more like shop than any chess club we had ever come across in the UK. Indeed, in Spain the only place we had encountered that ressembled it at all was La Casa del Ajedrez, a specialist chess shop in Madrid. But this was different and that was obvious from the word go.

The brainch
ild of the very dynamic Roberto Paramos, Xadrez Galego, Roberto insists, is more than a just a chess club; it is a business, employing people and providing equipment, chess training, teachers for schools' extra-curricular activities and a venue where members can drop in and play chess any day or evening of the week. Roberto has written and continues to write chess teaching books which, like their author, greet the young chess player with a smile.

We walked in late one April afternoon and introduced ourselves. At first I seemed to detect a rather polite suspicion of this perhaps rather eccentric English couple and their ideas. However, as Phil prompted me about what to say chess-wise and his playing strength and chess-training experience became clear, this soon changed and we could see plans being formed: Roberto would like Phil to do some coaching but for the moment Phil is happy just to improve his game and do the occasional translation. So we left our email contact details and went back to England for me to work out my notice and for us to organise ourselves.

Once w
e had establish ourselves here in September and got through the settling in trauma, we contacted Xadrez Galego again and have become part of the system, even featuring as colaboradores on the website. Phil goes along to play chess; I go along as his minder, manager, language coach, personal assistant, secretary and general dogsbody. While he plays, I read, write, catch up with my correpondence and marvel at the enthusiasm with which Roberto greets shy little chess players with a cry of "Hola, campeon"; every one is indeed a potential champion!

Phil has regular exchanges in Spanglish with Pepe (he tries out his English and Phil tries out his Spanish), the ever-present secretary of the club, provider of information, orderer of chess books, arranger of entry into tournaments, organiser of matches and, last but certainly not least, football fanatic. His team is Real Madrid and there are evenings when he MUST pop out to the cafe on the corner to see how the match is going. However, he also has a fondness for Manchester United and would like his English team to make it to one of the finals so that he can show off his United scarf.

We have visited some of the schools where Xadrez Galego provides chess trainers. There is lots of enthusiasm and lots of noise! Spanish children DO make a lot of noise! But they ARE playing chess and a good number of them make their way to Xadrez Galego to play more and improve.

Phil plays for the team, although despite teasing from other team players he does not YET wear the tracksuit! Sometimes the games are at Xadrez Galego itself; on other occasions they play away and if there is room in the transport Phil's minder, manager, language coach, personal assistant, secretary gets to go along as well. In this way I have visited Villagarcia in the rain, saw little but enjoyed the tapas after the match, ogled Ourense and mooched around Mondariz Balneario.

Incidentally, working as language coach for a chess player, I have increased my knowledge of chess terminology in Spanish and know a good deal more about the game than I ever did before!

I have also discovered that, despite lack of information at the Oficinas de Turismo, there is a prodigious amount of chess going on in Galicia!

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Problems with Plumbing and Plumbers!

Once the abc of accommodation, banks and computers were all sorted, life in the IDEA inevitably settled into a routine of sorts:
  • ritual argument with the lady in the breadshop across the road - she comments on how cold it is and I say, well, not really ....;
  • coffee is usually ready when I get back so, a leisurely breakfast;
  • yoga some mornings;
  • reading groups some evenings;
  • chess club some evenings;
  • chess matches most Saturday afternoons;
  • a walk to the Castro, to the casco vello or even to the Castrelo Park (if we are feeling especially energetic) most days, unless the rain is pouring down.
However, occasionally something happens to disturb the most settled of routines. In our case it was problems which needed a plumber.

Now, Manuel Rivas, in his book "Una espia en el reino de Galicia", says that no self-respecting
gallego considers his home complete if it does not have a gotera - a leak - if not two or three. So, for a while, our flat became an authentic fogar galego.

Hot water in our flat is provided by a gas-fired boiler in the kitchen. We were instructed in its use when we moved in and were advised to switch off completely every night - to avoid risk of explosion?! Well, there had always been a certain amount of rust there but one day we discovered a small puddle on the work-top underneath the boiler. As it kept coming back we contacted our landlady in Madrid via email. She referred us to her grandparents who, conveniently, live next door to us. So we spoke to Don Jose and Dona Maria Luisa.

By now the the
gotera had progressed from an occasional puddle that needed mopping to a regular slow drip that required a bowl to collect the water to a faster, larger drip which needed a bucket. Monday morning began early with an almost incomprehensible phone call from the old gentleman, the import of which was that a plumber would arrive shortly to assess the situation. We waited and waited and ... waited some more! Finally at around one o'clock the old lady knocked on our door, exclaiming, "Disculpa! Disculpa!" The plumber had just told her that he would not, in fact, be coming until Tuesday morning. Having reassured her that we did not hold her personally responsible, we got on with the rest of our day.

On Tuesday morning we got up bright and early, I abandoned my yoga class and, once again, we waited. At around eleven thirty I went to knock on the old folks' door as they had taken responsibility for the plumber: after all their grandaughter would be paying the bill! Once again we commented on how
informales - generally sloppy, lackadaisical, unprofessional - these plumbers were. Had they no pride in their job? No manners? No sense of responsibility? Much good-natured indignation was expressed by all of us. Don Jose went off to phone a different plumber.

Finally, on Thursday - another yoga class abandoned - a plumber came and assessed the situation. He shook his head, tutted in Spanish and told us that he did not
like this kind of boiler! What is more, he felt that it was beyond repair; he could not fix it and it must be replaced. All that was needed now was a decision as to which kind of boiler, what price suited our landlady and so on. By now we had progressed to switching off the hot water supply unless it was absolutely needed so that there was no drip and no need to throw buckets of water down the drain. At least we could follow our conservationist instincts and hope for a more permanent solution before too long!

A week later, another Thursday, I was again waiting, this time to hear from El Corte Ingles. Our landlady's mother (soon we would have met the whole family) had ordered a new boiler for us. Amazingly, El Corte Ingles phoned at nine forty-five to say that they were on the way! By now the
gotera had evolved further. Even with the hot water supply turned off, it dripped incessantly and the bucket needed emptying every few hours. The only way to avoid an overnight flood was to turn the tap on in the kitchen sink and let it run quietly all night long.

Of course, when the boiler arrived it was delivery only! The installation was to be arranged via another phone call to El Corte Ingles to arrange a time. I made the phone call and was told to wait for them to call me back. As if by magic, this happened relatively quickly. Then I was told to expect a call at around midday to let me know what time that afternoon, in other words, any time until about seven o'clock, they could come.

At twelve fifteen I was still waiting. When the first phone call had come earlier in the morning and I had realised that I was not going to yoga as planned, I had thought we might at least manage a long walk as it was a beautiful day. Clearly this was not to be.

Finally at around three thirty, El Corte Ingles rang to say that a plumber was on his way. Great excitement ensued but on his arrival we encountered new problems:
  1. there is a new and very sensible law that says that when a new boiler is fitted, a new exhaust pipe must also be installed. This had not been taken into account when the job was priced and would amount to 83.10 euros.
  2. the new boiler needed to be plugged in and there appeared to be no easily available socket without bringing in an electrician.
  3. the most time-consuming eventually: no-one knew where the stopcock was to switch off water supply to the flat during installation.
After some discussion, we decided to go ahead with the installation of the new exhaust pipe. Who knew how long we would have to wait otherwise? We would pay the fee and claim it back from our landlady: problem number 1 solved!

Having discovered that the work-top could be lifted up just below the boiler, it was possible to make a small hole there, take the cable through and plug it into a double socket shared with the dishwasher: problem number 2 solved!

Problem number 3 had us running round the flat looking for a stopcock. The old couple were not in, so we could not consult them. We moved the washing machine, dishwasher, fridge, all to no avail. We asked neighbours and the
portero: no good. Finally, in desperation we looked behind the kitchen door and found an innocent-looking, rectangular plaque screwed onto the wall. There, behind it, was the elusive stopcok! Well hidden! Problem number 3, FINALLY solved!

That was it. Finally we had a new, efficient, German boiler producing water at our command. No more buckets to empty! No more trying to fall asleep to the sound of a steady plip, plip, plip!

Friday, 13 March 2009

Protest is alive and well and lives in Vigo!

On Thursday evening, as we approached the Caixa Nova Centro Social to go to a concert, we were met by a group of people on the steps with a huge UGT (Union General de Trabajadores) banner, handing out leaflets informing us about Caixa Nova's unfair dismissal of workers.

Sunday was International Women's Day; there were marches here and in other parts Galicia. Spanish television news reported marches all over the place. The Guardian's website did not mention any in the UK.

Recently, as I left my yoga class I could hear the sound of distant whistle blasts. It will be a demonstration of some kind, we all agreed. There was no visible sign of anything, but no doubt somewhere at the far end of Rosalia de Castro Street someone was protesting about something.

Now, according to Manuel Rivas, Castelao, Galician writer and politician from the first half of the twentieth century, once said, "El gallego no protesta, emigra". That may have been true at the time and it certainly is true that over the years many gallegos have sought a better (or at least better paid) life in other parts of the world. However, the not protesting part does not seem to be the case nowadays.

Almost as soon as we arrived here in mid-September, I started to see notices calling all and sundry to a march in solidarity with women all over the world. On two consecutive Sundays, there were marches through the city centre, with "pitos", whistle-blasts, announcing their approach.

As autumn approached, students occupied the university buildings in protest at EU rulings about changes in university courses. The journalists sympathised with the poor students spending the night in sleeping bags on the floor of the university. (I wondered if my former students, now at university in the UK, were even aware that the EU was interfering in their studies.)

Then the cleaners' unions called its workers out on strike. I never found out exactly why they were striking, presumably for better pay and conditions, but you could always hear them and, what is more, see where they had been on their demonstrations. They left a trail of shredded newpaper along their route just to let us know how much we needed their limpieza.

It was because of the limpieza workers that I found myself trapped in El Corte Ingles one afternoon. Demonstrators had gathered, whistling, shouting slogans and throwing their shredded paper around outside the main entrances to the store on GranVia. These doors were locked and shoppers inside the store were eventually directed, some grumbling and muttering, to a side entrance where they could exit, running the gauntlet of placard-waving pickets.

Since then, in one of my reading group's discussions one of the ladies deplored the lack of political commitment on the part of the younger generation here. This brought a storm of protest and reminiscence of how young people took a leading role in the protests against the government's apparent lack of action when the Prestige shed its toxic load of crude oil on the beaches of Galicia in 2002. In the summer of 2003 I saw marches by the Nunca Mais organisation and saw white-clothed volunteers still cleaning up the beaches every morning.

It seems that Senor Castelao might need to change his comment if her were still around today!

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

On fiestas, fun and fireworks!

While Vigo has been celebrating the Reconquista, a bit further along the coast in Baiona they have been looking rather further back in history. The event was La Arribada, the return to Spain of La Pinta, one of the three boats which took Cristobal Colon, known to most of the English speaking world as Chrisopher Columbus, on his voyage of discovery. La Pinta came to report the success of the journey and the event is remembered with parades, jousting and all kinds of medieval fun and games in Baiona.

In 1992, the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World, Spain had a wonderful year. The Olympic Games were held that year in Barcelona, Expo 92, an international exhibition, took place in Sevilla and, to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus' journey they built replicas of the three ships, La Nina, La Pinta and La Santa Maria which set off to make the same journey as Columbus did all those centuries ago. This time, of course, they were equipped with radio contact and modern navigational technology but they were still ridiculously small to be crossing that vast expanse of ocean. All three of them could fit easily into the biggest of the cruise ships that call in at Vigo nowadays! The replica of La Pinta stands in Baiona harbour. During the weekend festivities, if you were dressed up in medieval costume you could visit the boat for free!

Meanwhile, over in Valencia they have been finishing off
Las Fallas, a city wide bonfire and fireworks party. Apparently it began as a celebration of the work of the carpenters' guilds who would make elaborate constructions with offcuts of wood and then have a ritual bonfire. Over time this developed into a festival of satire and politics. Hermandades compete to produce the best representation of some well known figure or recent event, usually employing an artist to create the work. These are displayed on the streets and plazas, judged and the best preserved in the museo de Fallas. The rest are ceremonially burnt, accompanied by firework displays and lots of throwing of bangers on the streets.

Now, this year there has been much discussion on the television about the health and safety aspect of this activity.
Bomberos have been filmed visiting schools to teach children how to handle fireworks safely, how to be aware of the dangers and generally to have a healthy respect for pyrotechnics. An EU directive is about to make it illegal for under-twelves to set off fireworks. Inevitably, in a country with a long tradition of setting off cohetes (rockets) by holding them on your hand and then letting go and of throwing petardos (firecrackers) into crowds at fiestas, this has led to a storm of protests about the infringement of basic rights!

Monday, 9 March 2009

R is for Reconquista

Out and about on Saturday March 7th, I noticed a larger than usual number of children carrying balloons, almost all pink (the balloons that is) and marked with a large R.

Was there a new balloon seller around? I had only seen the usual one who twists balloons into animals, flowers and other "interesting" shapes and the man who sells Disney character balloons: the ones children clamour for, nay, whine, whinge and wheedle for, until the parents give in and buy one. Said balloons, if they do not escape immediately and head for the wide blue yonder, are carried proudly home, float up to the ceiling, hang around for a while, gradually losing their lighter-than-air gas and finally sink to the floor, deflated, ending up in the bin.

No, these ballooons were definitely not of that type, just ordinary pink balloons with a large R.

Was it a promotional device by R Galicia? Apparently not, it was the wrong kin
d of R.

Then a police car appeared, driving slowly down the pedestrianised Principe shopping street. As it ap
proached, above the sound of the engine you could hear snare drums and horses' hooves. It all became clear.

R is for RECONQUISTA - Reconquest. Two hundred years ago, in March 1809, Napoleon's troops were expelled from Vigo. He was finally defeated and driven out of Spain in 1814. He had been trying to expand his empire but regular guerrilla action and a scorched earth policy by the Spanish, aided by British forces, pushed him back. And the rest is history.











Vigo was doing what Spain does well, commemorating an event from their past with a bit of fancy dress,
quite a lot of noise and a pr
ocession!

Sunday, 8 March 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Downright Silly! Postscript

  • The Good: somebody loves this little dog.
  • The Bad: so many ladies in fur coats are accompanied by little dogs like this in little coats.
  • The Downright Silly: it's stopped raining, the sun is shining and the temperature is going up!

Thursday, 5 March 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Downright Silly! 3 - The Downright Silly!!!

We've had the good and the bad; now for stage three.

The downright silly.
  • The people who wait patiently for the green man to appear at the pedestrian crossing, even when there is obviously ABSOLUTELY NO TRAFFIC, usually on a Sunday!
  • Spanish parking! Every city in every country nowadays has parking problems but it's not in every country that you find cars parked on pedestrian crossing, on the corners of streets, at right-angles to the end of a street and, even in marked parking bays, bumper to bumper so tightly packed that I find it hard to imagine how they get in and out. Double parking is standard practice but I thought that the triple-file parking next to this pedestrian crossing took the biscuit!
  • The difficulty that I had in finding fresh herbs when we first arrived here. I asked around everywhere to now avail. I asked myself what Spanish cooks do when they want to prepare a dish with a few herbs. The answer, of course, is that many traditional Spanish cooks, and perhaps even more so in the case of Gallego cooks, feel that good ingredients do not need to be "disguised" with herbs!! Since mid-January I have found a source in El Corte Ingles. Now, was it a case of "new-to-me supermarket" syndrome, the effect which prevents you finding what you need in an unfamiliar environment? Or were they genuinely not there until recently?
  • The continuing difficulty in finding houmous or, indeed, other items such as sun-dried tomatoes. Sometimes I miss Mr Sainsbury's deli counter!
  • Using a hedge as a table. In the Castro Park a group of old gentlemen regularly meet and play cards on fine days - all standing up and using the hedge as their card table. At least the old ladies who also play cards in the sunshine take folding chairs and use a picnic table!
Spain is a country of tremendous contrasts. For forty years the country was governed by a dictator. During the dictatorship, a Spanish friend told me: "We are like children; we need a strict father". More recently, another friend explains the contrasts in this way: in the last twenty five years Spain has gone through changes that have taken other countries at least twice that long. On the one hand the government has allowed gay marriage and on the other, according to a friend of mine, there are people who believe that Zapatero himself must be gay because he let the law go through parliament.

Maybe this is why we find so many people determinedly smoking even though they know it is bad for them, certainly so many women; at one time it was just not done for woment to smoke in public. Maybe this explains why some of the notices announcing that smoking is allowed in bars are SO BIG. Maybe this explains why they wait passively for the green man. One way or another, they insist on doing things in their own way.