Friday, 31 July 2009

Looking for the source of the River Fraga

On Wednesday my friend María and I went on our promised jaunt across the estuary to Moaña. The sun shone as I did my morning routine: up the road to pick up the free paper, double back to the bread shop, sort out the troubles of the world with the panadera, home for breakfast, a quick look at the Guardian online, check my email and I’m set for the day. By just after ten I was down at the harbour to meet María.

We took the boat across to Moaña, a Monday to Friday service, leaving Vigo at half past the hour. If you want to visit Moaña at the weekend you have to go by bus or car up the estuary, across the Rande Bridge and back down the estuary or catch the ferry to nearby Cangas and take a bus from there.

On the boat, María admitted that she had not been on that ferry for about twenty years, a combination of that old thing of forgetting the good things you have close at hand and her husband’s refusal to go on a boat after a bout of seasickness on a fishing trip. Impressed by the cleanliness, spick-and-span-ness of the little ferry, she is now determined to work on her husband and persuade him to leave the car at home next time they want to go to Moaña.

Our aim on Wednesday was to walk up into the hills behind Moaña, not quite seeking the source of the Fraga (I think they know where that is already!) but following the river on our ramble. So we walked through the little town, popped into the street market and went on our way, commenting on the properties of naturally grown produce, so much better, we agreed, that a lot of the supermarket stuff. Then, as we got close to the beach at the end of town, we abandoned the coast and took a left turn to follow the river up into the hills.

At first we went past cultivated smallholdings, all the time following a well made path, obviously intended to be a planned walk but now in need of a little tender loving care or, at least, more frequent use. Eventually we were past the vegetable garden plots and into what María referred to as lo más bonito.

As the path went gently but steadily uphill, some sections improved or made accessible by a boardwalk, the woodland reminded me of some parts of our own Saddleworth walks, but with more and bigger trees – no eucalyptus in Saddleworth!

At one point I thought we were in for a storm. I seemed to hear the rumble of distant thunder. Then I realised that it was where the road went over the valley supported on massive stone pillars, a stretch of motorway striding across the countryside. Beyond that though, all was quiet except for occasional birdsong.

All along the way there were abandoned watermills in various states of disrepair, some almost nothing more than a heap of stones, others recognisable buildings complete with their millstones. María now showed a trait common to many Spaniards; her inner teacher came out. She loves to instruct and set about explaining to me how a watermill works, the water turning the lower wheel, grain going in at the top and coming out as flour. She clearly sees me as a city girl who needs to learn things. I don’t disabuse her and her enthusiasm is charming. Like many people I have met around her, she is still in touch with her agricultural past and told me that in her pueblo she and her family still have the right to us the watermill if they want to (if they have grain to grind) at designated times.

At various points we saw old agricultural machinery on display and eventually we came to a kind of information centre with plenty of explanatory posters, mostly in gallego. So clearly not all gallegos are so completely in touch with their agricultural past and need to be reminded of these things.

We stopped and ate fruit before heading back for the ferry home. The path continued uphill. We could have reached the source of the river where there would be magnificent views of the ría but that would be a longer expedition and would have to wait for another occasion. So we retraced out steps, finding the path blocked at one point by a fallen (?) branch which we needed to remove. María declared indignantly that this was the work of owners of the smallholdings who did not want people tramping past and sometimes through their property. Maybe so, but the only person we met on our adventure seemed friendly enough.

Finally we were back in Moaña town with a choice of rushing for a soon to depart ferry or waiting an hour for the next. We opted for the early boat and ended up running part of the way. Two no longer very young ladies jogging along the harbour must have been quite a sight. The boat blew its hooter to encourage us and the smiles on the faces of the pilot and co-pilot made it clear that they had watched our progress with amusement.

Back in Vigo it soon became clear we had had the best of the day. The clouds had moved in. When I went out again in the early evening the drizzle started and soon turned to slow and steady rain. So it goes!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Where are the clowns? Don’t worry, they’re HERE!

From the expression on one small boy’s face as he fled across the Plaza de la Constitución away from the clowns yesterday, I don’t think he was very much reassured by the old song. This must be a hard week for people who really don’t like clowns because they are everywhere. Festiclown has come to Vigo.
I’ve not yet worked out quite why it’s called Festiclown when there is a perfectly good Spanish word payaso which could just as easily be used to make it Festipayaso. And then, if you insist on gallego you could call it Festipallaso. It’s a bit like the old children’s game of paper, scissors, stone: in this case gallego beats Castilian but English, here at least, beats gallego. In reality, of course, even though the Spanish like to sprinkle English words in adverts and announcements, everything beats English because so many English tourists are just NOT going to understand the information in gallego – and most of the Festiclown information around is in gallego.

Linguistic matters out of the way, Festiclown is here for the week, with street entertainment at various key points of the city. The clown will offer to show how to break a girl’s heart – if all else fails he will burst the balloon with a pin.

Or Copita, the trained lamb, will show off her (or is it really his?) skills on the monocycle. More elaborate shows are being staged at the CaixaNova auditorium and similar places. Shows in streets and squares are free, including the high wire act due to take place in Plaza de la Constitución at midnight on Saturday.

The proceeds from the sale of tickets for indoor venues will go towards funding Un Festival de Pallasos en Palestina. The Fondoclown Solidario organisation supports social projects all over the world, such as educational projects in Mexico in previous years. This year they want to levar o sorriso aos nenos e nenas que viven nesta zona de conflicto – to take a smile to the boys and girls who live in that conflict zone. To that end, places in Vigo have been renamed: Plaza de la Constitución becomes Ramallah, Plaza del Mercado del Calvario is Hebron, the CaixaNova Cultural Centre is Bethlehem and the CaixaNova Concert Hall is Jerusalem.

And everyone who wants to do so can join in the fun. There are classes to introduce you to the art of clowning: Formaclown.

Or you could just “
volunteer” to take part in a bit of ritual humiliation on the streets of Vigo – all in the name of clowning, of course!

Monday, 27 July 2009

Fair weather or foul? Umbrella etiquette!

I am reliably informed that it was raining jugs-ful (from the Spanish – llover a cántaros) at seven this morning. I slept through it, surprisingly as normally you can hear it clattering down into the patio. All I saw was the still damp pavement and the still cloudy sky an hour and a half later. It was the bread shop lady, from whom I get lots of weather information, who told me: she had become quite depressed because it was so dark, almost as though winter had returned.

A short time later, breakfast over, I phoned my friend María and arranged to meet for a stroll and a coffee. The clouds were thinning but I took my “just in case” umbrella to ward off further possibility of rain.

(There is a kind of witchcraft at work in this. If you carry your umbrella and/or raincoat, the rain stays away. If I make gazpacho when the weather is hot, the
temperature is guaranteed to go down the next day. The most extreme case I know is that of my sister who finally, after many years of sweltering Andalucía summers, gave in and had air-conditioning installed. Immediately after the installation was completed they had a few days of cooler weather. Enough said?)

Anyway, María and I went on our little paseo, swapping news and making plans for a boat trip to Moaña one day soon, gradually making our way up to the Castro. There we stopped for refreshments at the cafe overlooking the ría, wi
th a good view of the Islas Cíes.

By now the clouds had all but disappeared and we sat under the shade of a sun umbrella. María was somewhat concerned that I might be feeling cold (!) and proceeded to apologise for the weather. This summer, she declared, was not typical; it’s normally much better, much hotter.
I had to reassure her that, in the first place, she is not personally responsible for the weather and, in the second, I am actually quite happy with this summer. And truly, it is a lot better than what I’ve been used to in the Northwest of England in recent years.

However, the newspapers back up María’s view of things. Although June was officially recognised as warm, July has been a disappointment, statistically at any rate. Maximum temperatures for the month have been below average. Only Ourense has managed to get above 30° while the rest of the region has had a maximum of 26°, which su
its me fine. In fact, in view of the forest fires which have raged in Aragón, we should consider ourselves quite fortunate to have some rain. Mind you, La Coruña’s 19° is perhaps rather below the acceptable level for July.

La Coruña also gets mention for having had only two despejado, that is cloud-free, days in July so far, and there’s not a lot of July left after all. Here in the South of Galicia, we are credited
with a grand total of six, which does not sound much. I think, though, that the statistics give a rather false impression.

We may have had only six days of totally clear blue sky, not a cloud to be seen from morning until night, but we have had many days which begin, like today, with cloud or even rain and which, again like today, have blue sky and sunshine by lunchtime and progress into long sunny evenings.

The newspapers are at pains to reassure us that the “odd” weather has nothing to do with global warming or climate change but is just the normal variability of the Galician climate.

Like the British, gallegos enjoy talking about the weather and make jokes about it, as in this cartoon where, as show
ers are forecast, one man asks his friend to see if it is raining. His friend looks out of the window and replies: “Now it is; now it’s not; now it is; now it’s not.”

On the whole people accept the rain as normal (and why not? – we can’t do
much about it!) and don’t mind too much looking foolish in pink plastic raincoats which can be thrown away later. The umbrella salesmen appear as if by magic on every street corner. Cafes, shops and libraries are equipped with umbrella stands.

And the wonderful Spanish folk, who seem not to mind stepping, nay striding, out of shop doorways and bumping into you, who think nothing of stopping in a family group to talk on the kerb after crossing the road thus preventing any other road-crossers from reaching the safety of the pavement, have delightful umbrella etiquette.

As you walk along in the rain with your umbrella up, you see all the umbrellas bobbing up and down or tipping to left or right to avoid clashing with other umbrella-users.

Perfect, apparently innate umbrella etiquette!

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Galicia has its Day!

Well, I got up this morning and strolled down the road as usual to buy bread for breakfast. The street was strangely quiet. The shops were mostly shut. What was going on? Had I inadvertently slept the clock round and was it, in fact, Sunday and not Saturday at all?

Then I remembered: 25th July, Santiago = Saint James, his feast day and Día de Galicia. It was only natural that everything stopped. Thank goodness I had shopped yesterday. And, even more so, thank goodness the bread shop stays open on Sundays, feast days, Easter and probably Christmas as well. I have only known it to shut on May 1st, fiesta del trabajo!

Yesterday’s paper wished everyone a Happy 25th of July with a poem in gallego AND castellano:

Hoxe, Galicia somos todos.
os que están,

os que foron,

os que teñen morriña,

os que pensan voltar,

e os que viñeron celebrar con nos

o día grande da nosa tera.

Hoy, Galicia somos todos.
los que están,

los que se fuero
los que tienen morriña,

los que piensan en volver

y los que han venido a celebrar con nosotros

el día grande de nuestra tierra.

And my translation:

Today, Galicia is all of us.
those who are here,

those who went away,
those who miss her,

those who are t
hinking of returning,
and those who came to celebrate with us

our country’s great day.

It’s nice to see everyone included in the celebrations.

Today was selected as Galicia’s “national” day some time last century, combining the feast of the apostle Saint James, supposedly buried in Santiago de Compostela, with a celebration of the Galician homeland. The name Santiago de Compostela means something like Saint James of the Field of the Star, commemorating the legend that a star shone down to indicate where the bones of the saint were buried, after having floated to Galicia from the Holy Land in a stone boat.

All right, it may sound a little far-fetched but there it is. Pilgrims make their way to Santiago from all over the world, carrying their pilgrim poles and following the path marked by scallop shells, the shells which the original pilgrims used as platters to eat their food at hostals along the way.

Nowadays some people cheat a little and have their
luggage transported for them from place to place while they make their way on foot or in some cases on bicycles. The most devoted, however, do it properly with their luggage in their back, gaining certificates as they go to prove that they have walked the walk. Eventually they attend a service at the cathedral in Santiago where all who have completed the Way are blessed by the bishop.

A couple of years ago I met a pilgrim who had walked all the way from somewhere in Eastern Europe with her rucksack and her pilgrim’s staff. She was on her way to the airport to make her way home by plane. Impressive!

On the Saint James’ eve, the cathedral is illuminated at around midnight with a huge display of fireworks. It is worth standing squashed into the Plaza do Obradoiro, if you are lucky enough to get in there as the crowds are huge, or in one of the streets leading onto the square, as we did two years ago. The display is impressive and photos and videos do not really do it justice.

Earlier this week, pilgrims and tourists were having to buy raincoats if they did not come equipped as the rain lashed down – Santiago de Compostela is, after all, the rain capital of Spain. Yesterday, however, the rain kept off and although apparently not
without some technical problems the show went ahead as usual.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Galicia IS the centre of the universe!

First it was the potatoes: everyone knows that Galician potatoes are the best in the world. Then what is seemingly the oldest working lighthouse in the world, the Torre de Hércules in la Coruña, was declared patrimonio de la humanidad, a world heritage site.

And now we have Estíbaiz Pereira, from La Coruña, who has just been selected as Miss España in the finals in Cancún. As she poses on La Coruña’s Riazor beach in her very unsuitable shoes, the pretty girl declares she has been so busy she has not had time to phone work and let them know she needs a year off. I somehow think they might have seen the news and know that she now has to go and prove that gallegas are the prettiest girls in the world by becoming Miss Universe!

Then we have some cinematic connections. Lesley Howard, the British actor who played Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind (drippy but honourable type, not quite honourable enough to make it plain to Scarlett, who fancied she was in love with him, that the one he really loved was his cousin Melanie – you remember!!) has his gallego link. Apparently he flew to Spain in 1943 carrying messages from Churchill to Franco, trying to keep Spain out of the war. His plane was shot down by German fighter pilots who supposedly knew what he was up to. It was always believed that he went down somewhere in the Bay of Biscay but recent investigations have shown that it was off the coast of La Coruña province near a place called Cedeira where on Sunday the mayor unveiled a monument to him and the other people on the fateful flight.

More recently in the world of the silver screen, we have Martin Sheen, also known as Ramón Antonio Estévez, son of two immigrants to the USA, Mary Ann Phelan from County Tipperary in Ireland, and, more importantly, the gallego Francisco Estévez, from a place called Parderrubias (a most evocative name which means "a couple of blonde girls"!!!!) in Galicia. Another source, though, has him coming from Porriño, which makes us almost neighbours! Now, that son of a gallego (and fictional President of the United States – see The West Wing – do keep up!) is reported to be coming to Galicia to make a film directed by his son Emilio Estevez, a story set against the backdrop of the Camino de Santiago.

In the world of sport, earlier this week our free paper, Luns a Venres, praised a gallego cycling triumph: David Herrera of the Xacobeo-Galicia cycling team had won the final stage of the Vuelta a Madrid cycle race, gaining third place overall. All I needed then was a way to make the success of Alberrrrto Contadorrrrr, winner of Sunday’s stage of the Tour de France (and of yesterday's time trial) and proud (Spanish) wearer of the yellow jersey, to be made into a victory for Galicia.

Then in another Luns a Venres there it was: a letter in praise of Contador’s achievement. If he can keep it up as leader of the tour for the next week, the writer told us, we might once again see Galician flags flying on the podium in Paris.

Now, I was under the impression that Alberto was a madrileño so I had to investigate. Yes, I was right; he was born in Madrid. His cousin, still living in the family’s pueblo, a little place called Barcarrota in Extremadura, was interviewed on television and says they are all excited about his progress. Well, so are some people from Galicia.

Maybe if he wins, they’ll make him an honorary gallego!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Just a (train)rider in the rain!

On Tuesday evening the weather started to change here and by Wednesday morning the sunshine we have had for quite a while now had turned to rain, sometimes quite torrential. The weather forecast promises better weather by Friday but for the moment the best we can hope for is rain with some sunny periods.

This has prompted the cartoonists into action in the paper. Battling against the July wind and rain, a man comments to his companion in sorrows that in the Arctic summers only last six weeks. This causes his friend to declare that they are very lucky in the Arctic. It doesn’t take much to spark the pessimism.

Of course, one of the problems is that here in Galicia it really KNOWS how to rain. However, we have a theory that although there may be more actual rainfall here than in the Northwest of England, it seems less to us because it falls over fewer days. Hence we seem to have more fine days, at least here in Vigo.

As in other parts of the world, rain affects people’s driving skills. Everyone wants to reach their destination in a hurry but the rain makes the surface slippery and then there are those
bolsas de agua, literally "bags of water", the standing water in the road. Consequently, the papers report 120 accidents in Galicia yesterday. They do seem to like giving us these grim statistics!!

Be that as it may, a lot of rain fell yesterday – twice the total predicted for the whole month in some places! Near Ourense, newspaper reports tell us, a hundred youngsters had to be evacuated from a summer camp because of flooding. I was taken back to my experience of Girl Guide camp next to Lake Coniston when I was twelve or thirteen. England’s Lake District is another of those areas like Galicia which is beautiful when the sun shines but can disappear under clouds for days at a time. On that occasion, back in my childhood, we were also flooded out and spent the last four nights of our stay sleeping in a barn, probably even better than under canvas!

Back to the present day, Wednesday morning saw us on the train to La Coruña in the aforementioned rain. The estuary had faded to silvery grey as the clouds had descended over the whole area. The rain managed to keep off as we walked across the plaza María Pita but we were well equipped with raincoats and umbrellas.

We met friends and friends of friends for lunch, making a group of almost a dozen at the pre-lunch drinks stage. We did that very Spanish thing of just putting more and more tables together to accommodate everyone. And, of course, equally Spanish, our drinks were accompanied by interested things to eat:
empanada, pulpo, zamburiñas.

As some of the men in our party had a bit of a competition to see who could get the fastest internet connection on laptop or net-book, battling for space on the table, a glass of wine was knocked over and I was
salpicada with red wine – a fetching new pattern sprinkled onto my dress – leading to a range of different pieces of advice on what to do: add salt, pour white wine over the red, take it straight to the dry-cleaners!!! As usual, everyone knows exactly what to do!!

Eventually, well fed as ever, we caught the bus back to the railway station. We made a small but not insignificant discovery: La Coruña, as well as being flatter and rather more picturesque than Vigo, also has slightly cheaper bus-fares! The rain was just beginning again but managed to hold off the worst of its efforts until we were home and dry again.

This morning we have had another torrential downpour but the sun has made its way out once more (for how long remains to be seen) and the temperature is going up. It may not be the wall-to-wall sun of the costas but it has already been a better summer than we had last year in the Northwest of England. Keep it up Galicia, say I!

Monday, 20 July 2009

Looping the Loop

On Sunday morning I slept in; everyone needs to do that once in a while! It was Sunday, after all! So it was already late morning when I went out for bread for breakfast. The panadera and I had our usual discussion about the weather and we agreed that this COULD be a día de playa. And that was when she asked me if I was going to Samil, one of our local beaches, to see the planes.

Both of us had forgotten until that moment that we had read in the paper a few days earlier about the Festival Aérea de Samil – planes on the ground for people to see close-up and a fly-past with el looping leaving a coloured vapour trail over the beach and the islands. Neither of us had any idea what time things were happening so I went home and consulted
the tourist office’s Guía del Ocio. Not a word: this is not the first time that I have wondered exactly what the guía is for - apart, of course, from providing advertising space for a lot of Vigo enterprises.

Anyway, I googled it and found out that there were things going on from 10.00 am to 2.30 pm. That meant that by the time I had finished breakfast I had already missed a good part of it and besides, I had a feeling that the beach at Samil might be just a little crowded. (I later found out that some 400 buses had brought people in from outside the area and then, of course, there were all those who went by car!) So instead I headed for Vigo’s high point, the Castro, to see what I could see.

Judging by the number of small boats out in the bay, it was obvious that some people knew the very best place to go to get a good view of proceedings. A fair few people, though, had the same idea as I did and we made quite a crowd up there, some with binoculars, others with cameras, hoping to record a little souvenir of the day.

At first all we could see was a number of parachutists gliding down towards the beach but eventually our patience was rewarded and jump jets (I think) came tearing in from behind Cangas and swooped over the Islas Cies, down towards the beach at Samil, almost touching the water as they went so low.

From the top of the Castro, all we could really see was the sun glinting off the planes and the patterns made by the vapour trails but it was another occasion to chat with complete strangers about what we were seeing.

There was a good deal of discussion about that, along the lines of, “Allí está un avión.”, “No, es una gaviota.”, “No, ¡esto sí que es un avión! Well, it is hard to tell a plane from a seagull at that distance. However, seagu
lls don’t leave vapour trails and jump jets don’t dive down and steal food from your cafe table!

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Summer odds and ends

As the summer gets itself properly into gear, the usual sorts of seasonal oddities are reported in the papers, such as the metre-long iguana spotted, sedated and captured on a Vigo street recently. Notices are pinned to lamp-posts asking passers-by to look out for a grey parrot which has escaped. If seen, please phone mobile number ......... People are clearly NOT looking after their pets properly!

On Príncipe a new musical attraction has appeared. An elderly gentleman sits next to a music system blasting out Ode to Joy at top volume. He accompanies this on a set of what look like bamboo pipes, rather like extra-large Pan pipes. Alongside him there is a notice: Esta música viene de Australia. I am amazed, puzzled, bemused, gob-smacked even. Exactly which music comes from Australia? Certainly not Ode to Joy. As for musical instruments, I always associated Australia with didgeridoos and wobble-boards. Maybe it’s the music system, shipped over at great expense, which explains the need to ask for money on the streets.

Closer to home, a baby seagull seems to have fallen out of its nest and is confusedly trying to talk to its reflection in a shop doorway. Maybe it is a victim of a campaign I read about to remove seagull nests from inner city buildings in an attempt to rid the city of a nuisance – or at least reduce it. Be that as it may, we shoo the little fellow into a more open area, hoping that its fearsome parents will manage to rescue it.

Just off Príncipe a new and futuristic-looking building has been completed. I have no idea what it is but the new square created to accommodate it is already in use by young men practising their skateboarding skills, leaping over low walls and careering dangerously down steps.

Possibly they are practising for the skateboarding competitions that we can hear going on in the Castro Park. From the purpose built skateboard area the clunks and bangs echo throughout the park and beyond, followed by the cry of ¡un
aplauso para el chico! This must be part of the organised activities for young people, noisy but obviously fun, that is if you like that kind of thing!

In other sections of the park, things continue much as normal. The refurbishment of the pre-Roman settlement goes on apace – well, at a slow pace.

In the
afternoon exotic (exotic to me at any rate) butterflies are spotted.

The (separate)
groups of old ladies and old gentlemen who gather to play cards are seeking shady places away from the glare of the late afternoon sun. The old gents usually stick it out longer than the old ladies.

A stray wedding party looks for a romantic setting for their photos. And the Islas Cies look strange and unreal out to sea in the evening light.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

From Wonders of the World to the Wonder of Words

Down on the alameda, the Plaza de Compostela, the feria de los continentes has packed up and gone, presumably to peddle interesting items from India, Africa and South America in other parts of Galicia. The stalls did not stand empty for long and were soon filled with the feria de los libros.

We rather hoped that there might be interesting collections of second hand books to rummage through but sadly this was not the case. No chance to find a rare first edition of some out of print book signed by the author here. Rather than that, this seems to be an opportunity for all the booksellers of Vigo to have a central location for a while, advertise their wares and sell some books to the tourists who come in by the busload and the boatload. There was an excellent collection, as usual, of translations into Spanish and Gallego of the works of Ken Follett, Donna Leon and many others who I expect to see on the shelves of Waterstone's in Manchester.

The stall selling Gallego cookery books had a good throng around it. How many of these enticing-looking collections of recipes, I wonder cynically, are bought by holiday-making housewives, perused over coffee on the day of purchase and then end up gathering dust on the kitchen shelf.

One stall was selling A Enciclopedia Galega, a huge collection of many tomes. I had not imagined such a thing existed although, even in this age of electronic information storage, many Spanish homes still have the encyclopaedia on the bookshelves to help encourage their children to learn. So I suppose, logically, if children are being educated in Gallego, then parents will buy the encyclopaedia in Gallego. It did cross my mind, however, that as they keep working on and adjusting and verifying as normas (the standard rules for the Galician language) it might be necessary to revise and re-publish A Enciclopedia Galega just as frequently to ensure that the knowledge is correctly expressed. Ah well, I suppose it all leads to extra sales!

In amongst the stalls was a tent where a crowd of children were being entertained by a puppet show. They seemed to be enjoying it and so were a number of adults who had stopped to see what was going on. The children were also served by the stall for Libros para Soñar – Books to Dream with – which had a lovely collection of story books for children of all ages.

It is very strange to see the books I read to my own children – The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Bad-tempered Ladybird and so on - translated not only into Castilian Spanish but also into Gallego. Some are fairly straightforward and do well in any language but I would like to see what could be done with the crazy rhymes of Dr Seuss’s The Hat in the Cat or The Butter Battle Book. Now there’s a challenge!

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Gulls! The Gulls!

Summer, as I have said before, is an excellent time for sitting at a table outside a cafe watching the world go by. What better way is there to relax on a hot day? So why did I suddenly feel as though I was in the middle of a Hitchcock film the other day?

My friend María and I had been for a stroll down to the harbour, round and about, through the Plaza de Compostela, setting the world to rights as we went. We stopped at the Cafe Maracaibo for refreshments and to continue our chat. As is usual here, the waiter brought us a little snack along with our coffee. And that is where the Hitchcock fi
lm begins!!

From a table nearby there came a mighty crash. A scavenging seagull had just knocked several empty glasses onto the pavement. Fortunately that table was unoccupied. At that moment I spotted a gull homing in on our table. I waved my bag at him and he veered off: useful things handbags!

He had a couple more tries but never got close, to my great relief! We had a table with a sun umbrella so his line of approach (line of attack, more like!) w
as not direct and we were always able to head him off at the pass.

Not so lucky was the chap sitting at another table not far from us but in the shadow of the building and, therefore, without a sun umbrella. Even as the gentleman reached his hand out to pick up a piece of tortilla, down swooped the gull, alighted momentarily on the table and was away, tortilla dangling from his beak.

The poor chap nearly fell of his chair. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone quite so shaken since the two young girls I saw who had a similar close encounter one day on Principe. They were strolling along together, chatting and eating waffles. Suddenly, out of nowhere a gull dived down and tried to steal the waffle from their very hands!

Well, by now María and I had finished our coffee and de
cided it was time to move on. The place was becoming rather dangerous. Our waiter was not around and so we went inside to pay. We were barely through the door when we saw our friend the gull land on our table and tuck into the remains of our snack: fearless, defiant and VERY BIG!

Friday, 10 July 2009

Beauty queens + baby girls + happiness?

According to some statistics I have seen reported recently, the Spanish get more satisfaction from eating (and that includes chocolate) than from almost any other activity. Well, I already knew they enjoyed their food so what else is new? The study, by a sociologist from Barcelona University, puts food ahead of family as a source of pleasure and puts chocolate in fourth place. Mind you the work is sponsored by Magnum, the ice cream makers; maybe that has a little something to do with it!

It seems that Spain figures quite low in the ranking of countries according to levels of enjoyment and happiness. Up at the top are Colombia, Mexico, Portugal and Turkey. Now then, I wonder if the contrasting positions of Spain and Mexico have anything to do with the fact that all the lovelies who aspire to the title of Miss España have just been flown to Cancún where the finals are to be held. That should make the Mexicans smile, at least. It is also, apparently, the first time the event has not been televised here in Spain. Wow, I didn’t think anyone even took these competitions remotely seriously any longer!

Meanwhile, two
gallegas are making the news and doing their bit for the region’s reputation. Olalla Domínguez, wife of Liverpool footballer Fernando Torres, came home to her native Santiago de Compostela to give birth to her baby. Little Nora made her entry in the early hours of Tuesday with minimum fuss and minimum press coverage, obviously taking after her mother who apparently avoids the limelight.

Our local Galician free paper declares that
a “nena Torres” é galega, displaying pride in her regional identity while playing with the nickname of her father, o neno Torres (el niño Torres in Castillian Spanish), earned when he played as a junior in Madrid. The paper also points out that o neno Torres has his own links with Galicia as his paternal grandparents live in Boqueixas.

As I thought, Galicia IS the centre of the universe!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Repercussions of reformas

Well, today began, as has become usual, with the sound of banging and drilling as the reformas continue several floors above us. I strolled out as usual to buy bread for breakfast, picked up a free paper as usual and returned home. Then the routine changed and the little drama of the day began.

Before we had even got breakfast on the table – well, all right, we do tend to breakfast a little late – there was a ring on the doorbell. The portero wanted to now if we had any problems with dampness or leaks – the infamous gotera gallega! When I told him we had not noticed anything, he asked did we mind if he and his workman came in and had a look. As I thought, they could find no evidence of a problem either.

It turned out that the people in the flat below ours had developed a problem and they were trying to discover the source. However, we seemed to be leak-free and so we blamed the fuss on the fact that water had been turned off for the whole building a few days ago because of the reformas. Who knows what bits of tubería might have been disturbed during that operation?

In the event we were not far wrong. Early in the afternoon I noticed the sound of running water behind a wall in the corner of the kitchen where normally there is none. We investigated via the well hidden cubby hole that gives access to the stopcock for our water supply. Yes, indeed, water had been running down there but it did not appear to be OUR water. I went and reported it to the portero. A plumber, he told me, would be calling later in the afternoon.

For once the plumber arrived more or less on time. Fontanero and portero ummed and aahed and assessed the situation. They decided that what they needed to do was romper, make a hole in the wall and investigate.

Far be it from us to tell the Spanish what to do, but we did suggest that it might be a good idea to see what the situation was in the flat above. Maybe it was THEIR wall that needed breaking into! But there was no answer at the flat above. This, we were told, was the problem with July and August: people WILL go away on holiday – for weeks at a time! We did wonder quite what was the point of having a portero if he was unable to get into the flats in an emergency or at least have a contact phone number when people were away. Too sensible!

Before anyone took a hammer to the wall, we reminded our portero that this is not actually OUR flat. We were a little concerned about doing anything drastic that might need paying for. However, he reassured us, and later reassured the old couple who live next door, grandparents of our landlady, that all this work was covered by the comunidad, this time meaning the communal insurance policy. All the work would be made good with no charge to us, to our landlady or to the old couple.

As a small hole was made in the living room wall and the decision taken that part of the kitchen wall needed to come down, the story started to emerge. This leak was not totally unexpected. They had been hoping, crossing fingers and such, that nothing would come of it but really they half knew that it was going to happen. On the day of the great water turn-off, it was revealed, someone working on the plumbing two or three floors up managed to drop a lump of stone down the hole between the walls. There you go!

Now, if the flats had remained exactly as they were built in the first place, this would not have caused a problem. However, over the years all sorts of reformas have taken place. As the portero explained, some people want their bathroom or kitchen in one place while others want something completely different. As a result, pipes that once went straight down now have twists and turns, bends and deviations like a map of the old quarter.

Sooooo, when that stone dropped, instead of falling harmlessly down, it bounced off one of the bends in the tubería. And as modern tuberías are made of plastic, a falling stone easily made a hole in it.

But all is now well and we just have to wait for someone to come and repair the damage to our walls. Oh, the joys of obras and reformas!!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Summer - the silly season!

Summer brings the silly season and stampedes of bulls through the streets of Pamplona, where the San Fermines are in full swing right now. The local paper reports five people hospitalised there yesterday, one a Scot and one an American: international madness this, obviously! The same article reassures (?) us that none of them was actually gored by a bull!

A cartoon shows a female socialist minister running the bulls. As someone declares, “Here come the bulls (os touros)!”, she makes a stand for women’s rights and adds, “And the female ones (as touras)!”

And there I was, thinking that women had more sense than to join in the nonsense of proving how brave they are by running in front of an animal that weighs as much as a car and can do you as much damage if it runs over you. Foolish me!

I was also led to believe that they don’t
use cows (vacas) in bullfights because the female of the species learns quickly that it’s a good idea to charge the man, not the cape!

Summer also brings the sales (again!), much advertised on television and talked about in all the media as they interview bargain hunters. It made last Sunday morning here in Vigo a little strange. The usually Sunday-morning-quiet Principe was full of shoppers as almost all the shops, well the fashion shops, opened for the start of the sales. All most confusing for an Englishwoman who has readjusted to Sunday as a day of rest from consumerism.

And then we have the Spanish controversy about the Tour de France, which also began last weekend. The Astana Team is doing well; they won the team time trial yesterday. The official team leader is Spain’s own Alberto Contador, the young man who was Best Young Rider, wore the coveted yellow and then, to everyone’s delight, won the Tour in 2007. However, also in the team is the American Lance Armstrong, veteran cyclist, recovered cancer sufferer and seven times winner of the Tour. This is where the controversy arises.

Lance Armstrong retired from the Tour and from cycle racing with some publicity at the end of the Tour in 2005, had something of a fling with singer/songwriter Sheryl Crow and now seems to be back with a vengeance. He was only seconds away from wearing the yellow jersey yesterday, and again today, pipped to the post by the Swiss Fabian Cancellara.

The American’s success has led to much speculation about his true position in the team. Is he trying to stage a take-over? The team apparently abandoned Contador in order to support Armstrong to a better finish during the second stage. Just who, the media ask us, is the real leader of Team Astana?

It all adds spice to the spectacle and at least it’s not a series of reports on who has been caught with the latest performance-enhancing drugs.

But, oh, I really don’t know who to root for! At one time I could just support Pedro Delgado but Perico is now a sports journalist with a blog on this year’s tour. I spent many a happy hour wincing at the all-elbows-and-knees cycling style of Djamolidine Abdoujaparov. I have admired Lance Armstrong and his personal struggles. And a few years ago I thrilled to the reported success of Alberrrrrto Contadorrrrr, as the excited Spanish sports reporter named him. But now I have to decide between two possible heroes.

Summer is indeed a difficult season!

Friday, 3 July 2009

Dealing with the heat

Most of Spain is in the grip of a heat wave, una ola de calor. The weather maps show shining suns all over the country apart, that is, from the north where the suns are accompanied by clouds and occasionally slanting rain. Television news broadcasts tell of temperatures of 39° in places like Seville and remind us that hot nights are the worst, with Barcelona showing night-time temperatures of 25°.

Here we have had some respite from the extreme heat. This has, naturally, led some to declare that Galicia is not having a summer .... again!!! But we have had plenty of sunshine recently, even though today is positively DULL. Many days have had a mix of sun and clouds, allowing for walks along the harbour without burning up too much.

Now, the first weekend of July is just beginning, the start of the holiday season, and consequently there is a good deal of media attention on
operación salida. Some 4,000,000 desplazamientos (car journeys) are expected to take place over the weekend with the resulting chaos and undoubtedly a number of accidents to be reported on Sunday evening. Anti-drink-driving and safe-driving campaigns can be expected soon.

The Spanish, like the French who prefer
le mois d’août, are quite traditional, nay stick-in-the-mud, about when to go on holiday. It’s July so it’s time to head for the beach! The British on the other hand like to take holidays all year round, only crowding the British roads on Bank Holidays but otherwise seeking the sun in foreign climes.

The UK is apparently also having its own
ola de calor. Friends report a very sticky central Manchester. Both countries’ news media are full of suggestions for how to keep cool. The Guardian today has an article about iced coffee which, I must confess, is one of my favourite pick-me-ups on a hot day.

My version, however, is nothing like the one described in the Guardian. Nor is it the amazing concoction I was served in Italy when I described what I wanted. The ever so friendly waitress in the corner cafe in Viareggio took a cocktail shaker, added an espresso, ice, ice-cream and a good measure of Bailey’s and shook the lot up. The result was a deliciously cooling alcoholic drink but not quite what I had in mind.

No, what I wanted was the Spanish version:
café con hielo. They serve you a small black coffee and a glass full of ice-cubes. You add sugar to taste to the black coffee; this is the one time I sweeten my coffee. Having stirred it to dissolve the sugar, you pour the coffee into the glass of ice. Then you simply sit in the shade, sip your café con hielo as the ice gradually melts and read the paper or watch the world go by. A perfect occupation for a hot afternoon!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009


Well, here we are in July. We've passed the summer solstice, the bonfires of San Juan have come and gone, the swallows are around in the mornings and the schools have broken up. This means the young people have more time for a noisy and extended botellon, singing their way home along our street at five o' clock in the morning or thereabouts!

My bookclubs and yoga classes have all had their last meetings with a farewell coffee or beer, depending on the time of day: lots of hugs and kisses and hasta septiembre. Everyone has plans to go away to their pueblo, their casa en la playa or their casa en el campo.

Down on the Plaza de Compostela, Vigo's alameda, stalls have been set up for the feria de los continentes with goods from all sorts of places: leather goods from South America, cotton skirts and tops from India, delicious fruit jelly sweets from somewhere or other and all sorts of different kinds of jewellery.

Street theatre is also up and running with fun and games involving skipping ropes and throwing flour around at the panificadora behind the Marco art g

Even when there is no cruise ship in port, there are coach parties in town and the oyster stalls down by the harbour are doing a good trade.

Yes, everyone knows its summer except, it seems, for the people involved in obras and reformas! The drilling and digging and general noise-making continues all over the place. No wonder! Vigo is officially one of the noisiest places in Spain! Crossing the
street at Puerta del Sol or down at the junction of Colon and Policarpo Sanz still involves going through a complex maze of pedestrian barriers and walkways over a mess of pipes and wires.

In our block, two flats are in the process of being renovado. It's summer and the temperature goes up as the day progresses so work starts at eight o' clock. It could be worse: I can remember construction work beginning at three in the morning one summer in Andalucia!!

This morning, however, brought a new treat. A huge kind of hydraulic lift was set up in the street carrying building materials up to one of the uppermost floors. Naturally, it went squeaking and grinding past my bedroom window. Who needs an alarm clock?