Monday, 31 August 2009

Mad dogs and Englishmen ...

I’ve been giving my opinion recently of people who play dangerous games with bulls and my friend Colin has been having some correspondence about the Galician attitude to bullfighting. Well, it seems that la corrida is the thing to be interested in at the moment for I have just found an article in the Guardian online about an Englishman who does rather more than just run with the bulls in Pamplona.

At the age of 67, most Spanish bullfighters have hung up their sword and cape and have consigned their traje de luces to the local bullfighting museum. Frank Evans, known in the world of bullfighting as El Inglés, the Englishman, comes from Salford, just next door to Manchester, where there is no bullfighting museum and he doesn’t give in so easily. Maybe it’s the Salford spirit which I know reasonably well, having taught there for a number of years before escaping to Spain.

Despite having had a heart bypass operation some time in the past and bei
ng the proud owner of a titanium knee (his own wonky knee forcing him to retire from the bullring some four years ago), El Inglés is about to make his comeback in the plaza de toros in Benalmádena.

Apparently he became interested in bullfighting as a
child when his father told him stories of seeing bullfights in Andalucía when he was stationed in Gibraltar during World War Two II. He was further encouraged by a Spanish family living in Salford who were all devotees of Manuel Benítez, celebrity bullfighter of the 1960s, better known as El Cordobés.

Now I
remember El Cordobés. When I was studying A Level Spanish in sixth form, one of my best friends went on holiday to Spain and came back with photos and posters of this torero who had the kind of following that glamorous football players can count on. We all, of course, fell in love with him. Our Spanish teacher, a formidable lady born both too early and too late – too early to be a suffragette and too late to be a hippy but with something of both – almost certainly vegetarian, fiercely women’s lib in her way and a great upholder of animal rights, refused to speak to poor Beryl for weeks because she admitted to having been to a bullfight!

So, anyway, Frank Evans took himself off to Spain and became a bullfighter – eventually, becoming a fully fledged matador in 1991. Now he is making a comeback at the ripe old age of 67. He is not the first Englishman to don the suit of lights. In fact, in his earliest appearances in the ring he was mistaken for another inglés, one Henry Higgins who fought bulls in the 1930s.

Then there are the women. I did say, only yesterday I believe, that women are generally too sensible to get involved in this kind of activity but it is, sadly, not the case. Cristina Sánchez wanted to be a bullfighter from the age of 14 and made it up there with the famous ones. She retired in 1999, I believe, and is now the mother of a couple of sons of whom she says that she would prefer them not to become bullfighters. She does take them to bullfights however.

Even she was not the only to
rera in Spanish history. Juanita Cruz was the pioneer of female bullfighters in the 1930s and is reported to have said, “If I run from the bull, someone in the audience will yell that I am running because I am a woman and I am scared. So I will not run." However she was unable to continue her career in Franco’s Spain. No toreras allowed.

Now, though, she has inspired fashion design. “Acne has been inspired
by the strength of these characters (Juanita Cruz and Cristina Sanchez). Juxtaposing powerful shoulders and narrow waists, with soft skirts in fine silks, creating a contradictory, yet united, silhouette.” Strange that two women who went against convention should influence that most feminine, not feminist industry.

Getting back to El Inglés, until I came upon the Guardian article about Frank Evans, El Inglés was for me an un-named Englishman who played flamenco
guitar with a group called Julio, formed in 1988 and whom I saw in Manchester not many years later. Now that is another way to get absorbed into Spanish culture and, as far as I know, a much less dangerous one.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Summer reflections

The summer’s almost gone.
The winter’s tuning up.

At any rate, that’s what Juana, the bread shop lady, told me the other day. All right, so she didn’t quote Leonard Cohen at me but she did tell me that September is a la vuelta de la esquina, just around the corner, and that thought is depressing her. We were having a rather cloudy start to the day but I reminded her that we have had a fair few days that have begun that way and turned into blue sky and sunshine by early afternoon. She didn't seem convinced but I was right in the end. The sun did shine again.

So, anyway, I went and had a
look at my geek’s incorporated weather chart to see how the summer looked. I found that in July and August we have had at least 50 days when the sun shone, not necessarily all day although there are a lot of those days as well, but at least for part of the day. June didn’t look too bad either but I was in the UK for part of that month.

I also took a look at my photo collection for a reminder of what has been going on in Vigo. As well as the range of concerts organised in Castrelos Park and down by the harbour, there has been quite a lot of music on the street....

... which has been interesting!

As well as music, there was art on the street in the shape of Torres de la Alhambra sculptures.

There were free
concerts in Vigo’s alameda, the Plaza de Compostela, with a proper stage and seats provided. One evening, coming back from a long day at the Islas Cies - a hard day's hiking, swimming, sunbathing, taking photos, you know how it is - my friend and I came across a Galician folk group performing there, gradually attracting quite a sizable audience.

There have been sporting event
s, including the rather terrifying stunt bike championships a couple of Sundays ago. This seemed to involve a race down a track which zigzagged though the casco vello and hurtled past the cathedral. There was also a huge crowd watching young men from all over Spain and from outside the country – one young man appeared to have come from South Africa to take part – risk their lives by charging up and down ramps and somersaulting once, twice, three times .... in the air ... on their bikes ... many of them without helmets!

(I still wonder how you LEARN a skill like that! It does seem to be largely a masculine skill. Yes, I know there are girls who take part in these sports and who do mountain biking races and that sort of thing. However, you don’t see many teenage girls out on their skateboards down near the harbour here in Vigo. Neither do you see them honing their stunt-bike and skateboard skills in the park up at the Castro! Have I said enough? )

And th
en, there were the demos. Groups of protesters have been demanding the re-instatement of workers given the sack by the newspaper, El Faro de Vigo, the said newspaper having dismissed workers despite receiving large numbers of Euros in subsidies from the Xunta de Galicia.

The summer does seem to be continuing, though, despite the gloomy prognostications of my panadera an
d the sun still shines on Samil beach. I was able to pass on to Juana reports from friends in Manchester of rainy days, grey skies and temperatures of 12°, compared with the 28° and 29° that I have seen on chemists’ signs here in the last couple of days. So I’m not letting doom and gloom get to me. My strappy tops and sandals won’t be relegated to the back of the wardrobe just yet.

Friday, 28 August 2009

The World is a Handkerchief.

A few years ago, visiting La Coruña for the first time, I was surprised to recognise some buses in the bus station there. They were the pink and purple buses of the Arriva company, one of the bus companies that you see around Greater Manchester. It’s a small world or, as they say in Spain, el mundo es un pañuelo.

And that certainly seems to be true of buses anyway for, lo and behold, there are Vitrasa buses in the Sahara according to an article in El País this morning. Vitrasa is the company that runs the bus services around Vigo and very efficiently
they do it as well, as far as I can see.

Now, a few years agoVitrasa, like other companies and organisations
, apparently made donations to Saharan refugee camps in Algeria. Vitrasa’s contribution was buses which carry medical supplies and food to refugee camps as well as taking refugee children to school.

This has featured in today's news because two journalists, Eduardo Rolland and Luis Montenegro have been making a documentary film called A liña do deserto about life in the camps and their link with Galicia and, in particular, Vigo. The film features a young girl called, Maimuna, born 19 years ago in one of the refugee camps but who knows Vigo because of a project called Vacaciones en Paz. As a little girl she spent holidays in Vigo living with foster families, all organised by
Vacaciones en Paz. One of her ambitions is to come and work in Vigo.

Transport is also in the news for other reasons. This weekend being the last one in August many people all over Spain will be returning home from their holidays. As the vast majority of Spaniards still spend their holidays in Spain, the preferred means of transport is the family car, a vehicle aptly referred to as un turismo in the motor trade. Consequently some 575,000 journeys are expected to be made by car this weekend in Galicia alone, 10% of the total expected for the whole of Spain.

However, the Dirección General del Tráfico has prepared Operación fin de Agosto to deal with el retorno and so everything should go smoothly. (I will reserve judgement until Sunday evening's news reports with their gruesome statistics of road accidents.) The DGT advises people, though, not to travel between 17.00 and 23.00 on Sunday when they expect the greatest problems of queues to get into major cities. It’s all rather like Bank Holiday traffic problems in the UK.

If the weather continues as warm as today, I don’t envy them at all sitting in traffic jams. Maybe they should all leave their cars at home and use public transport instead!

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The man in the bank knows best!!

Some time ago, in one of my earliest blog posts, I wrote about the frustration of the Spanish catch-22: no bank account = no aval (bank guarantee for renting a flat) = no flat = no fixed address = no NIE (foreign national’s ID number) = no bank account!

Today it came back to haunt me slightly. We have been flat hunting for the last few weeks. The seemingly endless reformas which have been going on in our building since May and which have promoted graffiti in the lift asking when they will end - ¿Y cuándo acaban? !Joder! – have finally driven us out. We have found somewhere slightly smaller, considerably cheaper and, amazingly, with a view over the estuary. OK, we will also have a view of cranes at the port but the flat is high enough up to make it possible to ignore them.

Anyway, needing to pay a deposit on the new flat I went along to the bank, not my usual branch but one closer to home. The ever-helpful Monica who solved our catch-2 problem for us had told me that she was being transferred to this closer branch and so I could kill two birds with one stone: say hello to Monica and do my banking. In the event, she was not there, having been deployed to another, more distant, branch to cover for staff on holiday. And so I got to know the almost equally helpful Laura.

However, for various reasons Laura was unable to transfer the deposit directly form my bank account to that of my new landlady. I would need to go to the counter and withdraw the amount in cash: not a problem, I thought. I made my request and handed over my libreta, alarmingly identical to the savings book I had with the building society back in the 1970s. “Su carné, por favor,” demanded the rather grumpy (male) bank clerk. I handed him my passport which he scrutinised, rather suspiciously I thought, and then asked me if this was the document with which I had opened the account in the first place. I assured him it was but added that I used my NIE for online banking.

He gave me a withering look, which became positively sneering when he discovered that I do not carry that document around with me at all times. The NIE is a sheet of A4 paper; I feel it might not survive for long folded up in my handbag. Eventually he photocopied my passport and gave me the money, MY money when all was said and done, but not before he had leant forward, looked me in the eye and told me: “El documento con el cual usted abrió la cuenta es el NIE.”

I declined to comment. There was clearly no point in explaining to him that at the time I did not even have a NIE, let alone use it to open the account. There’s something very frustrating, annoying, amusing, even faintly reassuring when you meet petty officials who know your life better than you do!

Oh, helpful Monica, do come back soon!

Monday, 24 August 2009

See how they run!

Skimming the Sunday papers online yesterday I came across an article in El País with the headline: El Juego Trágico del Verano – The Tragic Summer Game! It turned out to be about los encierros, the custom of running bulls through the streets of towns on their way to the bullring, incidentally giving (mostly) men the chance to hurl themselves in front of them to prove how brave they are. So here I am, talking about the bulls again.

We have a tendency to think that this activity is something that occurs in Pamplona for the Sanfermines at the start of July. This is not the case. There are some 15,000 encierros throughout Spain in the summer, 6000 in the Comunidad Valenciana alone! That seems to me to be an excessive number of occasions for people to injure themselves.

The young man who died in Pamplona this year, apparently, was not the only one, nor indeed the first, of this year. Four had died in similar circumstances before the Sanfermines and the latest victim was last Tuesday, a 16 year old in the small town of Cabanillas in Navarra. Who lets their 16 year old run down the street in front of bulls? Would you encourage him to play at dodging cars on a busy road?

The death in Pamplona was international news, however, because of the “fame” of the Sanfermines, referred to as “el referente de los encierros”, almost a gold standard with between 2000 and 3000 Spaniards and North Americans (and a smattering of other nationalities) showing off for the crowds. This year’s score: 1 dead, 41 injured and hundreds bruised. Hemingway has quite a lot to answer for!

The emergency services do what they can and the insurance companies inevitably do well out of it. I have heard that organisers have to pay around 4000€ insurance for the runners and 9000€ for the bulls. A significant difference! People who opt to do a stupid activity and bulls which are bred specifically for it.

According to aficionados one of the problems is the drunkenness of many of the runners and the fact that they are not in training. People who go from town to town to indulge this hobby, and there are many who do just that, should, it seems, be trained like athletes.

There are, of course, pressure groups trying to put a stop to it. Ecologistas en Acción claim that numbers of followers are going down. They say that Gallup polls indicate that only 10 -12 % of Spain’s population is in favour of bullfighting. And yet, people still go to the encierros and the corridas. Only 56 municipalities have officially disassociated themselves from bullfighting – and most of them are in Catalonia. Sociologist Enrique Gil Calvo explains the continued popularity as a very Spanish desire to go against social order and to show that you can overcome fear; running drunkenly in front of bulls is a perfect way of doing that!!! Anarchy AND machismo!!

By way of contrast to the
Sanfermines with its international participation is the Palio, the horse race which takes place in Siena, Italy in July and August and which was written about in Sunday’s Observer, which I also skimmed online. Like bullfighting, the Palio can trace its origins to a long time ago in history. Forget Hemingway; the ancient Greeks have a lot to answer for!

The Palio raises some of the same health and safety questions as the encierros. 120,000 people pack into the square to watch. It’s an amazing throwback to medieval pageantry, with the costumes and the flag throwing but especially in the complete lack of sponsorship. Occasionally jockeys, horses, even members of the crowd are injured. One difference though is that there is no audience participation. The Palio gets an international audience but only the Siennese can take part, I understand, vying for the honour to represent their contrada or neighbourhood in racing a horse at top speed around the Campo, Sienna’s beautiful central square.

Observer journalist Henry Porter commented: “I admired the Italian gift for costume and uniform and wondered how the event would be affected by British obsessions with health and safety: flag-throwing limited to 10 feet, crowd reduced to a manageable number, no leaning on the barriers, no cavalry charge, no alcohol, no swords drawn, no crossbows or lances, knights on their steeds to be led by trained equine personnel, and the whole occasion policed by regiments of tubby marshals with shaven heads and DayGlo vests, the sort of display I imagine that Britain is going put on for the Olympics.”

All those comments could equally well be said about the encierros and about many another Spanish fiesta, including Vigo’s Reconquista, re-enacting battles from the Peninsular Wars. And I remain in two minds about the whole thing. I love all the pageantry but I wince almost every time at the health and safety aspects. And then, as far as I can see, apart from wearing a white shirt and a red neckerchief, the pageantry seems to be lacking in the encierros. I’m just too British by half, obviously!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Adventures in Oporto

For the last week I’ve been fairly quiet and stay-at-home after two or three weeks of visitors. I’ve been catching up with myself and I am finally getting around to talking about my adventures in Oporto last weekend, an age ago it seems now.

My friend Heidy was travelling
back to the UK on Sunday morning, a most awkward day to catch an early plane from Oporto. Every other day of the week there is a 7.00 am bus from Vigo which, taking into account the time difference in Portugal, arrives at the airport in plenty of time for a 9.45 flight. Sunday – nothing until later in the day! It seemed rather unfriendly to pack her off to spend Saturday evening alone in Oporto so I booked both of us into a hotel there and we set off late Saturday morning, giving us the afternoon and evening to explore the old city.

Now, whene
ver I have travelled from Oporto airport to Vigo the bus has gone through the city, stopping to pick up passengers outside the wonderfully ornate MacDonald's on Avenida dos Aliados. So I was feeling confident that I could find our hotel easily, just a matter of crossing the avenida. Not so! We travelled with a different bus company which did go to Oporto airport and then into the city but dropped us somewhere to the west of the old town at the aptly named Praza da Galiza. The rather grumpy driver responded to my questions by directing me to the booking office of the bus company.

It was a good job I had gone equipped with a map and have a reasonable awareness of the points of the compass – this latter thanks to being married to someone who ALWAYS needs to orientate himself in a new city. This skill served us well. We worked out where we were and decided that perhaps a taxi was in order.

Then Serendipity, the god of happy accidents, set to work and we found the friendliest
taxi driver in the city, I’m sure. I spoke to him in Spanish, managing to tell him in hesitant Portuguese that I don’t actually speak his language. We had a friendly language and culture lesson as he explained to us in slow, carefully pronounced Portuguese that really it’s just like galego / Galician (which it can be except that for the most part at speed it sounds more like Russian, full of shhhh and zhhhh sounds) and that he was determined to make himself understood. He talked about differences in the language while pointing out interesting buildings en route and before we knew it we were there, at the hotel: 5€ please!

We checked into our hotel, where the staff were multilingually friendly and extremely helpful, telling us exactly where to catch the metro to the airport on Sunday morning and incidentally answering questions that the grumpy bus driver had refused to do. So we dumped our belongings and set out to explore the old town.

First, since we were already there, the Avenida dos Aliados, an elongated square edged with fine stone buildings, most impressive in the sunshine. Today though, it was full, chock-a-block full, of strange figures, rather like Andrew Gormley’s men on the beach in the North West of England. Each one was painted and decorated by a different artist.

At the bottom of the avenue I
finally found the explanation. This was an installation (I think that’s the word) called Homem T, an exercise in inclusion and anti-racism, reminding us that men come in all shapes, sizes and colours. They will remain in Avenida dos Aliados until the end of August when the fibreglass figures will be auctioned.

From this artificial crowd we moved in to the railway station, a wonderful old building with amazing tile-work depicting historic events. Even without the wonders of the main concourse, however, the station itself with its old platforms would have been enough. All it really needed was an old steam engine chuffing away.

Leaving the station we went downhill (in a south-westerly direction, I think – I’m really into this points of the compass thing now!) exclaiming and snapping photos of picturesque streets as we went.

Eventually we could tell we had almost reached the river, the Douro (Duero when it’s in Spain) making its way out to sea. By now we realised that it was a long time since breakfast, even more so as we had put our watches back an hour to Portuguese time. Serendipity did its (his/her?) magic again; we came across Chez Dany, pretending to be a French restaurant but really a few tables in the yard of a basement bar. Nonetheless, it boasted a menu with a range of omelettes, including the speciality of Dany, the French proprietor.

And so we found ourse
lves speaking French in Portugal and eating a very good omelette and chips, washed down with a beer each and followed by coffee, all for the grand total of 13€! We could have happily sat there a while longer: there was a cool breeze and we felt quite at ease.

However, we had the rest of the old quarter to explore and so we set off, following the river until we came to the tourist zone, the river bank packed with bars, restaurants, ice-cream stalls, tat (oops, sorry, souvenir) shops and crowds of people of all nationalities. The river is crossed by some six bridges and it is possible (indeed it is almost imperative according to the touts) to go on a boat trip to see them all and visit the Port wine breweries. This was not for us, however.

We crossed the river on the Dom Luis I bridge, a construction worth seeing. Gustave Eiffel built
his tower in Paris (there is a street named after him in Oporto); this bridge was built by his Belgian partner/disciple Théophile Seyrig and it shows. Opened in 1886, it has two floors with cars crossing the lower one and a railway on the upper one. We crossed on the lower level but I have made crossing on the top level a project for the future.

Time was getting on and we felt an ice-cream calling. There were loads of ice-cream stalls around but we had set our hearts on a proper, preferably homemade one, not something made by Nestlé or some Iberian equivalent. Se
rendipity clearly felt that enough was enough and so reluctantly we made do with a pre-packaged ice-cream, rested our legs and then made our way back up hill, once more traversing a maze of old streets.

After a series of ups and downs we found the cathedral and admired the rooftop views
and the cityscape. Then it was back to the Avenida dos Aliados where we stopped at a bar and refreshed ourselves with vinho verde but disappointingly no free tapas.

Eventually we gave in and went back to our hotel and fell into bed.
Next morning we had to forego breakfast. My friend wanted to be at the airport for 8.00am and breakfast was not served until 7.45 by which time we were already on the metro. We fumbled our way to the metro station through a strangely foggy Oporto, the mist we had seen the previous evening out at the sea end of the town having invaded the whole place. This was not a problem though and neither was buying tickets for the super-efficient metro system

No, our problem came with “validating”. Helpful notices in English told us to be sure to “validate” our tickets before every trip but neglected to tell us how to do so. We could see yellow machines, clearly for just that activity, but no obvious slot to stick the ticket in. When we were told off by a ticket inspector (but thankfully not fined or made to leave the train) a helpful fellow passenger told us, in English, that we had to “show” our tickets to the yellow machines. Yes, and what did that mean? Eventually at the airport the ticket inspector demonstrated how to “validate”: you hold your ticket in front of a circle on the yellow machine. Sorry, Oporto metro, you need clearer instructions, maybe with a diagram for idiots like us!

Still, we made it to the airport without further mishap. My friend caught her plane. I met an ex-student who happened to be passing through Oporto (thank you again, Serendipity!) and had a further stroll around before trying to get lost finding my way to the bus-stop on Praza da Galiza.
Despite my showing him my ticket, Saturday’s grumpy driver (maybe he works too many shifts!) would not let me on the bus until I had been to the ticket office. There they simply indicated which bus I needed to get on. Bureaucracy is a wonderful thing!

Don Gruñon (Mr Grumpy) gave us a hair-raisingly fast and bumpy ride back to Vigo and finally I strolled home through the evening sunshine – another adventure over!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

No smoke without .... notices in the doorway

About four years ago when news about La Ley del Tabaco first leaked out, Spanish friends of mine in Manchester were extremely proud. There was Spain, up in the front line in the fight against tobacco, showing other European countries what to do, banning smoking. Who said Spain was a retrograde country with old-fashioned ideas? How fantastic!

And fantastic was what it turned out to be, pure fantasy. The law came into effect in January 2006 and we went to test the waters (or the air, perhaps) the following Easter. First we hunted for a smoke-free bar in central Madrid. It was not quite a fruitless search. Of course, it was not an exhaustive search but we did expect to find more than ONE.

From Madrid we moved to Salamanca, where we saw impressive Semana Santa processions but again only one bar without the large AQUÍ SE PUEDE FUMAR notice in the doorway. That one bar had a truly wonderful range of tapas and as a result had no fear of losing their clientele.

Still pursuing our quest for a smoke-free holiday we moved further south and went to visit my sister in Andalucía. There I felt that I almost knew the owner of her local bar well enough to talk to him about the question. (At any rate, my sister and I are very similar in looks and he knows her very well.) He told me that he had been all in favour of going no-fumador. He had the notices up: AQUÍ NO SE PERMITE FUMAR. And the result was ... an empty bar for three days! So he changed his mind and the notices and his customers came back.

Now as we approach the last quarter of 2009 and other European countries have overtaken the Spanish in their anti-smoking measures, the situation is a bit different. The UK managed to ban smoking in pubs despite some protests. There has been something of a crisis in the pub world but the idea has been accepted. The makers of portable pergolas and patio heaters have done tremendous business as pubs all over the country have put up tents for smokers outside their establishments. Even the French, indomitable smokers of ever there were any, have rolled over and said OK, no smoking in bars and restaurants.

So now it’s Spain’s turn. In mid-July newspapers told us that the number of heart attacks had gone down since the Ley del Tabaco was introduced in January 2006. And this was despite the fact that the vast majority of bars and small restaurants still opted for the smoking option. At the end of July it was reported that the government was studying the possibility of banning smoking in all public places, including bars and restaurants regardless of size. My friend Colin has already commented in his blog that 70% of Spaniards would be in favour of this move.

However, here in Galicia there is an interesting little voice of protest. It seems that many (many?) restaurateurs have borrowed considerable sums of money to create separate smoking areas in their establishments. Many of them are still paying back loans taken out specifically to finance this building work. They feel hard done by that the government might now make all this unnecessary just in the interest of clean air and public health. Well, actually they don’t say anything about the clean air and public health question but they do feel hard done by.

I am tempted to say that I await the result of this discussion with bated breath but that might be going a bit too far.

I do know that my Spanish brother-in-law will be unhappy about it. He already complains that he has to leave his office to smoke. If they take away his right to smoke while he has a coffee or a caña at the bar on his way home, his dissatisfaction will reach new heights!

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Hoy es fiesta ... and other oddities of Spanish life!

Monday was QUIET on our street! Too quiet! Especially for a Monday! I strolled down to the supermarket only to find that it was closed. A niggly little voice in my head reminded me that I had recently overheard someone say something like “lunes es fiesta en Vigo”. It certainly seemed to be the case so I popped into the baker’s shop – they NEVER close apparently – and asked why. Well, Sunday was the feast of San Roque and since the saint’s day fell on a Sunday, everyone had Monday off, except the baker of course! Spanish logic! But in fact not much different to what happens in the UK if Christmas Day or Boxing Day falls on a Sunday.

Another mystery raises its head for me, however. Who IS San Roque? The French have him as well, Saint Roc, and the Italians, but I’ve never heard of him. Mind you, I’ve never heard anything about San Fermín either, apart from his apparently being the patron saint of fools who want to run in front of bulls! It must be the consequence of my NOT having had a catholic upbringing. A mixture of Methodist and the lower, simpler version of Church of England doesn’t teach you as much about the whole gamut of saints.

Ah well, that explains the feria that I came across on Calle Filipinas on my way home form the bus station late on Sunday afternoon. There I bought a large chunk (really the ONLY word to describe it) of pan campesino con pasas, a dense wholemeal bread with those large unseeded raisins. It’s very tasty, rather like wholemeal fruit tea-cakes but requiring a lot more chewing and you end up with a mouthful of grape pips. It’s a good job it keeps well as we’re still working our way through it.

This fiesta/feria business is just another of the delights of living in this delightful country. Here’s another: a friend of ours regularly asks for Fanta Naranja in our local bar. With equal regularity he is told that there is only Kas, a different brand. Then there are places where the reverse happens, rather like the places that only sell Pepsi or Coca-cola; it’s a question of supply.

Supply also perhaps explains the change in the type of free tapas at our local bar. Previously they served pieces of tortilla and other such good things but lately they only offer crisps and monkey nuts. Maybe they have changed their cook or something.

Talking about crisps brings me onto one of the linguistic oddities of Spain: patatas fritas are both crisps and chips. Now I have had no problem with this; the situation always makes it plain which I want. However, I do know a couple who had some difficulty in a tourist resort on the costas. Their small son was a fussy eater, consuming almost nothing until one day chips appeared on his plate. So the next day his parents tried to ensure that he got chips with his meal, asking for patatas fritas. A plate of crisps appeared. Working largely in an odd form of sign language they explained that this was not quite what they wanted; they needed looooooong patatas fritas. The waiter was puzzled but finally his face lit up, he nodded and took the crisps away..... only to return a little later with the crisps somehow cut into longish strips!!! If you will go to the costas .... what more can I say?

As regards the free tapas, at least they still exist in most places here. There are parts of Spain where they are long gone and I didn’t get them in Oporto at the weekend. When ordering tapas though you can have occasional problems deciding whether to ask for una ración, una media ración or un pincho. The latter is fairly standard, usually a little something on a bit of bread but the other two vary considerably from place to place and can lead to you getting more (or less) food than you expected.

This kind of linguistic fun and games can cause problems for the Spanish as well. As the endless reformas continue in our block of flats the expanded polystyrene padding in our lift has hidden the phone number needed in the event of breakdown. Someone has thoughtfully noted this on the padding, writing incorrectly aberías followed by the number. Some more literate inhabitant has amended this to aVerías. Oh, the difficulties in distinguishing between V and B!!!

Then we have the use (overuse?) of the diminutive ito/iño. If you fancy a shandy and ask for una clara, the waiter will almost inevitably correct you with, ah, una clarita. Do not be fooled into pre-empting him. Should you dare to ask for una clarita he will correct you the other way.

The diminutive is a kind of linguistic tic around here. One late evening / early morning last week, walking home from the concert in the Castrelos Park, we ordered tres cañas. The waiter smilingly confirmed our order: tres cañitas.

It was just a little thing, una cosiña, just as grazas, gallego for gracias, often becomes graciñas, a kind of thank you version of pretty please. And then my panadera regularly says goodbye with hasta lueguito or, if she is feeling particularly gallega, hasta luguiño.

I’ve not yet heard hasta mañanita but I would not be at all surprised if I did!

Monday, 17 August 2009

The beach, the beach, the beach - with a little culture in between!!!!

After my difficulties in getting out to the Islas Cíes with my visitor in the early part of last week, we finally made it out there on Wednesday, although not quite as early as she would have liked. I think that my friend takes this holidaying business VERY seriously indeed! The earliest boat with available places left at 1.00 pm meaning that faced with a choice of returning at 6.00pm or 8.00 pm Heidy opted for the later boat.

This was no bad thing as it gave us chance to explore other aspects of the island as well as the beautiful beaches. So, having sailed over on a packed boat (although we did arrive early enough to get a seat on the top deck) we had a quick lunch and set off up the path to the Alto del Príncipe, one of the highest spots on the island.

Strange as it may seem, a long hike proved to be the ideal activity for the hot afternoon. The path led up through trees which provided enough shade to keep walkers cool and we did make fairly frequent stops for a rest and a drink of cold water – putting a bottle of water in the freezer overnight and taking it with us provided a source of cold water on a hot day as the ice gradually melted! (Every blogger should provide handy hints along the way!)

During one of our halts we were asked how far it was to the top. We answered that we were not sure but that we were resting. When we set off again we passed a couple of children who had been with the group who spoke to us earlier. With the confident politeness that Spanish children can sometimes show they asked us ¿Habéis descansado bien? and went on to tell us that we only had about ten minutes more walking to do to reach the top.

The view from the top is certainly worth the climb. Everyone and their grandmothers seemed to be up there with cameras at the ready. The walk from the shore there and back takes about an hour and a half, depending of course on how fast you walk and how frequently you stop and rest.

We still found time to go for a swim before heading back to Vigo once more on the boat. The water was fine and the sun not too fierce by that time. There is something special about a beach in the early evening and the beach on the Islas Cíes certainly did not let us down.

On the following day we decided to forego the pleasures of the beach as w
e had a date with culture in the evening. Mr Leonard Cohen was performing in the Castrelos Park auditorium and we intended to get good seats. Gates were opening at 8.30 and off we went, Heidy, Phil and I, to join the queue.

This was a much more manageable (and well-managed) queue than the one we had stood in with oth
er friends in Santiago de Compostela but it still went on for some distance. This was not surprising as apparently some 20 000 people (even more according to some sources) found places to sit and listen to the concert.

Those of us who had paid our very reasonable 18 euros had seats within the inner circle of the auditorium but many more sat on the stone steps of the outer area. And Mr Cohen gave very good value too, playing for a solid three hours: not bad for a man who will be 75 next month!

There was inevitably a standing ovation for Halleluyah, which seems to have become the best known of his songs, but I preferred Take this waltz, his tribute to the Spanish poet García Lorca. There were so many songs though that it is impossible to play the which-was-the best-song-of-the-evening game. It was quite simply a magical concert in a wonderful setting.

I did wonder how much of the meaning of his lyrics was understood by this
Spanish audience but his following here seems to be strong. In the queue I met a friend from one of my book clubs. She had come all the way form Ourense specially to see the concert. Many more must have done a similar journey as we found out later that there had been huge traffic problems as people tried to get to the concert venue and again on leaving. We had no problems of that kind as we strolled home gently at around 1.30, stopping for a beer on our way, planning a bit of a lie-in for the next morning.

That little luxury was not to be; the reformas on floor five started up again at about 8.15 and there was no staying in bed with that racket going on. They must have known it was going to be another hot day and wanted to get started before the heat did!

Nothing daunted, ho
wever, my friend was ready for another day on the beach. This was, after all, her last day in Vigo and she planned to make the best of it. This time, we caught a bus down to Samil beach where we took one look at the very crowded main beach and settled for one of the smaller beaches.

Once again the water was delightfully refreshing but I was not quite as intrepid as
my persistent friend. While I had reached the point of sitting under the sun umbrella avoiding the sun’s rays, she was back in the water again and again and then stretched out like a lizard in the sun.

Finally, though, I pulled her, not quite kicking and screaming, away from the sand. Home, a shower and then down to La Porchaba bar for some very good chipirrones a la plancha and a glass of Albariño wine was the order of business. The next morning we were off for Portugal for a look round Oporto before she got on a plane on Sunday morning and back to the UK. Not everyone has the good fortune to be here for a longer stay!

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

In my capacity as amateur tourist guide to such of our friends and relations who choose to come and visit us, I set out today to take my friend Heidy to the Islas Cíes. She has been following this blog and has seen the extra photos on Facebook and already knew that she wanted to go to the islands before ever she arrived in Vigo.

Imagine our disappointment then when we
joined the queue only to discover one of the company’s employees marching up and down telling people that “Todos los barcos para hoy están completos”. With no boat places available we had to rethink our plans. There we were with towels and swimsuits, sun cream and reading material. We were in beach mode and, what’s more, boat trip mode. But first we had to ascertain whether tickets would be available for tomorrow and could we buy them now. Yes, fine, so we stayed in the queue and purchased our tickets – committed now, all we need to do is get to the boat on time. Then we joined a much shorter queue and bought tickets for Moaña and some 15 minutes later were in a boat heading across the estuary.

It was cool and breezy on the
boat but baking hot as we walked through the town, stopping for refreshments on the way to the beach at the Meira district of Moaña. Less spectacular than the beach at the Islas Cíes, it would have to do for today.

Just behind the
far end of the beach is a small wooded area, perfect for cooling off after a hot walk and before heading down to the beach. The Spanish ability to organise tasteful picnics was again in evidence: there were the tablecloths once more!. In the trees were a number of noisy birds which looked and sounded for all the world like budgerigars or small parrokeets – anyone lost any pets lately?!

Cooled off, changed into our swimsuits, slathered with high factor sun cream we set off for the beach. The tide was far out and all along the tide line were people, mostly women, bent over raking the sand, collecting shellfish and putting them in buckets. We were relaxing; these people were hard at work and back-breaking work it looked too! At that stage of the day, there were definitely more workers than tourists on the beach.

We splashed out into the water, through extensive shallows until we ca
me to water deep enough to swim in. The shallows were already warming. The deeper water was cool. Fish were everywhere. The tide was on the way in so we left the water after a while to move our belongings to “higher ground”, i.e. further up the beach. By now the shallows were bathtub wallowing warm. The cockle pickers (or whichever shellfish they were collecting) were leaving the beach, one with his bucket balanced perfectly on his head.

Three times we repeated that sequence of mov
es: wade out to sea, swim around in circles for a while like the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland, paddle back to shore and move our stuff. Out in the water and lower down the beach it was pleasantly and bearably hot, not burning down as it had on the road through town. On the last occasion of moving our belongings we confirmed that it was definitely hotter the higher up the beach you went. It was time to up-sticks and head for the trees, surprised to discover that it was almost five o’ clock.

So we washed the sand off at the shower at the start of the boardwalk, changed out of our swimsu
its and packed up to leave. We agreed that our unplanned trip to Moaña had been a great success and we would cheerfully recommend Meira beach. Others clearly agreed with us for as we left people were arriving in droves. The beach which has been almost empty was now filling up. Had we started a trend?

We caught the six o’ clock boat back and stopped for a drink in the Café Maracaibo on the Plaza de Compostela. There I found a familiar sight. The “Torres de la Alhambra” sculptures which I had last seen in Santiago de Compostela just over a week ago had followed me to Vigo. I knew the place was irresistible – there’s the proof!