29 August 2010

How to order coffee in Spain

If you can't tell your cortado from your carajillo, watch this little video:

26 August 2010

Rock 'n' toll

The Mayor of La Linea, Alejandro Sanchez, announced a few months ago that he intended to charge visitors leaving the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar with a "congestion charge" toll of five euros (Gibraltar residents and the 7,000 Spanish citizens who work on the Rock would be exempt).   Sanchez, whose right-wing Partido Popular (Popular Party) have a majority on the council, says that the town reaps no financial benefit from the millions of visitors who stream across the border each year to shop for tax-free goods, fill up on cheap petrol, or admire the apes and the splendid views.

La Linea, which means "The Line", straddles the section of Spanish coast to which the Rock is joined by a thin strip of land.  Looking at the number of vehicles which queue for an hour or more, engines running and pumping fumes and greenhouse gases into the Mediterranean air, you can almost sympathise.  But Sanchez is no Ken Livingstone and it is not concern for the environment that has prompted the proposal.   La Linea, with 10,000 unemployed out of 64,000 inhabitants, is close to bankruptcy.  Its Council workers haven't been paid since June, leading to strikes, demonstrations and a bonfire of tyres on the main road.  He needs the cash.

Opposition to the proposal is pretty well unanimous.  Not just from the thousands of British expats from the Costas who depend on Morrisons supermarket for decent teabags and proper sausages, but from the many Gibraltarians whose income depends on tourism, the trades unions, the Junta de Andalucia, and the national government itself.  A day of protest is being organised for 23 September with a march intended to bring border traffic to a standstill.

Meanwhile the construction work for directing traffic leaving Gibraltar to turn right, towards the proposed toll booths, has been stopped by the Spanish highways department on the grounds that it is illegal; the kerb on La Linea's municipal road cannot be extended into a "national" road.  Without this, drivers could just turn in the opposite direction and avoid the toll.  But Sanchez is defiant and determined to get his way even if he has to challenge the Madrid government in court.

There is no doubt that improved traffic flow is much needed, and that La Linea needs to sort out its financial problems and municipal mismanagement.  In an ideal world, Britain and Spain would stop squabbling over sovereignty of El Peñon (as Spaniards refer to the Rock), border controls would be removed, La Linea would build a huge and profitable Park & Ride with space on the buses for shopping trolleys, petrol would cost the same on both sides, Morrisons would open a branch in La Linea, and we'd all live happily ever after.  (Except the thousands of people who make their living from smuggling tax-free fags and booze, of course ...)


25 August 2010

Some like it hot ...

... I like it hot. After ten years of shivering in an air-conditioned office, coming to live in Southern Spain was pure bliss - I love the caress of warm air on my skin, I love to go barefoot on our cool marble floor-tiles, I love sitting on the terrace on balmy summer evenings watching the sky and the mountains change colour as night falls.

But right now, it's too darn hot even for me.  We are officially on Yellow Alert, which means the daytime temperature is between 35 and 39ºC (95-102ºF). At night it doesn't fall below 23ºC, the humidity is high and there is hardly any breeze.

Of course there are places further inland, like Sevilla and Cordoba, where figures like these would be regarded as a blessed relief; people regularly have to endure temperatures over 40ºC in July and August. They flock to the coast in their thousands, often in large family groups, and set up camp on the beach with parasols, picnic tables and giant coolboxes.  They don't seem to mind how crowded it gets; you don't see the territorial panic which frequently affects Northern Europeans when someone parks their sunbed a little too close.  I don't like crowds myself, but for some reason I can tolerate them here on the Costa de la Luz; possibly because there are no screaming kids, unsolicited music or people kicking footballs around.  And the roar of the surf drowns out most extraneous noise anyway.

But we can't go to the beach every day - it's an hour's drive each way - so we have to find ways of keeping the house as cool as possible. We don't have built-in air-conditioning (too expensive to install and run, and very non-green) but we did buy a portable unit this year, which we turn on for an hour or two at night to cool the bedroom down.  Trying to sleep in a pool of sweat is not fun.


Some tips on keeping your house cool without aircon

Open the windows early in the morning, then close them as soon as the sun comes up; don't be tempted to leave them open in the daytime if it's hotter outside than in. Open them again in the evenings, unless humidity is high; humidity generally rises as temperature drops, and can make you feel clammy and uncomfortable because sweat cannot evaporate.

If there is a cool breeze blowing at night, leave windows and interior doors open to create channels of cool air throughout the house.

Keep the blinds down and the curtains drawn during the day.  You can get thermal insulation material to line or supplement existing curtains; this also helps retain heat in winter.

Use awnings to provide shade over south or west facing windows.

Use electric fans; their power consumption is very low and even a small movement of air can make you feel cooler.  Try it on your feet!  I have one under my desk. Don't leave them on when you are out of the room though, as they don't actually cool the room.

All electrical equipment gives off heat, even a mobile phone charger left plugged in (touch it and see)!  So turn off what you aren't using.

Low energy light-bulbs give off far less heat than conventional ones.  But of course you will have replaced all yours by now anyway.

If you've got more ceiling or wall lights than you actually need and they are all on one switch, take some of the bulbs out or replace them with lower wattage bulbs.

Use a microwave oven instead of a conventional one.  Avoid boiling food in saucepans, particularly if humidity is high.

Don't turn the fridge-freezer up to maximum - it will just chuck more hot air out the back.  Don't leave the fridge door open any longer than necessary, and NEVER use it to cool yourself down!

White reflects heat, dark colours absorb it.  Use white or pale-coloured blinds.  Paint your house white - ten million Andalusians can't be wrong!  We  made the mistake earlier this year of painting our roof terrace floor dark green, and we are paying the price now!  Hosing it down every evening helps cool it down a bit.


Some tips for keeping yourself cool 

Drink LOTS of water. (When mass tourism took off in Spain, holidaymakers used to blame the water or food when they felt dizzy or nauseous, but this was much more likely to have been caused by dehydration.) Tap water here is fine to drink - put some in a jug and keep it in the fridge.

Get your housework done early in the day, then have a cold shower. Or get somebody else to do it. Or just leave it.

Stay indoors during the heat of the day. Do your shopping in the evening like the Spanish do - the shops stay open till 9.30 or 10 pm in summer.

If you want to go hiking or get a tan, come here in May or October when you can spend all day outdoors.

Spanish women use hand fans (abanicos) all the time. The bigger the fan, the better the effect. The art is to use just a minimal wrist movement, otherwise you'll make yourself even hotter.

Wear loose-fitting clothes, made of light-coloured cotton or other non-synthetic material.

Keep plastic bottles of water or cartons of juice in the freezer to take with you when you go out. Then they will still be cold when you come to drink them. NB do NOT try this with cans ...

Eat frequent small snacks of fruit and salad rather than one big heavy meal.

If you are on a low-salt diet and start getting muscle cramps, it is possible you aren't getting enough salt to replace what is lost through sweat. Your body can't do without salt altogether.

Put your feet in a bowl of cold water. If this isn't practical, try running cold water over the inside of your wrists - this cools your whole body down.

Many of the advice sites I've been looking at for this post tell you to avoid caffeine and alcohol.  I am not going to go that far.   But do drink lots of water WITH your caffeine and alcohol, to offset their diuretic effects.

Enjoy the summer!


21 August 2010

All the Fun of the Feria

The people of Alcalá are gearing up for the annual Feria, which takes place in the last week of August.  The women are frantically finishing off the frills on their flamenco dresses and raiding the shops for fans, combs, silk flowers and giant candelabra earrings.  The horses are being groomed, their manes and tails brushed and their working harnesses swapped for the decorative fiesta gear.  The younger kids can hardly contain their excitement at the prospect of unlimited candyfloss and vertiginous fairground rides, while the older ones are looking forward to five consecutive nights of consuming vast amounts of rebujito (dry sherry and lemonade), flirting and dancing the night away.  Only the old men seem unperturbed, as they sit outside the bars on the Alameda sipping fino and playing dominoes.

The word feria comes from the Latin for "free day", or public holiday, when slaves got the day off and there were no court sessions.  With the spread of Christianity across Europe they were hijacked by the Church and turned into religious occasions, often associated with Saints' Days.

In modern Spain, every town has its feria and they can last over a week.  Their origins are diverse; some (like the Alcalá feria) are dedicated to the local incarnation of the Virgin Mary, others coincide with horse or cattle fairs, or the end of the harvest of some crop or other.  Whatever its origins, these days the feria is mainly just an excuse for a party: music, dancing, fairground attractions, dressing up, drinking and generally having a good time.  If the town has a bullring there will be toros - Death in the Afternoon.   Some places erect a special portable bullring for the occasion.  (Fortunately Alcalá's bullring was long since decommissioned, and the building now contains some interestingly shaped flats.)  In Eastern Spain the ferias often include theatrical re-enactments of battles between moros y cristianos, dating back to the Christian reconquest and the expulsion of the Moors from Spain.   In many places, Pamplona being the most famous, bulls run loose through the streets.   In the fallas of Valencia, they throw fireworks around and burn giant effigies.  In Buñol, also in Valencia, they throw several tons of ripe tomatoes at each other.

Alcalá´s celebrations seem mercifully tame in comparison, but it is still a big deal for the locals. Many small shops and businesses are closed during the feria.  There will be an opening ceremony in the park on Wednesday night, with a speech by a local bigwig; senior and junior romeras will be appointed in the local equivalent to the Rose of Tralee contest, and the brass band will lead the way down to fairground site where the bigwig will turn on the lights.

At the big ferias like those in Jerez and Sevilla, the serious revelry takes place in private casetas, marquees sponsored by private companies, entrance by invitation only.  Alcalá's casetas are sponsored by peñas, or social clubs, and apart from on Members' Night they are open to all.  They serve food and drink, and some will have live bands.  Last year I saw a notice in one, apologising for having to close at six - a.m. that is, not p.m.!

The caseta municipal, sponsored by the local council, will be providing on a big lunch for the town's pensioners on Thursday, and on Friday - el día de las mujeres - it is the turn of Alcalá's women to let their hair down.  The concurso de sevillanas, a flamenco dancing contest, takes place after lunch - how can they do that on a full stomach?  For me that will be the highlight of the week. Just as an observer of course, as I have two left feet and I haven´t been here long enough to shed my Anglosaxon inhibitions.  Maybe one day ...


18 August 2010

Forum Decorum

Forgive me for neglecting to update this blog for a while.  I've been doing some social networking.  Not the fun kind where you meet your mates for a drink or a meal, but the virtual kind where you sit in a dark room and have typed conversations with people you have never met and are never likely to.

One of the drawbacks (probably the only one, apart from the startling absence of paydays) of giving up working in an office is that you miss out on all the random non-work-related conversations over lunch or in the coffee area.  When you move to another country, the problem is of course greatly exacerbated.  You keep in touch with your family and best friends, naturally, but it's that background level of daily trivia that leaves a black hole.  Your OH, with the best will in the world, is no substitute - you know each other so well that you can usually predict each other's responses.   You might make new acquaintances locally, but conversation can be a bit limited, especially if you have little in common other than living in the same community, or you don't speak the language well enough to get the jokes.

So I ventured into cyberspace and signed on to some ex-pat forums, hoping to find other like-minded souls to share some experiences with.   But first you have to learn what is called "netiquette".  You are advised to "lurk" for a while before creating or answering a thread, to get the feel of things. You must avoid trolling, scrolling, cross-posting, SHOUTING, repetition, advertising your own business, and insulting people.  You mustn't change the subject of a thread halfway through.  Whether or not you litter your messages with smiley-faces or other emoticons is up to you.  Then there is an entire lexicon of abbreviations like LOL and FOMC, which crusty old pedants like myself, who spell everything out in full when sending text messages, have to learn from scratch.

It soon became clear which forum was the most lively and active, so after a respectable lurking period I started to join in.  At first it was a bit like going to a party where everyone knows everyone else and you are the outsider.  But any forum worth joining will invite you to say a bit about yourself, and one of the moderators (people in charge) will send you a personal welcome.  Very soon I became involved in a whole range of discussions about life in Spain, what's good and bad about living in the UK, whether it's better to live in a police state or unregulated anarchy, and whether women in 1900 would rather have had the vote or a washing machine.  On the whole the regular members seem to be a bunch of intelligent, amusing and interesting people.  A few eejits of course, but a much smaller proportion of rabid racists, know-it-alls and Spain-bashers that I have seen on some other forums.

However it soon became apparent that I would have to limit myself to one visit a day, or I'd never get anything else done.  Much like Facebook, which IMO (see, I'm learning!!) is a wonderful way of keeping in touch with old friends and workmates; how else would I get to see pictures of their new babies/puppies/hairstyles, hear about their new partners/jobs/houses and share their favourite books/recipes/jokes/music?   But like the discussion forums, you have to keep it in perspective.  It's all too easy to waste hours finding out what sort of shoe you are, watering somebody's virtual garden or feeding some virtual chickens.

Right, must just go and check the latest post on whether the UK is the only place in Europe where you can't go into a bar and ask to use the toilet without buying a drink. TTYL!

Forum etiquette
Abbreviations used in chatrooms, forums and text messages

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people" (Eleanor Roosevelt)

12 August 2010

Festival Internacional de Música Al-Kalat

Every year in the middle week of August the polite vowels of the Home Counties can be heard in the streets, restaurants and bars of Alcalá.  Hearing strangers speaking English here always gives me a bit of a jolt, as if I have suddenly been Tardissed to the wrong time and place.  But these well-behaved visitors are not aliens, they are here for the Festival.  They are the families, friends and followers of the Soloists of London.

The idea of a classical music festival in Alcalá was conceived a few years ago by part-time resident Matthew Coman.  Matt is a member of the Soloists of London, a collection of stringed instrument players whose respective CVs include the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra, and who have played before two Queens and a Pope as well as jamming with the likes of Madonna and Paul McCartney.

According to a recent press statement issued by Gema Pérez, local councillor responsible for "Culchah", dreams are there to be realised and the festival is now one of the highlights of the summer cultural calendar in the area. This, apparently, is due to the tireless efforts of the illustrious Ayuntamiento in promoting the event and attracting sponsorship, and to the good people of Alcalá who attend the concerts.  It would have been nice if she had also mentioned the efforts of Matthew and his colleagues in attracting internationally famous guest musicians to come and play here, and the five days he and some of the other Soloists spend improving he musical skills of fifty-odd local schoolkids.

Nevertheless, the event has definitely put Alcalá on the map and the town´s hoteliers and restaurant owners love it.  So do many of the locals, as they get a unique chance to hear fine music in the beautiful setting of the Patio de la Sagrada Familia school, or the Church of San Jorge.

The festival always kicks off with a flamenco night, and you will see highlights of this year´s concert as soon as I can persuade YouTube to upload my video clips.   Last night the kids got to show off their skills in the Cádiz Youth Orchestra, and tonight we are eagerly looking forward to Vivaldi´s Four Seasons by candlelight, featuring Sony Prizewinner David Le Page on violin.

A couple of years ago some of the Soloists were accompanied by an impromptu chorus from a flock of starlings roosting in the eaves of the patio.  Fortunately I had my camera with me ...

09 August 2010

The Artisans of Alcalá: an A-to-Z of trades and crafts

This article is adapted from Evocaciones Alcalainas 45: Artesanos de Alcalá, by Juan Leiva, who grew up in Alcalá in the period immediately after the Civil War. His childhood memories are being published in short extracts in Spanish and in English on the Mi Alcalá blog, giving a fascinating insight into life in the town in the early 1940s. His source for the contents of this article, apart from his own memory, was his fellow Alcalaino Juan Romero Mejías.

Where there is no direct English translation of the name of the craft, I have left the description to provide the meaning.

The Centre for Ethnographic Interpretation on the Calle Rio Verde has a large collection of  items from this period, which you can see through the window.  Occasionally it opens its doors and local people re-enact the past in a "museo vivo" using the equipment housed in the museum.  Underneath the centre is a workshop where local people are using the old crafts to restore furniture and equipment.

Re-enacting the past in the Centre for Ethnographic Interpretation
The Artisans of Alcalá
In the 1940s there were many artesanos in Alcalá. Today there are still people who practice the old crafts, but mainly for pleasure rather than to make a living. The term artesanado once described a social class comprising craftsmen, tradesmen and artists, whereas today it is used for people who make household objects by hand, offering a personal touch in a world of mass-produced goods.

Aechador, ahechador [winnower] : an agricultural worker who cleaned the threshed grain and pulses with a criba or sieve. Every farm would employ an aechador; in Alcalá, the Perea family were dedicated to this trade.

Afilador [knife-sharpener]: a tradesman who used a grindstone, usually pedal-driven, to sharpen utensils and tools. Alcalá didn't have its own knife-sharpener but was frequently visited by Emilio Gallego, who did the rounds of Alcalá, Paterna, Medina and Benalup. He came by bicycle and announced his arrival by playing a type of flute, upon which all the housewives would bring out their knives and scissors for him to sharpen, and catch up with the gossip at the same time.  There is still a visiting knife-sharpener today, but he arrives in a van and the flute tune comes out of a loudspeaker.

Aguador [water-carrier]: Until the 1940s, water was sold by aguadores using donkeys loaded with crates, each containing four pitchers. They got the water from the high, middle and low wells on the Patriste road, a well on the Alameda by the end of Calle los Pozos, the Fuente de la Salada, and several more. The first water-tank in Alcalá was built in 1877 and was in private ownership. Running water didn't arrive until 1942, when it was piped in from El Chorreadero and stored in tanks built over the remains of the castle.

Aparador: These were in great demand, and were found in different trades: for example in shoemaking, they stitched together the component parts of the footwear; in carpentry, they planed and jointed planks of wood to make a single piece; and in agriculture, they earthed up the growing plants in the fields.

Arriero [muleteer]: The word arriero is the origin of “arre” - a popular expression used when leading beasts of burden.  They transported charcoal, cork and other goods into town from the surrounding countryside and at certain times of year great strings of beasts would be seen passing through the streets.

Barbero: People who shave and cut men's hair have, over time, been called many things: rapabarbas, rapista, rapador, Figaro, and the more refined peluquero [hairdresser]. Sometimes the barber also pulled teeth and let blood. Doctors would let barbers handle the less dangerous tasks. It was quite common to be cut by those sharp blades, but the barbers had stones and minerals to stop the bleeding. The profession was often handed down from father to son.

Basurero [dustman]: This term was used both for the people who collected the rubbish and for the place where it was deposited. One such person in Alcalá was Antonio Rengel, who would walk round the town at a certain time each day with his trolley and a broom made out of sticks. He mainly cleaned the communal places; the cleaning of the streets was done by the residents themselves, who would keep them spotless.

Calero [lime-maker]: The calera was the quarry where limestone was extracted, and the calero would bake it in an oven to produce lime, known as cal, which everybody used to whitewash their houses and patios. It was said that lime had antiseptic properties, and disinfected the places where it was applied. During outbreaks of contagious diseases even the churches were whitewashed to protect people from illness.

Canillero [tap-maker]: Maker of canillas or taps to draw off liquid from a cask or barrel. An Alcalá man known as Pepe Canilla sold taps in Jerez, Chiclana, El Puerto and other towns in the area where wine or sherry was produced. The taps were made from birch and boiled in aniline to give the appearance of mahogany. They are still used in the wine industry today.

Carbonero [charcoal-maker]: The manufacture of charcoal was a major industry in the Alcornocales. Teams of carboneros would go into the hills after the harvest was over, to collect the wood, build the ovens, cover them with clay and produce charcoal. This was used as a fuel for cooking, heating and driving steam-powered machinery; it was exported from Alcalá as far as Cádiz and Algeciras, where it was used to fire steamships.

Carpintero basto [“rough” carpenter]: An essential tradesman in a town based on agriculture and livestock like Alcalá. He made carts, wagons, racks, ploughs, yokes, pitchforks, barrows, panniers, pallets, frames for supporting goods on the backs of animals, beams, floorboards – all made of wood grown locally.

Carpintero de blanco: Carpenter who makes tables, chairs, benches and desks.

Carpintero de ribera, Carpintero de calafate: Someone who makes, repairs and caulks the joints on small boats.

Carpintero fino, Ebanista [cabinet-maker]: A carpenter who does fine detailed work, using a wide range of specialist tools. The word ebanista comes from the same root as ebony, a rare and precious hardwood used for luxury items. The Barea brothers, José and Juan, who had a workshop near the Fuentes de la Salada in C/ Ntra Sra de los Santos, and Francisco Diaz Rodriguez, were famous ebanistas in Alcalá.

Carretero: A carpenter dedicated to making carriages, carts, wagons and other vehicles towed by animals.

Cedacero [sieve-maker]: This job was a real art. To winnow properly (see Aechador above) you need a good sieve, or cedazo. Joselito el Ceacero had a workshop in C/ N.S. De los Santos. He would start his work by searing and tanning a piece of goatskin, which would be used for the mesh. Once dry, it would be perforated more or less finely depending on the grain for which it was destined. It was made without the use of a mould or template, and it might be decorated with artistic patterns, such as stars and suns, using a hammer and punch.

Dornillero: A maker of wooden bowls, known as dornillos, used to prepare gazpacho. The teams of workers in the fields would also use this term to describe the person who prepared the gazpacho. They would pound the ingredients – stale bread, garlic, onion, tomatoes if they had them – in the bowl and add water, oil and vinegar. These bowls are still made in Alcalá and used for gazpacho which is served chilled in summer, and hot in winter.

Escoba still in use today
Escobero: Someone who made and sold brooms, or escobas. In the countryside round Alcalá there is plenty of good material for this purpose – palmito leaves, or flexible twigs such as buckthorn - which are tied to the end of a pole. The broom-makers earned very little because practically everyone knew how to make their own. There were many types but the most common were household brooms and those used in the stable yards.  

Esquilador [shearer]: One who sheared the fur, fleece or wool from animals. He would then compress the fleece and pack it into a sack. The word esquila is also used for the bells worn by the animals to stop them getting lost. In Alcalá there was a shearer known as "El Raspa" [the Scraper] and he liked to draw figures – fish, birds etc – on the hindquuarters of horses.

Estibador [stevedore]: A person who sorted, packed, loaded and transported goods, such as charcoal or cork.

Forjador, Herrero [blacksmith]: One who forged red-hot metal using hammers and tongs. They made all kinds of tools and agricultural equipment as well as decorative wrought iron work. There were a number of excellent smiths in Alcalá, including a gypsy family headed by Sebastian Monge, “El Cuco”. When he died, one of his sons stayed to work the forge in Alcalá, while the other, Antonio, went to work as a smith in San Fernando. One of Antonio's descendants, José Monge Cruz, became a world-famous flamenco singer known as Camarón de la Isla.

Herrador [farrier]: A blacksmith who specialised in shoeing animals – horses, mules, donkeys, oxen. This was a very important job and there were two in Alcalá. The trade is now in decline, but it is maintained in the Army and the stud farms for pure-bred horses.

Hojalatero, Latero [tinsmith]: There were many tinsmiths in Alcalá. Simple vessels made of tin plate with a handle were commonly used for drinking water, coffee and other beverages. They were very useful, and there was a saying “Eres más apañado que un jarrillo de lata” (“you're more useful than a tin tankard”). But the tinsmiths mainly concentrated on making measuring jugs, milk churns, funnels, and cruets for oil and vinegar. They also did repairs if the vessels started leaking.

Hortelano on market-day
Hortelano [market gardener]: One who grows fruit and vegetables to sell. There were many huertos in Alcalá, especially along the banks of the Rocinejo river. Smaller plots were (and still are) found in odd corners of the town and people still sell their produce on street corners or to bars and restaurants.

Lañador [crockery repairer]: This trade did not exist in Alcalá, but every now and again a man known as El Lañador would come to the town and announce his presence with a little trumpet. He would repair crockery and earthenware containers using metal staples or cramps. Such containers were found in every house: pitchers, jugs, earthenware jars, soup tureens, salad bowls … The broken pieces would stay together perfectly with the staples.

Molinero de Aceitunas [olive-miller]: The precious oil from the olive is made by crushing olives in a mill. The oldest such mill in Alcalá was that of “El Chirri”, who worked in the Pajarete mill.

Molinero de Trigo [miller of wheat]: There were many flour-mills in and around the town, as wheat was and still is widely grown in the area. A popular walkers' trail today is the “Ruta de los Molinos” from Patriste, near the campsite, along the course of the Rocinejo river into the mountains. Mules were used on this route to transport the wheat to the mills and the flour back to the town.

Paredero [dry-stone wall builder]: One who specialised in making stone walls to mark the boundaries of the fields.

Partera [midwife]: A woman who assisted at a birth. She would be much sought-after, being of great importance for all families. In the 1940s there was just one, María Ulloa. People respected her as if she had the hands of a saint. She was very experienced and would help anybody in need. Almost half the town passed through her hands. These days there is a street named after her.

Piarero [drover]: In those days, when there was no other means of transport, livestock was driven to market on foot. They went along special drovers' trails to Jerez, Sevilla and even as far as Valencia.

Pocero: Someone who dug, maintained and worked on wells. It was said that you needed a certain intuition to detect the presence of the water and sink a well in the right place. People who had this ability, known as water-diviners, used a sort of pendulum which moved when there was water underground. There were two brothers with this ability in Alcalá, named Armario but known as Los Canarios.

Practicante (medical assistant): A person who, because of their experience and inclination, would administer injections, provide first aid and advise on medical treatments for minor illnesses. Later on it became a proper profession known as ATS (Asistente Técnico Sanitario), requiring a formal qualification. One of the most well-known in Alcalá was Don Narciso, followed by his son Juan Romero Herrera. They were both excellent at their job and they cured as many people with their words as with their treatments. They would call from house to house giving advice, prevention being better than cure.

Romanero: Someone who maintained a romana, a portable hanging balance used for weighing goods. All types of vendors would use them, but these days they have been replaced by more accurate and convenient types of measuring devices.

Segador [reaper]: You knew the crop was ready to harvest when you could no longer crush the grain with your fingers. When the cornfields were ready, in June, Portuguese workers would arrive to work in the fields around Jerez, but in Alcalá there were many good reapers.  The job would take them a couple of months, whereas today it is done by machine, in a fraction of the time.

Sillero [chair-maker]: In Alcalá there were two brothers, called Atienza. They had a workshop in the Calle de Enmedio where they made chairs and stools using the wood of the adelfa (oleander), with seats made from rushes. These traditional chairs are still widely used today but they are made in factories.

Talabartero [leather-worker]: Someone who makes and repairs saddles, bridles, halters and other forms of harness for horses, and  other leather goods. There are still a couple in Alcalá today, but they are known as guarnicioneros.

Tornero de madera [turner, lathe operator]: Although nearly all carpenters used a lathe, the tornero was a specialist in this equipment. An Alcalá man called “Diego el Tornero” was a famous craftsman in his day. He moved to Cádiz to seek work, and to demonstrate his skill he promised to match the best turner in the workshop by standing opposite him and doing the same job in reverse. When they had finished, Diego had made an identical piece, much to the astonishment of the professionals.

Tratante [dealer]: One dedicated to the buying and selling of livestock, cereals, dwellings, and all manner of other goods. Many of them were gypsies. A good tratante had the ability to negotiate deftly between buyer and seller, leaving both parties feeling they had got a better deal than the other.

Velonero: Someone who made and sold oil-lamps. These were made of metal, comprising a well for the oil, various tubes through which passed the wick, and a metal screen to augment the light. A velonero came to Alcalá each year from Cordoba, announcing his presence with some jointed metal plates that gave off an instantly recognizable sound. The children would rush out to meet him because as well as lamps he brought little figures and other objects made of metal that shone like gold.

Yesero: One who works with yeso, or gypsum [calcium sulphate dihydrate]. A yesería can be a shop or factory that sells yeso, or produces objects made of yeso mate, or plaster of Paris. In Andalucía there are many examples of Moorish art made from it. Yeso blanco is used to plaster and whitewash the walls of houses, and is also mixed with cement to delay the setting of concrete.

Zapatero [shoemaker]: One who makes and repairs footwear. These days they might be known as a remendón [cobbler]. There were also the curtidurías or tanyards, where you could buy pieces of leather to make or mend your own shoes. There were many zapateros in Alcalá at one time but these days there are none; people would rather buy new shoes rather than mend their old ones.

A glass or two of vino is essential while repairing shoes

06 August 2010

What's the weather like today?

When you learn Spanish you are taught stock phrases about the weather like hace calor (it 's hot), hace frio (it's cold), está lloviendo (it's raining), hace viento (it´s windy).   The good people of Alcalá obviously didn´t use the same textbook.

"¡Que calor!", accompanied by a flapping motion of the hand in front the face, means it´s hot. But this appears to be relative. In July and August when the temperature hovers around 32°C (90°F), you can respond with some sympathy. But I have also heard it used on a sunny spring day when the temperature has sneaked up to the low 20s (high 60s in old money).

Conversely, when the blessed relief of autumn brings the temperature down to the low 20s, they cry “¡Fresquito!” patting their arms in a sort of self-hugging gesture. But the same expression is used on the coldest winter days, when the thermometer can plummet to around 8°C (48°F).

We are taught in the UK that the diminutive “-ito” added to a word means “little”. Hence if fresco means cool, fresquito should mean “a little bit cool”. Not so. “Mucho solecito”, my hairdresser commented one fine May morning. A lot of little sun?? It also implies affection, informality, geniality. Victor the greengrocer just sold me un kilito de manzanitas granditas (a kilo of large apples). I could have had manzanas pequeñitas or even medianitas (small or medium).

But back to the weather. “¡Agua!” they say if it starts to rain, and dart into the nearest shop or bar. Alcalainos do not go out in the rain unless they absolutely have to. Last winter it rained for nearly three months with hardly a break, flooding the farmlands, washing away roads and leaking into people's houses. There was a pervasive air of gloom around the town until it finally stopped at the end of March. The upside, however, is that the reservoirs are now full and we have four years' supply of water even if it doesn't rain a drop.

Last winter was exceptional though. On average, we get 7 wet days a month between November and February, 6 in March, April and October, 3 in May, June and September, and none at all in July and August. From October to March, we get an average of 6 hours sunshine a day. (Why do you think I live here?)

We saw some snow once on a distant mountain in the Sierra de Grazalema, but it was gone by lunchtime.  A friend who lives at the bottom of the hill occasionally has frost on his car windscreen.  On fine days following rain, the valleys are often filled with romantic swirling mist, but you have to get up early to catch it.  Occasionally the upper half of the town disappears into the clouds, although we are only 190m above sea level.

But Alcalá's most notorious weather feature is the wind. The east wind, or Levante, is so famous it gets its own entry in the Winds of the World directory. Born in the Eastern Mediterranean (the Levant) it is funnelled through the Straits of Gibraltar and whips across the southwestern part of Cádiz Province with fierce gusts, sometimes reaching gale force. When it is feeling particularly generous it will sprinkle the town with fine pinkish-brown dust. It can strike at any time of year, but is most frequent in March and from July to October. Many a flight into Gibraltar airport is diverted to Málaga when the Levante is blowing. Its westerly counterpart is the Poniente; this brings clear weather and is apparently the best time to view the African coastline from Tarifa or Gibraltar.

I feel desperately sorry for people working out in the fields when the Levante is blowing, especially when it goes on for four or five days. It saps the strength and can drive people crazy. We very quickly learned that it can overturn terrace furniture and flowerpots and whip the washing right off the line. We have lost two barbecue covers, both held down with four bricks. A friend of ours lost an 8-foot-wide parasol. A portable bull-ring was blown down at San José del Valle up the road.

The response of the locals? “!Mucho aire!”
Alcala weather statistics

02 August 2010

Flamenco in Alcalá

We live deep in flamenco territory.  You hear it blaring from cars, shops and houses; builders sing it while they are working; I even saw an old boy in a bar late one night, wailing along with whatever he was listening to on his iPod.  At the summer ferias women of all ages, shapes and sizes dress up in their flamenco outfits and dance sevillanas.   El Camarón de la Isla, probably the most famous flamenco singer or cantaor of all time, lived and died just up the road in San Fernando, or La Isla de Leon as it was once known.  (We heard one of his many relatives singing in La Sacristía bar in Alcalá last Christmas, but he was a bit the worse for wear.)  A lot of Spanish pop music is influenced by its rhythms and modes, and genres such as flamenquillo and flamenco chill make good listening - check out the bands Chambao or Mártires del Compás.

Traditional flamenco comprises three strands, cante, baile and toque - song, dance and guitar. There are many palos or musical forms, usually involving a highly complex rhythm or compás.   This is marked by handclaps or palmas, or if there is a dancer present, by the clack of his or her heels.  Occasionally you might see someone beating a hollow wooden box or cajón to mark the rhythm.   There are dancers and singers of both sexes, but it is rare to see a female guitarist.  I have never seen a dancer using castanets, and I suspect the primary use for these is to sell as souvenirs to tourists.

There are various theories about the roots of flamenco, but it originated in Andalucía and has been influenced by gypsies, Moors and Sephardic Jews along the way.  The first recorded use of the term flamenco was not till the late 18th century, and again, the origins of the word are uncertain.

Flamenco guitar-playing and dancing are a major tourist attraction right across Andalucía and this keeps a lot of artists in work.  Flamenco singing or cante jondo, however, does not have an instant appeal and although you might get the odd busker in Seville or Jerez you are unlikely to hear it at the tourist venues.  Many of the palos are deeply emotional,  tragic and intense, and the sound comes from somewhere deep in the heart and guts of the singer - the first word, usually "aayyyyy!" can be drawn out over several bars.  It always amazes me that they sing sitting down!   The ideal way to appreciate flamenco singing is to hear it live, on a hot sultry night, with the audience calling out their approval (known as jaleo - they usually shout "alé" rather than "olé").  You stand more of a chance if you stop trying to work out what´s going on, and feel rather than listen to it.

To keep the song tradition alive, arts councils, local authorities and flamenco clubs or peñas sponsor singing contests, and three years ago Alcalá started a contest of its own, offering generous cash prizes.  The contestants come from all walks of life, and so far have all been male.  After the final, a "big name" is booked to draw the crowds; this year it was a dancer from Cádiz called Rosario Toledo, and you can see a video clip of her performance below.

Another opportunity to see top flamenco artists in Alcalá is on the first night of the annual International Music Festival "Al-Kalat" in the middle of August.  The rest of the festival is classical.  This year´s concert is on Tuesday 10 August and features two up-and-coming young artists: singer Marina Heredia, from Granada, and dancer Moisés Navarro "El Charro" from Málaga, whose publicity photo suggests Michael Jackson has been reincarnated as a bailaor.  Watch this space for video clips!

More on the history and forms of flamenco
Glossary of flamenco terms