Sunday, 29 April 2007

Oviedo and the latest on Woody Allen

Yesterday was Matt's mum's last full day here and we decided on a trip to Oviedo to round off her visit. Oviedo is the regional capital of Asturias, and a highly-pleasant city to walk around. It has a lovely old town, where you'll find the excellent Museo de Bellas Artes or Fine Art Museum, which has free entry. There are works inside by Dali, Picasso, Goya and many more. The museum itself is situated in two gorgeous, well-maintained buildings dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Despite the magnificence of the museum, I was very upset to find that my favourite painting (by a Catalan artist, Hermen Anglada Camarasa) had been put into storage for an indefinite period in order to show other paintings in the collection - I made my disappointment known, though I doubt this will influence their decision as to when to take it out again. One of my other favourite paintings there is by an Asturian painter, Evaristo Valle, who usually puts a good deal of tongue-in-cheek humour into his paintings. It's entitled "Adam and Eve" - the picture is of a bookmark I bought, I hope you can make out Eve's stilettos and the wonderful expression on her face! (Adam isn't on the bookmark but in the picture he's standing facing Eve and hiding a whole bunch of apples behind his back.)

Another reason I enjoy visiting Oviedo is the many statues that are dotted around the city. It's always fun when you come across one you haven't seen before, especially when of it's a giant, rounded bottom.

Another of my favourites is this one. I think the baby's great.

Also, in the old town are numerous bars where you can stop for a rest and a drink. This is a common part of Spanish culture that I enjoy indulging in and yesterday was no different. (Although, this pastime has been threatened since the arrival of the euro in Spain which has caused prices to increase dramatically. In a recent TV interview by 100 chosen people the Spanish President, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, made a bit of a fool of himself when asked if he knew how much a coffee cost nowadays in an average bar, his confident answer - 80 cents - was about 50% short of the mark).

Matt's Mum and I having a rest.

After the trip to the museum, a coffee/water (for me) break, a wander round the indoor and outdoor markets and pre-prandial visit to another bar (for a beer), it was time for lunch. Lunch in Spain is the big meal of the day, so we made our way through a three-course meal, bread and wine and wobbled out of the restaurant over an hour later.

A plant and flower stall at the outdoor market.

After this we visited the foodhall of the Corte Ingles, a large department store. We always visit the supermarket section when we're in Oviedo as it's possible to find foodstuffs there that aren't sold elsewhere. My discovery of Haloumi cheese in the 'gourmet' foodhall last summer made my entire year. It's also the place to go for oats, Colman's mustard powder, Marmite and other British delicacies we've forgotten to ask friends to bring when they visit.

No trip to Oviedo would be complete without a visit to Woody Allen. I'm pleased to report that the city council has still not replaced the half of his glasses that disappeared over a year ago. I'm still trying to figure out just how they were removed as the remaining half looks melted. On his last visit to the city (about twelve months ago), he noticed the vandalism but stated he was sure the glasses would be repaired very quickly, hee, hee. I wonder when he's coming back.

Aparently he's a big fan of the city - the rather sickening quote on the plaque below the statue reads "Oviedo is a delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, agreeable, peaceful, pedestrianised city. It's as if it didn't belong to this world, as if is didn't exist...Oviedo is like a fairytale". (I'm translating from Spanish here so can't promise it's exactly what he said.) Ugh, you can see why they commisoned a statue of him, they apparently thought he'd earned it with all that brown-nosing. Still, now that the glasses are half-missing it makes a visit to Oviedo even more enjoyable.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

The Invalid

For just over a week now we've been keeping Mahou shut in one of our spare bedrooms. This has not been pleasant for either her or us. We took her to the vet's a while back as she'd been intermittently limping for about a month - just when we though it had stopped, she'd start again, so off we went.

The nurse, a lovely woman called Minerva, had a feel and declared that it was just a bit of inflammation, phew, but she thought the vet should check just in case. Our vet often reminds me of the vet from The Simpsons - he's always rushing about to deal with as many animals as possible in a rather heroic manner (although I've not seen him use any defibrillators on hamsters, yet). He had one feel and whisked her off for an x-ray - oh dear, this wasn't looking good. Elbi had her leg broken last year and now walks with a limp, it was looking as though we were going to end up with two wobbly-legged cats. The x-rays showed that she's chipped part of her hip bone, probably in a fall. We now have to keep her in and rested for at least one and a half months, two if possible, and give her a sulfate tablet a day to help the joint.

This has not been easy. Mahou is a highly independent and proud cat who previously spent most of her time adventuring outside. We can't give her toys to play with as she's not supposed to be using her leg, so I often go and sit with her and try and read or do a Sudoku while she pats at me - claws extended, if she's feeling particularly pissed off - to ask what on earth we think we're doing keeping her shut in like this. The tablets we have to give her are enormous, but so far we've been successfully giving them to her crushed up with some canned food. This in itself is causing problems - we usually feed the cats dry food, with the odd can or bit of fish from Matt as a treat. Beeps and Elbi are disgusted that Mahou is being given preferential treatment in the food department. Whenever I open a tin they hang around for a while to check what´s being prepared and then dash madly upstairs to wait by Mahou's door. So, bowl in hand, I have to deal with one cat that desperately wants to escape and two that are determined to get in and scoff as much of the good grub as possible before they get chucked out. I've no idea how we're going to keep this up for another month and a half!

A quick garden update

Exploring the garden on Monday I was ever so excited to discover that we have cauliflower. It's a little thing, yet it's made me very happy. We've never grown it before, but I bought some plants off the market last autumn, along with some cabbages.

The current cauliflower situation.

What I was told were the cauliflowers were the cabbages, and vice-versa, so I'd been prowling the garden cursing what were the cabbages for not producing cauliflower heads - sorry cabbages! It's been dry for a while, but has started to rain today so hopefully the cauliflowers will start swelling, and the peas too. We have pods on then now and when the sun shines you can just about make out very tiny peas inside. We planted extra peas this year as only half of last year's crop made it to the table - it was just too tempting to pull off a pod or two for nibbling as you walked by, and while shelling them just as many made it into my mouth as the bowl - freshly picked peas just can't be beaten.
Matt planted the runner beans about ten days ago and they're off already. We put this down to Matt's 'mini-greenhouse' method (see below) which just means we  cover them with a five-litre water bottle with the bottom cut off.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

A day at the beach and the rest of the week

We've had Matt's mum staying with us this last week, and yesterday, with the idea of showing her some of what Asturias has to offer, we went to our favourite beach at Vega.

Unfortunately, much of the Costa Verde, as the Asturian coastline is known, is becoming highly developed. However, due to the presence of some interesting geological formations, the land directly behind this beach is a protected area. This makes it very hard for even the most determined developer to get his dirty paws on it, no matter how many brown paper envelopes he produces. I'm keeping my finger crossed it remains this way because the beach is wonderfully unspoilt and, even at the height of summer, relatively quiet. The village of Vega is also very lovely as it's mostly traditional stone houses, many of them with walled gardens. If I ever come by a vast amount of money, this is where I would choose to own a house.

We passed several relaxing hours on the beach. I wasn't quite brave enough to go in the water - it was only the 21st April after all, and the water at Vega is never very inviting, even in September when it's been warming all summer. After that we hopped into the car and drove west along the coast to Llastres. Matt and I had driven through the village one cold, wet day in December when we first arrived in Asturias. We found the place much more to our liking yesterday. It's a Cornwallesque village, built on cliffs overlooking a harbour, and again, full of traditional houses. We had a beer in a bar overlooking the port while we drank up the view. I was tempted to change my 'ideal house location' to Llastres, but in the end decided Vega had the edge due to the large, peaceful beach and not being packed in summer. Still, were it to be offered, a house in Llastres would do me fine.

Above Llastres, looking towards the Picos de Europa.

Matt and I looking none too pleased to be photographed.

Houses overlooking the harbour.

Also this week we've made it up to the land above the house for a quick walk before I had to have lunch and dash off to work. We normally only go on days when I'm not working, but it was so relaxing I shall make a point of getting up there more often on work days. Despite it being hectic at the Academia this last week - the sun has made the students more boisterous - the weather has put me in an excellent mood, as can be evinced by my springing out of bed at a vaguely decent hour.

Taken from our terrace this week. Early morning (for us anyway) cloud in the valley.

On our morning walk.

A slow worm, seen on the way back from our walk.

A recent sunset. Since the clocks have gone forward I can sometimes get back home from work in time to enjoy them.

Monday, 16 April 2007

The devil and Daniel Johnston, and me

A few weeks ago our friend Duncan lent us a DVD entitled 'The Devil and Daniel Johnston' which was a documentary about the life and career of singer-songwriter-artist Daniel Johnston, of whom I'd never heard before. We watched it one Saturday evening when we couldn't think of anything else we'd rather pop into the DVD player. At the time, I enjoyed the documentary, it was interesting and capably directed by Jeff Feuerzeig - who was also previously unknown to me. (You can read a good review here.) The songs, however, have had a more lasting impact and I now can't believe I never knew who Daniel Johnston was before. I must warn you that the man's singing voice is not great, it could be descibed as terrible; the lyrics and music are what makes him stand out head and shoulders above many of today's singers/bands. As I recently said to a friend, I find most of the new music pouring out of the UK today insipid, unoriginal and uninspiring. Daniel Johnston's music is a wonderful antidote to all that.

Duncan also lent us a wonderful CD, released in 2004, of covers of Daniel Johnston songs (The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered). There's one track on there that, although very simple, is just perfect - 'True Love Will Find You in the End', sung by Beck. It's made it straight onto my favourite songs of all time list - a feat not easily achieved. You can have a quick listen here:

Happy Birthday Mum!

My mum is 60 today, so happy birthday mum, have a lovely day! Deciding on a present was difficult, but my sister came up with idea of getting our photos taken professionally - her together with my niece in the UK, and me here. Great idea I thought and off I went to a photographer in a town up the valley. He was very friendly, but I absolutely hate having my photo taken, especially in a situation like that - just me, star of the show, in the limelight, ugh. I'm completely incapable of posing for the camera - it always seems so unnatural - and spent an excruciating 60 minutes trying to find a pose that would produce a photo good enough to send. The good news is that I did manage it - eventually, the photographer got me talking about my cats and I started to relax (yes, I know, I'm turning into a mad old cat lady before my time) and my mum loved the photo; it even produced some tears so it must've been good. However, I should've warned her not to expect another one on her 70th! I don't intend to go through that again, I shall have to start thinking now about an alternative gift. Any ideas?

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

My much-needed Easter holiday

Work started again yesterday, but not before I had taken full advantage of my five days off. Last Sunday we went for lunch at Matt's dad's house. Matt's dad and his wife, Carolina, live in a small village near the town of Nava - in the cider making district for those who are interested. We had a tasty lunch (leek and pumpkin soup, spinach and goat's cheese tart and chocolate creme caramel - Carolina is a very good cook) then went for a leisurely walk through some neighbouring villages.

Shaggy sheep and small ponies in Grátila.

The scenery around Nava is different from our area of Asturias. The mountains don't dominate as much as they do here and the view is more open.

A view of Grátila, walking from La Piloñeta.

Before we left to go home we stopped off at a bar and had a drink outside with this lovely view:

Everything was so picturesque that on the way home I found myself half-wishing that we lived in a different area. Come Monday, however, I soon changed my mind. This was when we made our way up the Peña Mayor, a mountain ridge which rises to over 1,200m - it dominates many views in this area. We'd been meaning to have a walk up there for ages and I'm very pleased that we did as this was the highlight of my holiday. Unfortunately it was quite cloudy so we didn't get the fantastic views that we'd been promised. Even so, the clouds made it very atmospheric. It was so tranquil up there - we only saw two other walkers during the whole morning and the only sounds to be heard were those of birds calling to each other.

A view of the Peña Mea, seen on the way up to the Peña Mayor.

A view from the Peña Mayor - I marvelled over the fact that we could see the peaks of snow-capped mountains above the cloud.

When the clouds descended.

The walk was also interesting as we saw the Pozo Funeres. This is a natural well which was used during the Franco regime to kill twenty-two Socialist dissenters. Apparently they were thrown down there and left to die, if the fall hadn't already killed them. It was a sombre moment as I peered down the hole to see how deep it went and realised that the bottom couldn't be seen.

The plaque reads " Pozo Funeres 1988. A quienes fueron aquí asasinados por el fascismo en el año 1948. Viva la libertad y el socialismo." (Pozo Funeres 1948. To those who were killed here by fascism in 1948. Long live freedom and Socialism.)

On the way back down the ridge we saw a couple of things that made us stop and stare:

Matt halted all of a sudden and declared 'look at this!' I wondered why he was crouched down to look at a daisy until I had a closer look. Has anyone ever seen anything like this before? As best I could tell it was a 'sextuplet'. The one thick stem itself was amazing. And while we were sat down looking at the flower we glanced up and saw an enormous bird circling over our heads. I'm not one for birdwatching so I'm really not sure what it was. We get lots of buzzards in these parts but this was much larger. It was impossible to capture the size of it in a photo but we reckon the wing span must have been at least two metres across, it was quite majestic. We lay back and watched as it soared silently above us. In fact, Egyptian vultures also inhabit this area so perhaps it was one of them - as we were lying quite still it may have thought it was its lucky day and lunch had been served. It hung around for quite a while before it decided we weren´t fair game.

We arrived home with very achy thighs but highly contented after an eventful walk. We intend to do it again some time soon but in clearer weather so we can enjoy the views.

Friday, 6 April 2007

The prodigal sun

I've really enjoyed not being at work today as the sun has made a determined appearance for the first time in I don't know how long. And according to the weather report, it's here to stay for at least the next four days.

The morning was spent wood collecting. Which is hard work as we have to drag the wood down the hill, across the field and up the path by our house to rest under the horreo (traditional Asturian grain/vegetable storage shed on rat-proof triangular stilts - picture forthcoming!). However, I always feel much healthier once all the wood has been stored and less guilty for not doing any 'proper' exercise - although vegetable gardening and almost 30 hours a week of teaching has to count for something too.

After a tasty lunch (home-made falafel in pitta bread with lettuce, greek yoghurt with mint and Matt's hot chilli paste) I got the sun lounger out and vegged on the terrace. Yesterday was cloudy with a biting wind, but today it got so hot that I had to strip off my trousers and t-shirt (and hope that the neighbour didn't choose that point to pop round). It was lovely to feel a very warm sun on my back and I would've dozed off if not for the cats chasing each other around the terrace.

A quick tour of the garden afterwards revealed the potatoes are starting to show - they'd been slow in starting due to the prolonged cold weather. I'm still waiting on some curly kale I sowed about two weeks back. I have my fingers crossed as last year it was, mysteriously, a complete failure from the start, despite using F1 seed (this means that the majority of the seed is guaranteed to sprout, although you can't collect seed from the plants at the end of the season as it's sterile). However, the peas are doing magnificently, as are the garlics. The parsnips are up and the runner beans already look set to be a bumper crop this year. We put some raspberry canes in earlier in the year and it happily looks as though they've all taken. Mmm, raspberries are one of my favourites.
Also, we're hoping for our wisteria to flower for the first time this year. It has large buds on it that are slowly getting bigger and I find this very exciting. I've always wanted to grow a wisteria ever since I saw an enormous one on a school trip to southern France which had flowers dripping down over an old, stone archway. Unfortunately Elbi is very fond of chewing the stems and she's recently discovered that it's great fun to pat off the growing buds. We have to chase her away every time we see her near the plant, but she's a mischievous little devil and sneaks back to play once we're not looking.

It looks as though it's going to be a perfect evening for beer and olives on the terrace while we watch the sun set. However, we have no beer in the house - we only ever buy one or two packs at a time, otherwise it all gets drunk too quickly - and as the shops are closed today (and I'd be loathe to drive all the way down the hill just for beer) I shall have to make do with the view and a glass of juice.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Tennis trauma

My Easter holiday started this afternoon, and very welcome it is too. I have five whole days to myself without having to worry about lesson planning or what I'm going to to with my class of four-year-olds who have a limited concentration span of about two minutes, unless they're watching telly.

These last three days of classes have passed uneventfully, all the children were already on holiday from school and were much better behaved in class in the Academia as a result. Also, we've been playing more games and watching films, which is more fun for me too.

However, I did make the mistake of using Woody Allen's Match Point in one of my adult classes. I wasn't much of a fan of Mr. Allen's before, and I'm still not. I watched the film over the weekend and was not impressed. For a start, the film is full of unconvincing British stereotypes, in particular the dodgy London landlord whose lines were full of words like geezer and mate. Also, there's the upper-class friend whose every second word, it seemed, was 'bloody'.

Secondly, Woody Allen either knows very little about tennis or is trying hard to ingratiate himself with the British. For a start, the main character, who, we are to understand used to play tennis professionally before giving it up to coach, has no idea what he's talking about. When asked 'Who was better, or tougher, Henman or Agassi?' replies, 'they were both great'. What tosh. For a start there's no need to ask that question as the answer is obvious. But having been asked, the only possible answer is Agassi. Hmm, lets see: Andre, eight grands slams, and one of the few players to have won all four - Tim, zero. He never even made it to a Grand Slam final, not even at Wimbledon. Andre trained by running up hills in the LA heat and Tim, we presume, practised fist pumping in the mirror (and he was still never any good at it). I'm possibly being rather unfair on England's until-recently-favourite tennis player. My dislike of the man has as much to do with the reaction, the fawning, of the British public to his performance as much as his usually uninspiring, lacklustre play itself. That and having to watch his matches on Eurosport while other players, those in possession of more flair and more character, were not shown, grrr. As a quick aside, I did once email Eurosport to complain about this and the next day they carried on showing Henman and all the commentators made a great effort to point out what a wonderful player he was at every opportunity, pah.

Agassi: Better and tougher than Henman.

So anyway, to get back on track (although, by the way, I do like Andy Murray, he does have character) this section of the film only served to make the two main male characters in the film totally unconvincing to me. A view enforced by an earlier line when the ex-professional player mentions not having the same talent as Rusedski or Agassi - please! Greg had his moments, although my favourite was his outburst at Wimbledon a few years back (and Boris Becker's reaction) rather than any display of talent (however, at least he made it to a Grand Slam final) but to lump him together with Agassi just won't do (and what about Federer? Does Woody Allen not know he exists?). And such a wet, uncommitted, passionless reply to the previously-mentioned question made the character's actions later in the film just as unbelievable.

Federer: He's really very good.

So there it is, rant over, I can get on with enjoying my holiday now I have that out of my system.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Things that make me happy about living in Spain, part I

After the last post I started to worry about being seen as some Victor-Meldrew-type character. So, to readress the balance, I decided I'd start listing things that I like about living here too.

Having gone shopping after I finished work this morning (I'm back for another three hours this evening) I saw exactly what I wanted to include in my first great thing about living in Spain post. And no, it's not olives, or olive oil or Manchego cheese and not even the wine (although I suspect this will be appearing at a later date). No. One of the things I enjoy about living in Spain is the toilet roll. Yes, you did read correctly. It's not the quality of the stuff, which is the same as back in the UK, but the price I adore. You can buy 40 rolls of good-quality loo roll here for €5.19 which is about £3.65. Now how much would that get you in the UK I ask? Hmm, not much I suspect. Maybe nine rolls if you were lucky. Just think how much money Andrex is raking in! I marvel over the price:quantity ratio every time I pull a pack off the shelf here - it must be the eternal student in me.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Things I don't like about living in Spain, part I

On the whole I love living here in Spain. Asturias is a beautiful region, I enjoy my job, I like our house and I'm very happy here with Matt and the cats. However, there are certain aspects of life here that I wish I could change.

My particular gripe today is mushrooms of the shop-bought variety. We made a pizza last night. It was topped with aubergine, green pepper, and mushrooms. We make our own dough (in the bread machine) and tomato sauce and slice all our own toppings. The whole process takes a while but it's worth it - the finished product is always very tasty. However, preparing mushrooms here is, to be frank, a pain in the arse. I don't know what exactly what they're grown in, but it's gritty, and it clings to the mushrooms for dear life. I know you're not supposed to wash mushrooms in order to clean them as they have a sponge-like structure and soak in the water, thus imparing the flavour- instead you're supposed to wipe them with a damp cloth/piece of kitchen towel. Obviously the person who invented this cleaning method did not live in Spain. To begin with I wasted a significant amount of time trying to clean them with kitchen towel only to find dinner still grinding between my teeth when I nibbled a piece of mushroom. Now I've resorted to washing them under the tap and then drying them off in the salad spinner. Not ideal, but at least our dinners are now grit free.