Saturday, 26 May 2007

My own football rumour mill

I've been avoiding mentionning football on my blog, mostly due to the parlous situation that Leeds United have been in for, well, too long than I care to remember.

However, I did get very excited yesterday upon discovering that one of my students, who's a defender in the Real Oviedo youth squad, has been approached by Liverpool. I'm afraid to say I'm short on details, but you heard it here first.

Try this in Tesco and see what happens

One quick last post about Dawn and Rich's visit. This is also linked to what I have previously said about arrogant large shops.

What do you think happens when you walk around your local supermarket taking photos of all the legs of ham hung up and of your wife and friends looking at the cake section? In Rich's case he was asked, ever so politely, but very firmly, not to take any more: "You are not allowed to take photos in the store." On being told this, I looked around and discovered two more security guards blocking our exit from the store, and eyeing us very suspiciously, hands ready to grab us and the offending camera. Just to confuse them I gave them a big smile and a wave.

Matt had clashed with the security guards on a previous occasion whilst waiting for his mum to finish a shop. Being fed up with standing, he sat on the floor against the wall and soon a security guard appeared to tell him that this was most definitely not permitted. Matt being Matt, he gave his best salute (much to the amusement of the other guard who was watching from within the store) and promised not to commit such a heinous crime again.

On this latter occasion we paid and left quickly and we're now trying to avoid shopping in Alcampo - although it's very hard as it's by far the mot convenient place to shop in town.

A Bears' Picnic

As promised in my last post here is what we got up to last Sunday while Dawn and Rich were visiting. We went to see bears. To be more specific, two Cantabrian brown bears named Paca and Tola.

These two bears were found 18 years ago after their mother had illegally been shot and killed by hunters. As a threatened species, and because they were too young to survive on their own they had to be hand-reared and could then not be released back into the wild as they were too used to humans, and hunters were still a very real threat. Instead, a five-hectare enclosure was built for them - in their natural habitat, the same area that other brown bears are to be found, in the Proaza area. This is in the mountains to the west of where we live, about an hour's drive away. There's also a walking/cycling route along the valley that passes by the enclosure (I've read accounts of the bears following walkers on the other side of the fence), we intend to take the bikes next time we visit and make a day if it. By last Sunday, I had been wanting to visit for a long time and we all rather excited when we arrived.

Every day at twelve the bears are fed by the warden who looks after them and people can watch. We arrived just before twelve to find the two of them tirelessly pacing back and forth, waiting for food. The warden arrived and opened their feeding enclosure into which they eagerly scurried. What amazed me most was how they ate their food. I was expecting them to chomp down and scoff everything quickly, but no. They took apples and pears from the hand of the warden with the greatest care, opened oranges up with their claws and gently scraped the flesh out, then meticulously shelled peanuts before popping them into their mouths.

It really was wonderful to watch. After about half an hour most people left, but we stayed transfixed by two creatures that looked very cuddly and cute, although we could sense the power behind those padded paws and the damage they could do. At the end, one of the bears refused to leave; she wanted more food but they always refuse to give them too much in order to force them to look for other sources and keep their diet as natural and varied as possible. Because she was so stubborn the warden got out a hose pipe with a water pistol on the end and gave her a good hosing down, although she decided that this was an excellent moment for a drink too.

I was very impressed with the way the warden 'presented' the bears. As they had only recently come out of hibernation they were over 40 kilos lighter, and much smaller, than they would have been in the autumn and did almost look like giant teddy bears. However, he made it clear that they were still wild animals and deserved to be treated with respect and caution. He never entered their feeding enclosure and always fed them through the bars. I normally don't hold with keeping wild animals captive, but in this case think an excellent solution was found with what to do with two bear cubs. The bears live in the most natural habitat as possible and at the same time the public are educated about them - there's a centre down the road dedicated to informing visitors about the Cantabrian Brown Bear, which has free entry, (neither do you have to pay to see the bears). According to the warden, numbers of the Cantabrian Brown Bear, which had dwindled to a dangerously low level, have now risen to a safer 170. Although this still seems a frighteningly low figure to me I find it comforting to know that the same children whose ancestors would've have hunted this animal are now being taught to respect it.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

A wonderful rainy weekend

I was very excited last Friday and my friends Dawn and Rich were coming to visit from Llanelli. The weather last week had been wonderfully sunny, but, true to form, as I stepped out of work and looked up on Friday evening I saw a sky full of grey clouds. Even so, I raced home eagerly to meet my friends and prepare the BBQ we had previously planned.

I love it when friends come to visit. The thing I dislike most about living out here is not being able to see them as often as I used too. It's also good to get a visit as I can order a big package from Amazon to be sent to them for free to bring out for me instead of having to pay extra tax (4% on books and 16% on CDs and DVDs), plus a whopping postage fee to get it sent here. (As my mum is coming by car this year she's getting an extra big package!) So thanks Dawn and Rich for bringing my package out for me.

In true British style we had our BBQ despite the clouds, and the drizzling rain which started later on. It was a good job the clouds came down as our neighbours would've thought us most peculiar if they'd seem us sitting outside eating barbecued goodies under the awning in the miserable rain.

I have been inspired by Tortoiseshell to post this photo. This is our current favourite beer, which we happily consumed on Friday night. I hadn't come across it in Spain before I lived here, but am making up for it now. At 6.5% it's stronger than the usual Spanish cerveza with a much fuller flavour. Matt calls it a 'sipping beer', but I find it much to tasty to just sip, however hard I try.

Despite the late night and the dreary weather, we pulled ourselves out of bed on Saturday at not-too-late an hour. Revitalised in true Cardiff style by a fried-egg-sandwich breakfast we went for a walk to our favourite spot above the house. It was quite atmospheric up there with the low cloud, although we could've done without the constant drizzle. Compare this to the last time we were up there.

We still enjoyed ourselves up there. There was lots to see despite the clouds blocking the mountain views (poor Rich, I don't think he saw a single mountain while he was here. Dawn, who has visited before, kept telling him how lovely the views that he was missing were) and because of the rain everything had a fresh, green look to it.

There were lots of cobwebs everywhere that stood out because of the rain. I think these were the strangest that we saw - they covered numerous bushes. I presume they're there all the time but we normally don't see them in dry weather.

My favourite activity of the weekend by far took place on Sunday. We had to get up early and had planned an early night, but after going out for a lovely meal at a local bar/restaurant we had gone back home for a few more beers and ended up talking until the early hours. So we were a big groggy on the Sunday and navigation to a place we'd not been to before in the non-stop rain didn't help. However, we were determined to carry on as planned. And I shall tell you all where we went in my next post which will appear as soon as I have time to write it during what's turning into a very busy week.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The 2007 Great Pea Haul

And this is just the first half, which is now in the freezer. The rest should just about be ready for picking now.
I've discovered that when picking that it's best to use the 'Indiana Jones' method. Named so after the scene in the Holy Grail film where Indy has to cross a deep chasm with no bridge in sight, although he knows it's there somewhere. When the camera adjusts its viewpoint the previously invisible bridge swings into view. This is exactly what you have to do when picking peas. Just when you could swear you've had them all off one plant you move slighty to the left or right, or look at it from below - this latter position works very well! - and numerous more pods appear.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

What's for dinner?

This week it's peas, and more peas. Peas with mash and omelette, peas in a stir fry, pea and mushroom risotto... If they weren't so tasty I might get bored. We have so many pods on our pea bushes I'm seeing them in my sleep. You have to be very thorough when picking them as the plants are so bushy the pods are often well-hidden. It's very annoying when you come across a hidden pod full of of old, dry peas as they're much tastier when young and sweet.

I've been taking them into work for me for my merienda (afternoon snack to keep you going until dinner at 9/10pm) and absolutely everybody thinks I'm ever-so-slightly loopy for eating raw peas. I've made them all try them - apart from a couple of five-year olds nobody spat them out and the verdict was generally positive. However, I doubt I'll change their pea-eating habits, Spaniards can be very set in their ways when it comes to culinary matters.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

A strange-weather day

We were awoken this morning by the sound of thunder resonating around the valley. I love a good thunder storm. Last summer we spent many evenings watching storms from our terrace; the combination of mountain silhouettes and forked lightning was thrilling. We listened this morning, feeling snug under the duvet while the thunder rumbled outside. When I eventually crawled out of bed to peek out of the window the sky was a bright blue with hardly a cloud in sight, yet we could still hear the thunder, it was very peculiar.

Although the thunder ceased shortly after, it's been incredibly breezy all day. The wind has been whipping across our terrace and Matt had to put supports up for all our young trees. It has been quite exhilarating, the wind has given everything a wonderful, fresh feel, and the mountains have been very clear today.

I had a wander in our 'meadow' this afternoon - we let the grass grow long in half of our finca and our neighbour, Samuel, comes and scythes a bit for his sheep every now and again. In return we get the cucho - manure (the first word Matt learnt here), from his cows for our vegetable garden. Samuel hasn't been in for a while so I waded through the meadow enjoying the feeling of the grass waving against me and the wind ruffling my hair. This part of our finca is also full of wild flowers and is quite beautiful.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Home alone

Matt returns today. He's been away for four nights on his bike with Duncan driving down the Portuguese coast to Cape St. Vincent, Eurpoe's most south-westerly point, and coming back through Spain via Salamanca. He took the camera with him, and I've been bereft without it - I'm looking forward to its return. And of course it'll be good to see Matt when he gets back (with my camera).

While he's been away I found a music shop in a town down the valley and bought him a guitar stand - the guitar previously had its very own place on the sofa - and found someone to give him lessons. Hopefully he'll be pleased with this early birthday surprise. We were about to give up on finding a teacher, needing one that spoke some English didn't make it easy. Matt's been learning the guitar for six months now, and while he's fairly adept at playing 'House of the Rising Sun', 'Blowing in the Wind' and 'Redemption Song' we'd both like him to be able to play something different!

Saturday, 5 May 2007

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

I've been feeling another Victor Meldrew moment creeping up on me for a while now. I suspect this was brought on by our recent trips to Media Markt with a broken DVD player.

For those who don't know, Media Markt is a European chain which sells all sorts of electro-domestic items, DVDs, CDs, computers and accessories, etc. The DVD player in question has stopped working while still under guarantee, so we took it back and were told they had to send it off to repair it, and that it would take between two weeks and a month to get it back. Six weeks later we were still waiting for a call to tell us it was ready to collect. Several phone calls to the store went unanswered so we went back one morning to complain only for it to be revealed that said DVD player had been returned a few days earlier. It transpired that they'd changed it for another repaired one as ours couldn't be fixed.

We returned home, tried the player and, lo and behold, it wouldn't respond to the remote. Ugh. Back we went to Media Markt, where they revealed that, although it was the same brand, and looked exactly the same as the original player, it was in fact a slightly different model from the first one. So we asked for a different remote, which seemed to be the most logical thing to do. Oh no, we were told, this was not at all possible - the player and remote had to go back to be fixed again. I enquired why they hadn't taken the remote the first time, or why knowing they were sending back a different model had we not been informed that the remote wouldn't work, but the girl at customer service couldn't tell me. So I asked for a complaint form (una hoja de reclamacion - for anybody needing one. Legally, all shops have to have them and hand them out when asked for). Only when I did this did she promise that if it wasn't back within 20 days, we could have a new player. I was quite pleased at this, the threat of a complaint form worked a treat and I shall be trying it again in the future if needs be.

Yesterday made it 21 days. We drove wearily, yet ready for a verbal battle, to our current second-least favourite store (keep reading for our number-one-of-all-time least favourite). It turned out that the player had only recently arrived in Barcelona to be fixed (why it had to be sent so far away I have no idea) so they, without us having to utter a single complaint (this time), offered us a new one. We had to pay the slight difference in price, but we got a brand-spanking new DVD player with a year guarantee (good news, because the old one was about to run out). Success, of a sort, although we had to earn it. Fnac, on the other hand has excellent customer service and I'd recommend anyone to buy there rather than Media Markt. We've taken two broken DVD players back there, one almost two years old, and they've replaced them both, without fuss, at the same time and with a further two-year guarantee. Now that is how you should treat your customers.

The worst culprit for appalling customer service we've come across so far in Spain is, by a mile, Ikea. The mere mention of the name now makes Matt froth at the mouth and utter expletives and I shall explain why:

When Ikea first opened in Asturias in June 2005, we got very excited at the prospect of cheap, yet stylish furniture for our new house and went and spent over €1,400 Euros there. One of the items were purchased was a €20 'universal' wooden toilet seat. Just over three months later it broke at a joint, so we returned to Ikea, receipt in hand, to ask for a replacement. We were not expecting the reply we got, which was a simple, yet emphatic, "no".

Most Ikea products, it turns out, including every single item on our €1,400 + receipt, only have a three month guarantee and they refused to change the toilet seat as there was, according to them, no design fault. We pointed out that neither of us are very heavy people and that we'd expect a product that apparently had no fault to last for more than three months when all we'd been doing was using it for the express purpose for which it was designed. Were we expected to return to the store every ninety days to buy a new one? But still no, they stood their ground and we stomped out of the store determined for revenge, although not before Matt had strutted round the store, seat in hand, proclaiming to anyone who would listen "calidad terrible, tres meses de guarantia" (terrible quality, three-month guarantee).

The same week we wrote polite letters to Ikea head office in Spain and to their headquarters in Amsterdam and included one of their adverts with a picture of an elephant standing on a chair that stated that they test all their products to destruction in order to ensure they're long-lasting - Matt artistically added a speech bubble with a question mark coming out of the elephant's mouth. We also visited our local consumer-society office and they promised to take matters into hand, First however, we were told we had to return to Ikea to get an official complaint form which we duly did, filled it in, had it signed at Ikea, signed it ourselves and took it back to the consumer society office and were told they'd sort things out for us. Incidentally, we also found out that the law that Ikea quotes on the top of its receipts (in Spain) stating that all items can be returned, in their original packing, up to three months later, is the very same law that states that all new products must have a two year guarantee, (although after six months the onus is on the consumer to prove that the item broke because of a fault in the product at purchase). This point of the law, of course, was not mentioned on the receipt.

Just after Xmas we received two letters, one from Amsterdam stating that they couldn't deal with the complaint and were passing it onto Spanish head office (we're still waiting for a reply to either letter that they received) and a letter from the Consumer Society in Pola de Siero (the area where Ikea is located) saying that our complaint had been passed on to them and that please could we go there within two weeks of their sending the letter to restate our complaint if we wanted them to carry on dealing with it. Also, we should now take the toilet seat back to Ikea for testing. We were fuming. As it was Xmas the letter had arrived over two weeks after it was sent, there was no contact number for the office and we had no idea where it was in Pola de Siero. We were also highly annoyed about having to take the seat for testing when it had been less than six months old when it broke. This was why, in a very large fit of pique, Matt took up the seat in his hands, raised it above his head and dropped it on our kitchen floor, where it promptly broke into several pieces which we burnt on our living room fire - at least it was good for something. Needless to say we've not been back to Ikea since and have no intention of doing so ever again.

Therefore, I would like to instate 'customer service in large, arrogant stores' onto my 'bad things about Spain' list. Ikea customers be warned.

To end on a happier note, we've never had any problems with retuning items to smaller, independent shops. We've always found them to be very helpful and have concluded that it's worth spending a few extra Euros in them for better quality and much better customer service.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

My day off

Although rain was forecast for today - yet again - we awoke to clear, blue skies. To take advantage of this rather lovely surprise we made our way up the hill to the land above the house for a pleasant morning walk.

We do this quite often, but it's always different up there depending on the season, time of day, weather and the light. There are also numerous routes we can take so I never get tired of exploring and enjoying the surroundings.

Also, it was fairly clear today and the mountains seemed that little bit closer because of it. I've never lived this near to mountains before and even though I've been here for over two years, I'm still not tired of looking at them. Despite their being huge lumps of ancient, solid rock they're constantly changing.

Looking north, past the concejos of Siero and Nava, we could easily make out the sea (although it's not quite so easy in the photo!).

Hmmm, I could quite happily take another day off tomorrow.

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

The 1st May in Spain is Dia del trabajador or Labour Day. It's also a national holiday. Hurray, a day off work! One of the great things about living in Spain is that we get more public holidays than anywhere else in Europe, 15 I think, compared to a miserly eight in the UK.

Added to this, each town will have its own fiesta. Ours is 30th November, when the town celebrates Las Cebollas Rellenas - stuffed onions being the gastronomic speciality of El Entrego - and all the restaurants use this as an excuse to charge lots of money for special, stuffed-onion-based menus that attract people from all over the region. A strange reason to take a day off, but I'm not complaining. We also get carnaval off here too, on Shrove Tuesday, so that puts the count up to 17.

Even better, we also have puentes or bridge days. Say, for example, a public holiday falls on a Thursday, the Friday is considered a bridge day and is often taken as a holiday too. The best time of year for puentes is the beginning of December. The 6th is Constitution Day and the 8th is the Day of the Immaculate Conception. This means the 7th is always a puente, plus the 5th and the 9th can be puentes as well if they fall a day before or after the weekend. This year we haven't been taking the bridge days off (I worked yesterday). Next academic year however, Cris, my lovely boss (said in all sincerity) has announced, with my full backing, that we'll be giving a letter to all parents at the start of October stating the days the Academia is to close - including the bridge days. Now that's what I like to hear.