Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Aaand we're off

It's official. The annual race to keep up with the courgette plants has begun.

And as you can see we're off to a bad start already - it was only the size of my little finger a couple of days ago. We shall obviously have to inspect more frequently as I really don't want any of the behemoths we had last year. They're much tastier when smaller and I run out of things to do with marrows. Any tasty courgette recipes are welcome, please post them here.

I'm off to pick runner beans now, they're threatening to overwhelm us too. I suspect the majority will end up in the freezer just so we can keep up with the courgettes without distraction. I learnt from Matt's dad this weekend that the correct way to cut a runner bean for the freezer is in the opposite direction to which its fibres run (if you look at a bean lengthways there'll be diagonal fibres running across its width, apparently), otherwise they just get soggy when you defrost them (as we learnt last year). Hands up who knew that one.

Monday, 30 July 2007

The weekend: Saturday

We had a lovely day on Saturday when we went to visit Matt´s dad and Carolina. I enjoy visits to Nava as Carolina always makes us lots of tasty food. This time it was avocado vinaigrette, followed by courgette flan, potato and beetroot mash and French beans (all of the main course came from their garden), and for desert a piece of cooling melon, which was perfect as it had turned into a very hot day from a cloudy start. We also had something very interesting to drink which was some posh lemonade by Minute Maid (part of the Coca-cola company, unfortunately), made with lemon juice and pulp, sugar - no nasty sweeteners - does everybody know where aspartame comes from? No? Well I´m going to go off on a tangent here, so sit down, make yourself comfortable and I´ll tell you story:

Once upon a time some very clever scientists in the United States were developing a pesticide to kill all those horrible bugs that live on our fresh fruit and vegetables. One day, one of the clever scientists was going about his work and accidentally tasted the pesticide. Well, wasn't he surprised to discover that is was very sweet and tasted just lovely. So, the clever scientist got together with all the other clever scientists and decided that it would be a very good idea if they could sell the pesticide, which they decided to call aspartame, to drinks and food companies as an artificial sweetener. However, first of all, they had to ask the government for permission to do this. Now, the nasty government said "hang on a minute, you want to let people eat and drink a pesticide? We don´t think that this is a very good idea." So the poor scientists carried on their work with pesticides and put the aspartame plan to the back of their minds, but did not forget it. They were waiting for the opportune moment. A few years later this moment came. The people had decided that they didn't want the nasty old government any more but that an old film star was a much better idea for a president. The clever scientists were very excited about this as they had some friends who were friends with the film star. So they went to the government with their brilliant aspartame plan and this time the government thought it was an excellent idea and said "Well done, you clever scientists you. Of course you can sell aspartame as a sweetener and make yourselves and our companies a disgusting amount of money. Did someone mention cancer? No, I didn't think so". And so the clever scientists were given permission to sell their wonderful product, nobody got fat or lost their teeth any more, and everyone made a fortune and lived happily ever after.

And that, dear reader is the story of how aspartame came to our dinner table.

Anyway, to get back to this delicious lemonade. What made it extra special - apart from the lack of aspartame - was a the tiniest touch of spearmint. It was scrummy, and next time I have a spare few minutes I shall try and make some myself, although getting hold of spearmint might be difficult. I wonder if the peppermint from our garden would work instead?

So, we had a very tasty lunch and then went to a ´Medieval Market´being held in a village down the road. It was the usual fare, although I would've liked to have had my camera with me as there were people spinning wool and making silk and others in traditional dress doing Asturian dancing. There were lots of stalls with hand-carved wood and a mirror took my fancy until I saw the price. So we satisfied ourselves with a loaf of bread and some rather fine home-made, wood-smoked cheese which we had for dinner along with other bits and bobs, including Matt's own red tomato and ginger chutney, when we finally got home. We downed it all with (what I later discovered was) almost a full bottle of Lidl´s finest fino (a bargain at €1.49).

Saturday's dinner

Coming soon - 'The weekend: Sunday - John Mayall and The Bluesbrakers'

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Cold turkey and my first hit in three years

Tomorrow evening Matt and I are going to see John Mayall perform in Oviedo (incidentally, we nipped into the regional capital last week and I had a quick check on Woody - I was pleased to see he's still without a full pair of glasses).

Now, this would not have been my first choice of concert. Before Matt's dad had told us he was going, I'd never even heard of the man (is this a big musical faux pas?). Matt, however, was very enthusiatic about getting tickets. I think this is because since he started taking guitar lessons about two months ago, he's become slightly obsessed (up to two hours practice a day while I get stuck with making lunch and dinner) and wants the opportunity to watch, and maybe learn something from, one of the greats. Actually, this reminds me that I must take my glasses so I can see what Matt gets excited about and so be able to ooh and ahh at the correct moments.

As the last concert I went to was Supergrass in Cardiff in 2004 just before we left and I've been cold turkey ever since, despite my best efforts (I wasn't pleased at having to forego Calexico last year, Matt wasn't interested in Van Morrison the year before and we've missed various other bands at numerous festivals too), I thought I''d give it a go, despite having to part with €20 for the ticket. I'll let you know what happens.

What I've just discovered this morning is that Crowded House have announced tour dates in Spain. Whoopee! Anyone who knows me well will know I have a soft spot for Neil Finn & Co (I even had a crush on the man until I realised that the photos of him during their Together Alone era strongly reminded me of an ex-boyfriend). I've been waiting for this since I heard about them reforming.

Shortly after we arrived here, Neil and Tim Finn played in Madrid and despite my best efforts to persuade Matt, he refused to go. At that point, I had no money whatsoever, so couldn't use the offer of paying for it all if he came with me. (I've still not quite forgiven him for it.) This time, the really, incredibly, awful news is that the concert dates are 30th September in Madrid and 1st October in Barcelona. Noooooo! Do they not know that we start the new school year at the Academia on 1st October and there is no way on earth that a) I can get out of being at work or b) get to Madrid and back in time?

I'm gutted, what was wrong with just one day earlier? However, I'm slowly becoming resigned to a more-or-less gig-less existence here in northern Spain - most bands/singers only play Madrid/Barcelona. I guess this is just one more I'll have to add to the list. I'll get over it, eventually, maybe. (And I'm sure I'll be able to read all about it here when they play the UK.)

Friday, 27 July 2007

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

The sun gently warming my neck while I eat breakfast on the terrace in the morning and gaze at the view (and here).

A perfect way to start the day.

Friday, 20 July 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

A quick trip to the video library (what do they call them nowadays DVD libraries?) yesterday revealed that Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' was finally available after months of always being rented out whenever we were in there.

We settled down to watch it last night with certain expectations. And in the main, they were fulfilled. Even so I do have my reservations. For a start, it'd obviously been dumbed down, although as Matt pointed out, this may be a good thing as it means more people/Americans will get the message, fair enough. I concede that the sometimes humourous and clear presentation was possibly the best way to get the message across. And the one simple point he made that struck me most was that polar bears are dying. They're drowing because there's no longer the ice they need to rest on. They just swim and swim and eventually die through exhaustion.

However, what I think was incredibly badly presented was his several car trips, one in the opening scenes (!) and one later even looked as though he was in a 4x4 (whose idea was that?!). Then we get to hear about how he's travelled around the world investigating 'climate crisis' (read global warming) and giving his slide show. We even get to see him in the airport - I thought this was going to be a tongue in cheek moment, but no, nothing was said as we saw him make his way through airport security on his way to the plane. This contrasts with the actions of a green scientist called Mayer Hillman who I first read about five years ago. He's been advocating the reduction of carbon emissions for years and refuses to fly. Instead, he uses satellite links to attend conferences around the world. I can't help thinking that Gore should've followed his example. Matt disagreed, pointing out that people went to these presentations partly to see Gore in the flesh, if he'd just been on a screen his slide show wouldn't have proved so popular. Hmmmm.

My final reservation was that, even though Gore maintained that this is a moral issue, the film he made still had political overtones, too many for my liking. I would've preferred it if he'd left politics out of it. People educated on this subject can see with their own eyes what the politicians are up to and make up their own mind.

All in all, though, you can't really criticise Gore's attempt to bring climate change to our attention, he's certanly managed that and should be congratulated for it. I just think it could've been done better and given the importance of the subject in question, it should've been.

The film leaves you wondering what would've happened had Gore 'won' the presidency in 2000, and ruing that fact that he didn't. I can't help thinking that he still may change his mind about running again. Perhaps he should see it as his moral imperative to do so.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Dole scum! On how to become unemployed in Spain

Last week I was informed by Cris, my boss, that for her to be able to give me a permanent contract in October I need to be officially unemployed. A little strange I thought, but then again, we are in Spain, home of ridiculous bureaucracy and neverending paperwork.

So that is why I have spent three mornings this week, my supposed week off, at the unemployment office, or INEM, as it's known here. To begin with, I had to find the place, which you would think would be simple. I checked the address on the offical INEM website - it was to be found in a town down the valley - printed out a large scale map showing me exactly where the street was and off I went. I spent five minutes walking up and down this street, map in one hand, address in the other, before I realised that I was in the right place but the INEM office most definitely was not. A lovely lady in a perfumería informed me that it had indeed been on that street but had moved a few months ago and kindly gave me directions, stupid bloody website.

This did not bode well and I felt the little enthusiasm I had for dealing with yet more Spanish bureaucracy wane as I made my way to the new office. Once I eventually got to the place, I discovered it was not what I had been expecting. Let me tell you, the unemployment system here differs greatly to the one back in the UK - or at least the one I had to deal with many years back.

For a start, you only have 15 working days after the end of your contract to ask for unemployment benefit. Fortunately, even though blissfully unaware of this, I went on day 14. Even so, I encountered problems almost straight away as I apparently should've gone to the Ministry of Education on my arrival in Spain to have all my academic qualifications recognised (never mind that we're all in the European Union), so when it came to putting them on the computer we hit a problem, which the nice man there solved by ignoring the rules and putting me down as having a Spanish degree in Spanish language. Next up, my driving licence. Can I drive? I most certainly can? Do I have a car? No, but I can use my partner's. Very good. How long have I had my driving licence? I remember this one because I passed on my mum's birthday when I was seventeen. Ah. It transpired that because Spaniards are not allowed to drive until they are eighteen, the system would not allow a date which made the driver seventeen. I even got my licence out - still one of the old folded paper ones - and showed the date to the man who indeed admitted that I had been seventeen on passing my test. But the computer could not be persuaded and in the end we had to change the date to a year later. Great stuff, we were getting somewhere. However, I then discovered that to register yourself unemployed you also have to take a copy of your old contract (tick) and an employer's certificate, which of course I didn't have in my possession.

Reading the information I was then given, an employer's certificate is a signed and stamped letter from the employer stating that you've been working there for the last 180 days. So, after a mad dash to see Cris at the academia, this is what I returned with the following day. But no, the following day I was informed that an employer's certificate is an official document that gives lots of boring details about social security paid, etc. and didn't we tell you abut this yesterday? Grrr. This is where I panicked a bit. I was on day 15 without this complicated certificate and hopes of a permanent contract seemed to be going down the plughole. Luckily for me, the people in the Spanish job centre are very unlike their UK counterparts and offered to start the process with the documents I did have if I took them the certificate the following day. Which is what I've just been doing.

Now I just have to wait for my request to be processed and the money to appear in my account. I'm not sure how much I'll receive as it's linked to how long you've been working and how much you've earned. I was informed that I've only worked long enough for four-months benefit - not a problem as I know I'm officially back to work in October. The other good thing is that I don't have to show I'm looking for work - none of those horrible booklets to fill out stating exactly what you've been doing to find employment. I suppose they don't need it - limited benefit is incentive enough.

So now I have one extra day before the weekend to relax and congratulate myself on successfully navigating yet another Spanish bureaucratic nightmare. Well done me!

Monday, 16 July 2007

The air car

Since moving here I've become ever so much more conscious of the impact we're having on the environment. Before, I always recycled, moved about Cardiff mostly on my bike, turned the tap off while brushing my teeth, etc., but never really gave it much thought beyond that. However, now I'm in Asturias, in such wonderful natural surroundings, it's become hard not to think seriously about our effect on the local and world environment.

This is for various reasons. We have our own water supply, for example. This means we think much, much more about the quantity we're using, and is also a perfect excuse for doing the washing up just once a day. We also only ever put washing-up liquid down our kitchen sink as the water goes directly into our garden - when it's right there in front of you it certainly makes you think about the effect you're having on it, you really don't want to eat herbs that have been drinking up bleachy water. Also, since I've been here I've noticed just how much more wildlife is about and how much more varied it is: birds, butterflies, lizards to name a few, mostly because their environment has been spoilt less, and I'd really like to help keep it that way.

I've been hearing about the air car on and off for a few years now and today finally made a concerted effort to find out more about it. Now we live five kilometres up a mountain we're rather dependent on our car, a fact we're not too happy about. The sooner these little beauties are available the better.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Fiesta, fiesta and a tale of sleepless nights

There was a fiesta in Lantero last weekend. It ran from Friday to Monday night. This year we knew what to expect. I imagine most Brits would say something along the lines of 'ooh a proper Spanish fiesta, how exciting' if we mentioned that the village halfway up our mountain hosted it's own annual knees-up. We, however, know better. Fiestas around here, if you live in our house and want a decent night's kip, are noisy, irritating and intrusive.

Now before any of you proclaim me a party-pooper, or an aguafiestas as they say around here, I feel I must point out that the musical mainstay of the fiestas in this particular part of the world is the techno disco. Imagine lying in bed at five am listening to the steady pum, pum, pum of the turned-up-all-the-way base punctuated by the evil DJ's ramblings. It's not pleasant. There was a new addition to the Monday night finale too that really took the biscuit, (somebody with dreams of grandeur had obviously been studying Olympic Games closing ceremonies), and that was a stream of fireworks at six in the morning, just to make sure that anybody who hadn't been woken up by the six hours of vile music would, with a start, be made aware of the end of the fiesta by numerous resounding BANGS.

We did give the fiesta a go the first year we were here, and the results were fairly disastrous. At discovering that a warm 25cl bottle of beer was priced at €1.50 we opted for the cheap red wine at €2 a bottle (which should've been warning enough in itself). Duncan arrived at half time and by 2 am, with plenty of Scots encouragement, Matt, with a little help from me, had gotten through three bottles. This was followed by a rum and coke (we're talking Spanish measures here, of course) that Duncan had insisted on purchasing for him, despite the best efforts of Susana and myself to explain that more alcohol really wasn't needed. We arrived home at 4 am after I'd taken two hours to drag Matt up the hill (" keep your knees straight, that's it. Now, one foot after the other. No, no, no, knees straight!") whereupon he promptly threw up and then passed out in bed. After that we decided it was best not to go again.
Anyway, after the four nights of fiesta in Lantero we had two nights break before the four day, four night El Entrego fiesta got going. It started yesterday and I managed to get to sleep before the heavy music started. Despite my cunning plan of an early night, I was awoken at 4.30am by Matt coming back from the trip to the loo. The conversation went something like this:

A sleepy me: Wah, uh, what's happening?

Matt: I couldn't sleep, the music's too loud.

me: What music?


me: Oh.

And then I was kept awake until 6am until the music stopped.

For tonight I have been even more cunning - this is our bedroom window:

I knew that old foam matress would come in handy one day.

A photo of a picture of a photo

I've been saving this for a special post all of it's own. This was my excellent birthday present from my very good friend Sue. I'm very pleased that I can now say I have a Dobson original hanging in my hall.

The painting is Ms D's adaptation of a photo I took on the Ruta de Brañagallones in the Parque Natural de Redes that we did together on one of Sue's previous visits.

Sunday, 8 July 2007


Before I start, I'd like to make it clear that I'm normally very good at remembering to make sure I have a functioning camera on me. However, this last week when Sue and Simon were visiting, my brain became all fluffy in the camera department which meant that on one occasion I forgot to take spare batteries with me, just when it needed them. And then when we went camping I forgot to take it with me altogether. Explanation given, here's my account of the last week:

I always look forward to visits and was not disappointed by this one. Sue arrived at the airport (only forty minutes late) and we made it back to El Entrego just before Simon's train arrived at the station. Good timing. It didn't seem obvious that he'd been out the night before until about five am and in fact Sue was the one slacking by the time we'd had our dinner, although it wasn't late by the time were all tucked up in bed.

On the Sunday we went for a long walk on the land above the house - we normally do one of two routes when we're up there, but this time Matt decided to combine them into one long one. This was a slight shock to our system and an even bigger one to Simon's - I kept promising that this was going to be the last 'up bit' we did and then Matt changed the route again and there was more 'up'. Sorry Simon!

Sue and Simon on our Sunday 'stroll', with the Peña Mayor in the distance.

For a change the next day we decided to go and see the bears and do the nearby cycle route. Sue was most excited by this prospect and wanted to know if they were 'as big as Gentle Ben'. However, due to significant alcohol consumption and lots of mountain air the previous day we stumbled out of bed too late to make the bears and opted instead for another walk.

This time we went up into the Parque Natural de Redes, a national park just up the valley from us which encompases over 370 square kilometres of woodland, meadows, mountains, lakes and streams, along with traditional Asturian villages. We chose a route which started from a village high up in the park, Tarna, and which led to a waterfall. On the leaflet we'd been given in the tourist office, the route was described as easy and taking three and a half hours. Ha! It was a climb from the start, past verdant, and tree-filled meadows. We found a flat-ish flower-covered meadow with stunning views to stop in for lunch and then valiantly resumed the hike. The two lightest members of our party, Matt and Sue, also with the longest legs strode ahead while Simon and I trundled along behind.

The next part of the walk passed through an old beech forest - where, to be fair, it did flatten out and we were able to catch our breath, fortunately, as we had rather full bellies from lunch - which so reminded me of Klimt's paintings that I thought he could've done them there - dappled light falling down through green leaves onto the earth below. It was incredibly peaceful. I could've stopped then and there and spent the afternoon relaxing beneath the tree tops.

Seeing as I forgot the batteries you'll have to make do with Klimt.

Instead, we carried on and made our way out of the forest, down a slope to unspoiled meadows and, at last the waterfall in the distance. As we slowly got nearer, we had to ford the stream from the waterfall several times - I was pleased I had my trusty hiking stick with me - and then made our way up the slope to observe the cascade from higher up. Easy? No way, but by now my legs had finally warmed up and got into the swing of things so I climbed on ahead up the slope with Matt. Reaching the top was wonderful and made the hike up there worthwhile. There were views of the surrounding mountains, and the waterfall itself, which fell from a height of 1,800 metres (we must've been at about 1,600). The spray cooled us down as we stood at it's side comtemplating the rush of glacial water falling past us. (It's here where I curse myself yet again for forgetting fresh batteries for the camera. If Sue sends me her pictures I shall post them for you.)

After two days of long walks - never mind three and a half hours, the last one took at least five - we had a day of rest on the Tuesday- with mango and cava cocktails in the evening - and then headed to Vega beach on Wednesday to do a spot of camping. So busy was I rushing around to get everything ready so we could camp in comfort that, yes, I forgot the camera.

Enjoying cava and mango cocktails.

Vega campsite is our favourite on the Costa Verde - it's small, friendly, well-run and all the pitches are separated by hedges making it private too. The owner himself is from El Entrego so they're particulalry friendly with us, even though we only go for the odd night in the summer when we have free time. They know me there as la inglesa de El Entrego (the Englishwoman from El Entrego). So, as a reward for two tiring walks we took two lazy days on the beach, reading, jumping waves, playing Scrabble (in English and Spanish), and eating and drinking to our heart's content. The sea at Vega can be very surfy and I have a memorable image of Sue, Simon and me, in a line, jumping waves, all desperately holding onto our bikini bottoms/swimming trunks as each rather large wave approached and we whooped with delight. The sunsets are also particularly spectacular at Vega - the sun sets over the sea - and we spent one evening contemplating the sun as it disappeared below the water, and then, in the dying light, Sue happily contemplated the surfers in their tight wetsuits.

By the time we got back on Friday afternoon we were all to tired to do much more than unpack and have a nice cup of tea with some biscuits. Matt dashed off to his guitar lesson and the rest of us settled down on the sofa for a few episodes of Sex and the City which Sue had kindly brought me as a present. A perfect ending to a enjoyable, but tiring, week (I think it was the Bacardis on the Thursday night camping followed by hot chocolate with brandy that really did for me). I'm spending today recovering.

Three excuses for a cat

We went camping last week while Sue and Simon were visiting (more about that in my next post) and our cats made sure we had a welcome present to come home to, although we didn't find it until yesterday evening. A live mouse. In the pantry. Somebody must've brought it in and then got tired of playing with it (this is Elbi's style and I suspect she was the culprit). It seems it was very soon allowed to make itself at home in the brown rice and, as we were greatly disappointed to discover, also nibbled on our only bar of favourite Lidl chocolate. Just what our three felines were doing while the mouse was living it up I have no idea but they certainly weren't earning their keep.

The first thing we knew about it was when Matt saw it climbing up to the top shelf in the pantry yesterday evening and it was left to me to don gloves and get the step ladder to find the little beast. Matt's solution of putting Beeps up there failed miserably when all she did was sit and gaze down upon us from her new throne. Fortunately the mouse had scurried into an old box we kept up there so it was just a matter of taking the box outside and releasing it.

While I've been writing this Matt called up from the lounge to declare there's a vole hiding under the fire. No-one would ever know this was a three-cat household! They're hopeless. It's hidden itself under there somwhere but we can't see it. Elbi, however, as you can see, has taken it upon herself to make up for her earlier mousey misdemeanours.