Thursday, 9 April 2015


Celebration in the Plaza

 “Fay was a Giri – a Giri is our Andaluz word for a foreigner” – said the Alcaldesa Rafi Crespin – our local Lady Mayor – in her eulogy to my late wife Fay in the memorial service held in Fay’s memory at Las Pinedas village church. “But Fay was the kind of Giri we would like to have more of!” To make the point, the Alcaldesa said, she intended to name a street after Fay.


 Streets are not so easy to name – or rather to re-name - in Spain with its Civil War history. Plaza Andalucia, the central square in Las Pinedas where Casa Uno now stands, was once, like every other streetwise village square in Spain, Plaza del Caudillo. The Caudillo – the Leader – was Spain’s Dictator for some 35 years, Generalissimo Franco (note 1). The two main streets in Las Pinedas are nowadays named after two great poets of the pre-Civil War period: Federico Garcia Lorca and Antonio Machado – the one executed by the Nationalists early in the War, the other driven out of war-torn Spain to die of physical frailty and mortal grief on the escape-route to France. These were not names to be replaced. The names of the shorter cross-streets in the micro-Manhattan grid of Las Pinedas turned out to be equally deeply embedded in history.

In the end the decision was made to place a plaque in memory of Fay on Casa Uno in Plaza Andalucia, the village farm-house Fay and I had bought, taken down and rebuilt for Fay herself to run as an international rental house – since when more than 1000 visitors young and old from a dozen or so different nations have made Casa Uno their holiday home. Now a plaque is an object which by definition needs unveiling. And in Spain above all, an unveiling calls for a party.


 No-one likes a party like the Spanish. Our village Las Pinedas annually hosts three major celebrations.

 On Easter Sunday morning, the Risen Christ, mounted on a heavy wooden float with the white and gold flowers of spring, is carried out of the church on the shoulders of the young men and women of the village. His emergence is greeted by the singing of the Saeta – a centuries old flamenco paean of welcome – performed each year with wild, heart-stopping passion by Maribel Diaz, a great artist and long-standing family friend, whom many visitors to Las Pinedas from around the world will also know as house-keeper of Casa Uno.

His return to the world of the living thus recognized, the Christ-figure is carried through the streets in solemn procession, most of the rest of the village following in its train, many of the younger children arrayed in Las Pinedas’ particular penitential house-style - cloaks and pointed hats in a shimmering Cambridge blue. The whole column advances, chattering peaceably, to the threatening musical thumps, groans and shrieks of a Spanish marching band, sounding as though on its way to an auto-da-fe – a ceremonial burning of heretics by the Spanish Inquisition.

 By the time the procession returns to the central square, the lines of chairs for the earlier Mass have been broken up, the chairs regrouped round tables, the bar has opened and paella is being ladled out for free from an immense gas-fired paella pan behind the bar.


The Romeria

 In the month of May comes the Romeria: the annual festival of San Isidro, patron Saint of farmers. The local San Isidro comes all the way from La Carlota where he winters in the town church. Placed on cart packed with an elaborate arrangement of flowers and drawn by an immense green tractor, he leads a parade of decorated floats and smartly dressed horsemen across the fields to Las Pinedas, and then onwards to the festival ground that Las Pinedas shares with La Carlota – a hectare of rough grass, scattered with holm oaks for shade, and concrete picnic tables, which has been filling up with families since the evening before, headlights streaming through the night, bent on staking a claim for some shade the next day, chairs, tables and cooking implements towed in carts or crammed into cars. As the sun rises, gypsies are putting up stalls and soon afterwards the beer tent opens. It is outside the open door of the beer tent that San Isidro is positioned when he arrives in mid-morning. His treat is to snuffle the beery odours coming from the tent, and later the heavy saffron scents of scores of family paellas bubbling in their pans. By the time the day is over and the return journey to La Carlota begins, even San Isidro is looking quite woozy, his halo slipped to a more cheerful angle.

The first week-end in August comes the village Feria. Three continuous days and nights of music, dancing and feasting, interspersed with competitions for villagers of all genders and ages – last year the Women’s team beat the Men in the tug-of-war –an omen for a new female empowerment in a future Spain? Feria ends around 4am on its final morning with music in the square, alternately starting and stopping – as children dazed with sleep rub their eyes and wait to go to bed the grown-ups are playing - of all things – their own derivative of musical chairs –musical brooms – the winner was the last adult left holding the broom.


So Las Pinedas is well used to parties. That said, the party thrown to celebrate the unveiling of the memorial plaque to my late wife Fay was of the best vintage. In the course of one day, chairs and tables suddenly materialised in the Plaza Andalucia. A stage sprang up at one end of the paved central area, a bar at the other – and behind it the familiar giant gas-fired paella pan. Cheerful banners advertising the local beer fluttered above the tables. A small curtain protected the plaque from prying eyes. By the time dusk fell and the lights of the square came on augmented by floodlights, the Plaza was packed with people. From old men in well-worn cloth-caps to the tiniest children tottering between the tables, the entire village had come out to play. In addition there was a visiting contingent of Tresilian family, including our three children, all three of Fay’s sisters, a young cousin and some cherished friends.

Darkness had fully fallen by the time the Alcaldesa, raven-haired, smiling and looking thoroughly electable in a silver frock, arrived with her official police escort. The village had employed a professional presenter for the evening. The presenter introduced the Alcaldesa. She spoke most beautifully of Fay’s contribution to village life – the dedication on the plaque was for Fay’s ‘sympathy, love and dedication to the people and village of Las Pinedas’. I responded in less elegant but grateful Spanish. The Alcaldesa unveiled the plaque. And straightway the party began.

The presenter, it turned out, was also a professional flamenco dancer and gave a bravura display on the stage. The leading local flamenco group – Maribel, her husband Lolo and a group of their superbly talented friends under the resonant title El Makis de la Duende (untranslatably: ‘the resistance movement of poetic grief’) performed with all the Duende that Fay herself would have so enjoyed. The beer as advertised and the local fino wine from Montilla flowed. Paella on paper plates was distributed to all and sundry. Later our two soprano daughters, Arabella and Susannah joined by their baritone cousin Philip, took to the stage and sang Lloyd-Webber’s Pie Jesu and other gems as a threnody for Fay. Our son Alexander, in impeccable Spanish, made a speech of thanks on behalf of us all. The rest of the family party – for that night a true part of the local community – mingled and merged with the people of the village. The music and dancing, the drinking and talking, went on past midnight.

 Yet the next morning when we family and friends came out blinking into the sunlight to find Fay’s commemorative plaque shining on the wall of Casa Uno, the square was already empty of chairs, tables, stage, paella-pan and other impedimenta. It had also been left immaculately clean. The cloud-capped palaces of the night before had been swept away – that broom had found a real purpose after all. And the ancient rural village which Fay had so loved had worked its special Spanish magic for her one final time.


(1) The Caudillo was an enthusiastic huntsman. One of his many hunting boxes – still owned by the Franco family - stands only 20km away from Las Pinedas - a palatial country house set in many hectares of prime wood-land with its own secluded railway station. In the year 1940 when for the only time in their respective violent lives Franco and Hitler met face-to-face at the station of La Hendaye on the border of France and Spain, the Caudillo’s slow and leaky private train was much sneered at by the Fuhrer’s glittering black-clad entourage. But some 30 years after Hitler died by his own hand, Franco, now a very old man, was still potting the occasional partridge, the odd wild boar.

NT 2015

Sunday, 15 March 2015


Some years ago I planted a young lemon tree in a sunny spot in the garden of my ancient house in Andalusia. For a couple of years the tree grew rather diffidently, yielding two modest lemons the first year and three the second. Then, suddenly, this hitherto bashful little tree began to grow with almost indecent haste: an explosion of shiny evergreen leaves hiding wickedly spiky branches, in a state of run-away inflation reminiscent of the Argentine economy.

The following spring our once maidenly tree was positively matronly with seductive-scented white blossom busy with bees. That winter the matriarch bore fruit. Such fruit! Big fat brilliant yellow lemons which when cut and squeezed yielded whole cups-full of sharply fragrant silver juice. Organic fruit with unwaxed skin and natural zest that made a mockery of dull, diminutive, pesticide-laden shop and supermarket lemons. Fruit gleaming with natural health. Body-builder lemons exciting genuine admiration when displayed to visitors - but also a certain ironic underlay of prurience about their exceptional physical development.

A single lemon may have a hundred uses. Did you know that a halved lemon is used as a finger moistener for those counting large amounts of bills, such as tellers and cashiers? (Wikipedia). Two electrodes implanted in the same lemon will generate an electric current – admittedly a very small one. Lemons marinate, macerate, deodorize and sanitise. On Shrove Tuesday their juice brings limp pancakes back to life. In the garden it may be sprayed in diluation as a non-toxic pesticide. Lemons can drizzle flavour into a cake, add sparkle to a salad dressing or dry out a dry martini. All these things lemons can do – as well as lending their name to a best-seller about life in Spain, Chris Stewart’s Driving over Lemons.

In my part of Spain, Andalusia, lemons are not left lying in the street, If I wanted to emulate Chris Stewart, I would have to carry my lemons out into the street, line them up carefully with the wheels of my car… and suffer a terrible sense of waste as I drove forward crushing the fruit. In frugal Andalusia we are not much in the habit of driving over our lemons. What we do successfully with lemons, on the other hand, is pickle them – Moroccan-style.

Pickled lemons – lemons deeply but asymmetrically cut to remain whole, bodily packed with salt, crammed tightly into preserving jars and topped up with further quantities of lemon juice – are one of the Mediterranean diet’s great life-enhancers. They add a fourth dimension of strong but subtle flavours to any three-dimensional assemblage of chicken, pork, lamb, kid or even fish. Purists retain the zesty lemon skins only – discarding the flesh and the juice – garnishing the meat to be cooked with delicate lemon crescents inserted in sensitive places.

As a dedicated non-purist myself, and frugal to boot, I put all three elements to use – skin, flesh and juice – though not always on the same occasion. The flesh of pickled lemons combines meltingly with black or green olives in any rich stew. The juice lends a hint of orientalist barbarity to the plainest dish of boiled or steamed or saffron-infused rice.

Packed in a well-sterilised glass jar and kept in the fridge, pickled lemons will last a year at least. In January 2015, while we were in Spain to preserve this year’s crop, we roasted a chicken with pickled lemons from the 2014 crop. They were as succulent as ever.

Don’t worry if you haven’t home-grown lemons of your own to brag about. Despite what I said about them, shop and supermarket lemons will really do the job just as well!. Buy a big bag – you’ll need up to a couple lemons for topping-up juice for every lemon you pickle. Take a sharp knife, have ready plenty of rock salt and have a go yourself.


Wednesday, 18 February 2015


Good Friday in Córdoba
In the past 50 years the Anglican Church has been desperately taking itself down-market in order to hold onto an ever-diminishing national congregation. The original 1662 Prayer Book with its rolling phrases and mind-bending metaphors has been replaced by the flat literalism of Series 3. The King James Bible has been successively re-versioned in language deemed more intelligible to the modern ear. Hymns Ancient and Modern have given way to the la-la-bump of evangelical pop. The effect of these sacrificial changes on older clerics who had been drawn into the Church by the beauty of the language could be catastrophic. The amazingly well educated Dean of one of our greatest cathedrals, I remember being reassured by a senior Canon, had gone completely mad – and so indeed in a hyper-civilised way, he turned out to be. The Rector of my own rural village many years ago could not restrain himself at Matins on Christmas and Easter Day – the only times the church was filled with parents and children – from discoursing vehemently on the evils of the times, with frequent references to Fornication and (may he rest in peace) the broadcaster David Frost.

The Catholic Church in Andalusia may suffer similar anxieties in its private moments. But no such reservations are permitted to cloud the clerical mind during Santa Semana – the Spanish Holy week – the week of the great religious processions. And nowhere are those processions more numerous and more powerful in their imagery than in the former great Moorish cities of Córdoba, Seville, and Granada – the latter only seized back and recolonised by the Christians in 1492.

Day by day and night by night during Holy Week, huge candlelit floats carried by dozens of men rock and roll majestically through the city streets, depicting the the events of the Holy Week story from Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday through to the deepest depths of grief on Good Friday evening, and then to the brief ecstasy of the Resurrection on Sunday morning – followed by that final sacrament of the Spanish Easter Sunday – in heavily over-crowded bars, cafes and restaurants throughout the city, the long, long, lingering Easter lunch.

But the floats are only one part of the spectacle. Each float heads a long parade of clerics, who in their turn are followed by a much longer train of penitents in black gowns their features masked within tall pointed hats, the whole charivari driven along from behind by a marching band, their instruments thumping, groaning and screeching as though on their way, not to a religious celebration, but to an auto-da-fe – the ceremonial burning of heretics once so favoured by the Spanish Inquisition. As many as eight of these huge processions may be in circulation through the city of Córdoba on a single night, each passing through the city’s central Plaza de Tendillas at a precise time, obedient to a chronology fixed in its final form many centuries earlier.

In Córdoba the climacatic moment comes just as night is falling in the courtyard of the immense Mezquita-Catedral – a former Moorish mosque with room for 8000 of the faithful at prayer in its arched and pillared arcades – into which a Christian Bishop inexcusably inserted a large baroque cathedral during the 17th century. On Good Friday evening a giant moon-faced Virgin Mary in 10-metres of deep blue velvet cloak flashed with gold (the gift of the great bullfighter Manolete of Córdoba) appears outside the gate of the outer courtyard of the Mezquita, a courtyard planted a thousand years ago with orange trees in vessels of raised brick – a configuration still unchanged today. The Virgin peeps through the onion-profiled gateway into the courtyard , bobbing almost coyly at the crowds assembled beneath her, then dozens of invisible feet within the shrouded float propel her swaying down the steps and way off past the crowds to where the doors of the Cathedral are flung open to receive her onto suitably consecrated ground.

Andalusia’s original Celto-Iberians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Christians have all in turn laid claim to this ancient site of religious worship. Today it remains contested ground. Not long ago the Mezquita was the object of an organised raid from young Muslims equipped with walkie-talkies, apparently bent on claiming the right to recite their Friday prayers within the sacred space. Latterly a zealous new Bishop of Córdoba has sought to de-Islamise the site completely by removing the word ‘Mezquita’ from its official designation, leaving only ‘Catedral’ on the street signs directing tourists to it. This threat to the smooth running of the city’s tourist industry by eliminating the familiar name of the city’s one world-famous monument has generated a furious counter attack from Córdoba City Council, which is now legislating to remove the tourism business of the Mezquita-Catedral from the governance of the Church. Watch this space…

© Nicholas Treslian 2015

Saturday, 11 February 2012


There is Cocido. And then there is Cocido Madrileňo. Your ordinary Andalusian Cocido is a starter rather than a main course: a greyish soup of hambone stock and chickpeas, in which if you are lucky you will find floating a sliver of the bacon-fat the Spanish call tocino, a mouthful of chicken on the bone and maybe a little chunk of slightly indeterminate flesh. Cocido as a starter is nourishing and egalitarian. One of those peasant dishes where a lot of carbohydrate is eked out with not much visible protein – though the beans themselves are 25% protein and the marrowbone stock supplies a useful DNA underlay. Cocido Madrileno, on the other hand, is a main course, a meal even – a traditional lunchtime dish in Spain’s bustling capital city. I ate it first at a celebrated Madrid taberna, La Bola, where it is the mast-head dish. Lunch is the main meal in Spain, which explains the need for siesta afterwards, observed as faithfully in winter as in summer. (It is said that so long as a husband sits at the head of his own family table for Sunday lunch, with whom he lunches or siestas on the other days of the week may be considered his own affair – cocido in the Madrid style is excellent stamina food for long-distance lovers.)

La Bola has its own way of serving up cocido, bringing it to table in individual clay tankards – pucheros - tall, pint-sized pot-bellied, brown jars in which the meat, beans, vegetables, chick-peas and stock are cooked for six hours (or so it is claimed) on trays in a slow oven. The pucheros come with a handle, so that first the stock – the caldo - can be poured into a bowl and drunk as a soup, usually with the addition of some boiled rice or the light-weight pasta the Spanish call fideos. Then a fresh plate is presented and the main body of the cocido decanted onto it, with all its rich and varied aromas. Whereupon the Madrileňo businessman takes a strong sip of the red Rioja wine poured and set before him, and steps off alone on his fortifying food-safari.

Cocido served up in individual pucheros is for upmarket restaurants with a point to make. Until the gas or electric cooker came – less than 30 years ago in most Spanish households - home-made cocido – cocido casero – was universally prepared in a cauldron hung over the open fire, just as Velazquez or Goya might have painted it centuries earlier. Into the simmering mess of chick peas went whatever the house-hold had to spare: salt meat, fresh meat and sausage (preferably smoked), meatbones, tocino, salt fat and pig’s trotters to add richness to the stock and maybe a boiling fowl for its flavour (always preferred to a roasting chicken). In the last hour potatoes were dropped in to soak up the stock and add bulk; a cabbage added colour, texture – and a bit of redeeming roughage too.

When Joshua fought the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down, modern archaeology reveals that many of the surprised inhabitants would have been tucking into a chick-pea supper at the time. Chick peas were playing a central role in the Mediterranean diet long before tomatoes or pasta arrived. You can boil them, roast them, grind them into flour, coat them in honey and eat them as sweets, and while they are still green, eat them raw. You can mould them into falafel or ferment them to produce an alcoholic drink much like sake. Cooked and ground with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and garlic they become hummous. Their likeness to little male testicles may have prompted their adoption by the Ashkenazi as a festive dish for the birth of a baby son. India is the world’s great producer of the legume the French call poix chiche, the Spanish garbanzos and the poly-lingual Indians chana or harbharaa or kadale kardu. Chick peas are delicious when bought cooked and bottled. But the only way to preserve the true sense of risk when cooking them, is to buy them dried, soak them in water overnight, and disbelieve anyone who says they can be fully cooked in under three to six hours.

In Spain the supermarkets sell cocido preparado – the preparation pack for a cocido – the basic ingredients of raw meat, sausage, fat and bone, pre-selected and shrink-wrapped for the busy housewife. True members of the cocido aficion – the authentic dedicatees of the soup that is also a stew that is also a soup – will visit their local butcher and negotiate cheap cuts. The results will taste much the same either way. A nation which in earlier centuries lost not just one but a total of six fully-equipped armadas, with all their cannon and cooking-pots, in the vain attempt to hang onto empire, is not nowadays going to play foodie games with a national dish.

Followers of contemporary art recognize the difference between works of art inviting detached contemplation – typically paintings and sculptures – and works of art such as installations and contextual works, in which the individual becomes perceptually immersed. From cooking to final consumption cocido is an immersive process. Furthermore – to borrow another phrase from the art critic’s lexicon – it is ‘context-sensitive’. That is to say, the character of the cocido both influences and is influenced by the surroundings in which it is consumed. To prove the point, my friend Joanna and I cooked a gargantuan cocido madrileňo, tied the lid firmly to the pot, drove 60 miles through the Subbetica hills south of cordoba to where our friends Matthew and Miranda have a gorgeous house high up amongst olive groves. There, on a January day under glittering Andalusian sunlight, we untied the string, lifted off the lid, and lo! – our workaday urban soup-cum-stew had been transformed, by the magic of fresh air and friendship, into a rustic feast.

© Nicholas Tresilian, 2012

Thursday, 25 August 2011


Swimming in the home pool one lazy July afternoon, I found myself overlooked from the covered terrace at the end of the pool by a couple of swallows. One was perched on the rim of a hanging plate, the other was gripping a wall-sculpture. I swam several lengths, coming within less than a few feet of these calm little birds each time I reached the deep end, apparently not causing them more than mild interest. Then as I relaxed between lengths at the far end of the pool the swallow from the hanging plate dropped in a perfect dive to within a yard of me, scooped up a sip of water in its beak and shot away over my shoulder for all the world like a Spitfire which had just rocketed a panzer tank.

Birds are an important part of life in Las Pinedas. Each summer swallows and house-martins nest and breed exuberantly. One year a pair of swallows flew in through my office door, fluttered round a few times like potential buyers inspecting a new property, and apparently satisfied, the next day set about building their nest on one of the cross beams – that is to say the hen (it must have been the hen) set about doing the building, while the cock (it was certainly the cock) sat on a nearby beam, berating me with a stream of threatening chatter as I meekly typed away at my computer. Eventually my breeding pair produced a family of three young . All that summer I had to keep my office door open as the family flew busily in and out. The next year, with swallow-like regularity, self-evidently the same hen arrived on the grille outside my office door, but now with a new and more uncertain mate, who seemed alarmed by my presence in the office. Nonetheless the pair roosted together on the usual beam and flew out in the usual way in the daytime. That second evening however the hen reappeared alone, sat on the grille for a while, then flew off with a definite air of decision, and presently returned with the defaulting male. They roosted one more night together. The third night the hen sat on the grille alone, finally flew out into the gloaming and never came back.

This summer there was a happier story. In Casa Uno a pair of swallows managed to construct their nest on the sloping brass top of one of the Moroccan lamps hanging over the covered eating area. The weight of the nest tilted the lamp at a crazy angle, but it fledged two full families of four baby swallows apiece, who spent the summer days on the wing, cleaning the Las Pinedas air of flying insects ,and in the evenings flew screaming with delight around the courtyard, before settling down to sleep in two groups of four on the branches of a big potted dama de noche plant beside the pool. Guests seeking the fifth bathroom in the night have courteously lifted over their heads the branches laden with sleeping swallows.

There are more caged birds in Las Pinedas than one might wish. A particular friend is a solitary love-bird, who spends the summer in a shaded corner of a neighbour’s garden, out of sight of the street. But he recognizes my footfall as I walk by in the road and gives me a welcoming ‘TWEET’! Love-birds can’t do much more than tweet. Our particular game is to work up to a climactic double-tweet…a wolf-whistle. We exchange one or two single tweets, then sometimes he goes first, sometimes I go first… for the double. I know he is warming up for a double when I hear a muted CHEEP, the sound of a love-bird clearing its beak, as one might say, for musical action. As every construction worker knows there are two possible inflections for a wolf-whistle: the upward inflection PHEW-WEE?, as in ‘Hey lady, love my abs of steel!’, and the downward inflection WEE-PHEW! As in ‘Phew wotta scorcher!’. My bird-friend and I have become practiced at both of these musical tropes. What the scrawny cats sitting on the garden wall make of it is difficult to say.

It is at Paqui’s Self-Service store next to the Bar Gtan Parada that the bird-life of Las Pinedas is most abundant and contradictory. Some years ago Paqui rescued a hen which was getting rough treatment in the chicken-pen at the back of the bar, and brought it into her house. All birds need a territory they can call their own. Paqui’s hen took up residence on the back arm of the sofa in the living room immediately off the shop. Each morning the hen pecks vigorously at the sofa cover, eating imaginary seeds and wood-lice, clucking possessively and ruffling her by now rather shabby old feathers. Later in the day she waddles into the shop, idly wandering the aisles like Marie-Antoinette taking the air in the Tuileries gardens, and though she is less than a foot high and has to look up her beak rather than down it to express her disdain for we shoppers, somehow manages to leave the indelible impression that from shop-floor level she is looking down on us.

Paqui’s shop also gives shelter to the most intimate of all my bird-friends in Las Pinedas. A love-bird again, coloured green and red, in a cage with a wired dome, like a miniature crystal palace. By now it knows me well – sees through all my various seasonal disguises – hails me straight away with a cheery TWEET!...leaving me in no doubt that I am being summoned to the presence. This is a bird that likes big music. Our relationship really began on the day I stooped to its cage and whistled the first twenty or so bars of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata sonata – engraved in my memory by the man in the next-door set of rooms to mine at Cambridge, who only knew these twenty or so bars, but played them incessantly all one year and fixed them indelibly in my mind. Alas there was no way that Paqui’s love-bird could whistle Beethoven back to me. Instead he responded with callisthenics. First he rocked from side to side on his perch. Then he leapt onto the side of his cage and with beak and claw moved – like a crazy crotchet – up, down and across the upright wires, producing his own randomised Stockhausen score. Finally he worked his way up into the dome, did the splits to grip the two lateral base-wires and bring his body to the horizontal, and in that extended quasi-flying position focused his eyes on mine in a sustained and intensive stare – the bright and brotherly eye-to-eye acknowledgment of one significant artist to another. Latterly we have moved on from Beethoven to the Last Post, which two years of National Service in the 1950s had also indelibly printed on my mind. While Paqui weighs my tomatoes, slices the ham and tots up the bill, her bird and I celebrate the going down of the sun on innumerable imperial yesterdays. Of course he knows nothing about Gibraltar…where greatly to the irritation of successive Spanish governments, the Last Post is still blown nightly by a solitary British Army trumpeter.

My house is across the road from a Franco-era water tower, a gaunt concrete exclamation mark, identical to a thousand water towers all over Spain, relicts of Franco’s unsuccessful experiment in autarchy – economic self-sufficiency for Spain, without reliance on overseas trade (there are grain silos in every town from the same period). Nowadays the tower is rusty with concrete cancer and eventually it will have to come down…or risk falling down under its own immense weight. It has long been emptied of water, which nowadays is supplied by modern high-pressure mains. But for the migratory birds of Las Pinedas – and especially the house-martins – it is a vital landmark for their annual return to their traditional breeding-grounds on the houses and barns of Las Pinedas. The first sign that summer is drawing to a close is the house-martins’ assault on the water tower. For several days they mob it, flying hectically around it, clinging to it with clawed feet, falling away to scream and perform aerial acrobatics, flying back to cling to it again. It is as if they are in some way ‘marking’ it…embedding it in their own memories and the memories of their fledglings…fixing it as an attractor…a special point of return amongst all the other possible points of return in Spain…return to the the village that they know is theirs….though we humans foolishly sometimes think it is ours.

As the house-martins and swallows leave for Africa, small flocks of bee-eaters arrive, dropping thick autumnal trills as they swoop and swerve over the rooftops: a long curved bill, a flash of brilliant yellow at the throat, kingfisher blue body, wings that open on the turn to reveal sharply defined triangles of brightest white – the loveliest birds in Southern Spain.

Birds seem altogether more intelligent than we give them credit for. S0-odd miles from Las Pinedas is the lake of Fuente de Piedra, summer home for a colony of some 10,000 flamingos. Every evening at dusk the breeding pairs, male and female parents of the young birds, rise in a dense pink cloud from the water to fly down the Guadalquivir river to the estuarine marshes nowadays within the great biosphere reserve of the Parque Nacional de Donyana – a distance of some 100 miles each way, to browse the salt-marshes there throughout the night, returning to Fuente de Piedra at down the following morning, to regurgitate the contents of their stomachs and feed their young. And the young meanwhile? They spend the night in Fuente de Piedras. But far from leaving the young to their own devices, somehow the flamingo community has evolved a system whereby a number of older birds are designated to stay behind at the lake, to maintain tribal order and teach the young birds how to feed themselves. Perhaps these elders are self-selected, simply too old to undertake the nightly odyssey to Donyana and back, A physicist would see the principle of least action at work here, a philosopher would recognise the cut of Occam’s razor –for both disciplines, the simplest way always works best. Somehow, without any knowledge of physics or philosophy, the flamingos seem to have worked this out.


Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Cats (B)

When we first arrived in Las Pinedas my beloved late wife Fay and I spent much time trying to imagine explanations for the two 10-litre containers of bottled water which to this day still stand on the front step of our immediate next-door neighbour’s house. We have could think of no credible explanations. The two bottles stood there, defying the mind. What were they there for? Finally Fay determined to ask our neighbour Maria-Carmen during that moment of truth every morning, when the ladies go out in their kaftans and dressing-gowns to buy bread from the gossipy bread-lady who seems to arrive a little later every morning, such is her appetite for conversation as she drives the fresh bread around. After Fay had ordered a large integral (a baguette made of whole-wheat flour) and my neighbour with more mouths to feed had bought the necessary five loaves and seven dulces (sweet powdery cakes), the question was finally put. The answer? The big bottles were put there to deter the local cats from peeing on the front step. This is a big issue in Southern Spain, where in the great heats of high summer the villagers like to sit out on their own front steps at night, enjoying the cooler evening air before trooping off to bed sometime after mid-night. Of course in those circumstances you wouldn’t want a cat to have got there before you. But what part do the water bottles play in cat-prevention? Aha! You see it is widely believed in this part of Spain that cats are frightened by their own reflections. (This belief .may have its origins in the superstitious connection of cats with witches – who certainly did some strange things with mirrors!). So along comes the cat, bent on a crafty micturation, eyeing up your door-step beadily to that end, when to its horror it catches sight of another, identical cat stalking towards it from inside a 10-litre water-bottle! Obviously it hurries off and pees on someone else’s less well-protected door-step. As President Bush once said: ‘Mission accomplished!’.


Cruising down the E5-A4 autovia from Cordoba and passing La Carlota on your left, you are unlikely to notice the modest rooftop sign ‘CLUB’ unless you are passing by night, when ‘CLUB’ is lit up in a modestly immodest glow of red neon. Driving up the E5-A4 from Seville and passing La Carlota on your right whether by night or day, your eye cannot fail to be attracted by the brazen display of ‘S’CANDALO’ with its three floors of discreetly shuttered windows, the thatched Hawaiian fun-lounge in its garden, and opening directly into the garden, a large lorry park, brightly lit and with security camera surveillance, where a row of immense trucks is usually to be seen, in waiting for their drivers’ obligatory period of rest to end and the drivers themselves to return manfully refreshed to their cabs and resume their pleasantly interrupted journey. S’CANDALO is certainly the more colourful of the two bordellos, one at each end of town, which constitute La Carlota’s main claim to cultural fame. Recently S’CANDALO acquired a 4WD Toyota Landcruiser, with the number soixante-neuf prominently displayed in white upon a pink heart, and a snorkel of the kind used by military vehicles for fording rivers – suggesting the possibility of new revenue-streams from under-water sex. The S’CANDALO group is nothing if not entrepreneurial. One recent summer they put up a large hoarding beside the autovia approaching Malaga (where they also have an operation). The slogan, purloined from L’Oreal, read: S’CANDALO, porque tu le merece!’ – ‘because you are worth it!’. Despite strict EU rules against motorway advertising it was not taken down for quite a while.

S’CANDALO’s status in La Carlota was much enhanced when the fuel giant BP, in a joint venture with El Corte Ingles (Spain’s ultra-respectable equivalent to the UK’s John Lewis), opened a large garage plus lorry-washing facility immediately beside the brothel. The lorry-park, too, is part of the BP garage complex. The act of the driver washing his lorry before abandoning it in the lorry park conveys a faintly confessional nuance, albeit that the sin for which absolution would most probably be required is more likely to come after the lorry-washing than before.

The apostrophe in the name S’CANDALO, incidentally, is a concession to the local demotic. Speakers of authentic Andaluz do not pronounce the letter ‘s’. Mas o menos (‘more or less’) becomes Ma o Meno. Nicholas becomes Nicholä. And S’CANDALO becomes ‘CANDALO, pronounced with a slight click of the throat on the initial letter ‘c’.

The more downbeat CLUB by contrast stands between a builders’ merchants and a transformer park. But the car-park always has cars in it. The cars are lined up under the sun-shelters sideways-on so that their numbers cannot be read if their owners’ loved ones happen to be driving by. What CLUB lacks in bzazz, it nowadays makes up in metaphysical aspiration. A shining new Tanatorio – the much more imposing Spanish word for crematorium – literally a deathatorium – has opened up immediately across the old main road from CLUB. Now it is possible to ‘die’ metaphorically many times in CLUB before dying finally one more time on the way, as it were, to the Tanatorium.

Overshadowing all these wonders, however, is La Carlota’s Luna Club, with its modest strapline ‘solo parejas’ – only partners – identified simply by small doorway into a large warehouse on La Carlota’s main industrial estate. The Luna Cub was recently described on television as Europe’s biggest wife-swapping club – though one wonders how the producers could be certain.

Everyone in England knows that wife-swapping happens mainly in Essex, that the invariably male drivers of cars throw their keys in a bowl, that the ladies pull the keys out of the bowl and go off to spend the night with the owner of the car, waking up the next morning in Chelmsford, Chingford, Clacton or – less believably – in Frinton-on-Sea. But now imagine pulling the car-keys out of the bowl in La Carlota and waking up the next morning in Frankfurt, Lake Balaton or Lodz (which rather disarmingly if you happen to wake up there, is pronounced Woodzh). Obviously this could not work in geographical terms. The rather depressing reality revealed by the TV programme is that the punters enter two by two like the animals in the ark – one is reminded that Noah also decreed ‘solo parejas’ - pay their money at the door and each receive a mask. After that I guess a kind of low-light speed-dating goes on until everyone is exchanging body-fluids with someone they have probably never met before, but who also, beneath the mask might be their husband or wife revitalised by disassociation…and on that basis the evening can be pronounced a success.

That said, I confess the night-life of La Carlota is a total mystery to me. At the far end of the Poligono – the curious Spanish word for a business park – are three immense and shiny discotheques. By 9pm, which is the latest I have ever been through the area on my way back from late evening lengths in the municipal swimming pool – they haven’t even turned their outside lights on. There is a second Spain which only starts to function when the rest of Europe has gone to bed. The Spanish love the madrugada, the small hours of the night. The air is cool. It is a good time to enjoy. It is a good time to be naughty. Late-night naughtiness is the ultimate Spanish Vice. It has certainly contributed to the Spanish financial crisis, along with an overhang of more that 1 million unoccupied and unwanted dwellings, most of them flats bought off-plan with a view to easy profit. Punitively expensive employment laws, which boost the black economy and destroy government revenues, are another aspect of the Spanish economy. It is difficult to believe that Spain will not be colonised by China in the next generation or so. The Chinese are unsmiling, they have no duende and do no bull-fighting, but they are prepared to work so much harder than the Spaniards. Chinese shops have arrived on the Spanish high streets already


1/. Dying, as in the joyful ‘I die! I die!’ was a much-used Restoration Comedy metaphor for sexual climax. I once tried to explain this to my Spanish teacher, without total success.