Cabañal revisited

November 16, 2014

Cabañal sign 2 sm

A bright blue sky has me on my bike, tootling around Valencia, taking side streets as they come, no direction known. Eventually I arrive at Cabañal market, a few streets short of the sea.

When I was last the market, about five years ago, it was on the verge of closing, and I seem to remember that it closed for a period because of the lack of custom. Obviously something happened because now it is a perfect example of the bustling Saturday food market.

There’s nothing here I can’t buy from Ruzafa market, only a three-minute walk from my home, other than horse meat, although I wasn’t tempted by the quality of produce on display at the Carne de Caballos stall as much as the smile of the spikey-blonde-haired lady who runs it. But I enjoy walking these places, watching shoppers making their selection, listening to the banter of the stall-holders, which, in the Central Market is more likely to be raised voices telling tourists not to take photos.

Cabañal fish stall sm

Cabañal outside stall sm

I get tempted by the bocadillos at El Marcado bar and cafeteria. Market bars are the perfect place for the solitary diner. In a restaurant the concentration is on the dining experience itself. You sit at a table for either two or more and the waiter removes the cutlery, napkins and glasses of your non-existent dining companions, emphasising that you are a solitary soul. As a once-upon-a-time restaurant reviewer I’m quite used to eating alone, and devoid of any shame I’d simply take out my notepad and write as I worked my way through the meal. I’ve eaten is some superb restaurants, but usually only in the company of a pen and paper – I’d much rather eat the most basic menu del día in the company of a friend, although these days my companion a table is usually a book. But at a market bar the food is simply an addition to the action. Shoppers and market people come and go, the act of eating is an on-the-move affair, which is why I’ve always liked them.

But I’m not the only one tempted by El Mercado, because all the stools at the aluminium bar are taken. I make another circuit of the market, but still no room at the inn, so I wander out into the square.

Cabañal plant, shops sm

Cabañal houses 3 sm

Apart from a few modern architectural excresences and bland facades, a good percentage of the buildings around the square are late Modernista, two-storeys above shops, with attractive pale green glazed tiling and cast iron balconies. In the paved and planted garden in the centre, where a slight breeze wafts the deep red flowers of the euphorbia, there’s an air of peacefulness.

For decades Valencia Town Hall, led by the formidable wicked witch, Mayoress Rita Barberá, has being trying to hack a swathe through the area, and with its usual monstrous conceit has just announced seven hundred thousand euros in the budget for 2015 to buy properties in Cabañal for demolition for the proposed extension of Avenida Blasco Ibañez, despite the national government and European Courts finding against her plan on the grounds of the architectural and historic importance of the area. She has dumped generations of problem families in Cabañal, refused locals planning licenses for repairs, bricked up perfectly liveable houses and demolished others overnight amid the fury of public opinion.

Cabañal houses sm

The square on which the market is built is one street away from the route of the proposed extension, which was planned to begin at Calle Millars and move north. On Calle Francesc Eixments, one of the narrow streets that cross Millars, are some perfect examples of two-storey Modernista houses where families have lavished their money and their love; not the exquisite tiles and floribunda plaster of some of the grander houses but a compact homeliness as suited the fishing community that lived there. On most streets the same pattern is repeated; bricked up and derelict cheek-by-jowl with lovingly cared for. The corrupt burghers of the city need look no further than Villajoyosa, a couple of hours south, to see where derelict streets and crumbling houses were turned into an attractive casco histórico, although rumour has it that there are ‘understandings’ that have to be accounted for as regards the block-headed refusal of  the council to give up their single-minded rampage to get Blasco Ibañez connected to the prom. Given the back pocket filling of a number of senior politicians of the governing party, there might well be an element of truth in the rumour.

I chat for a few minutes with a Finnish lady, looking to buy a holiday flat only five minutes’ walk to the sea, while her Spanish colleague is busy on his mobile. Does she know that the lovely house she’s looking at is almost in direct line for the proposed extension? Apparently not. And neither does she know that the Town Hall has put aside what seems to be a considerable chunk of money to buy houses to demolish. (Although in reality, 700,000 euros is highly unlikely to buy more than fifteen buildings, even in dilapidated condition, a mere drop in the Med when the total amount of houses needed to be flattened is taken into account.)

Her companion, obviously an estate agent, hears my questions and quickly ends his call, telling the lady that it will never happen, and besides, even if it did, the planned route has moved to the next junction, one hundred metres further north. Indeed, he added, it would be better for her because the area would be opened up and she could appreciate the new gardens that would be laid. Although I’m not sure how much that would compensate for the noise of the dual-carriageway, three lanes either side, that would be a hop-skip-and-barely-a-jump from her front door.

Cabñal sandwich list sm

I wander back to the market and find a vacant seat at the bar of El Mercado. The list of bocadillos is a fine one; Brascada – ternera, jamon y cebolla; Canario – sobrasada, queso fresco y anchoas; Mexicana confuses me, with its ternera, cebolla, bacon y tobaco, until I realise that someone has rubbed the ‘s’ out of tabasco. I settle for Americana – pechuga, queso, bacon y salsa barbacoa, with a small bowl of bitter olives and a bitingly cold sparkling water.

While I eat, the market winds down. A stall holder from in front of the bar orders a gin and tonic, the bath-size version that used to be the norm until bars began adding an extra ice cube to the glass to disguise the smaller measures. He saunters between his glass and his stall as he packs away heads of lettuce, boxes of onions, nets of oranges and sacks of potatoes.

Lacking a sofa to siesta on, I sit on a bench in the park opposite the entrance to the market in the surprisingly warm mid-November sun. I take out my book to get lost in the skulduggery of 18th-century London, and slowly my eyes close.

 

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Sunday at the beach

January 7, 2013

Marlvarrosa beach, Valencia, Spain

In Spain, Sunday is still the day when families get together, take a stroll, have lunch. Fortunately, the beach is the ideal place.

It was a morning akin to high summer in England, clear blue skies, just a shade whiter than they will be in summer, but not disturbed by a single cloud. It’s on days like this that I treat myself to a ride through the huerta, Valencia’s market gardens and allotments, to the beach at Alboraya, to the North of the city.

Usually the beach is a narrow stretch of almost empty sand, most beach babes preferring Malvarrosa, where they can park and drag their tables, chairs, bags and baskets and spread out under big, brightly coloured parasols. Here at Alboraya, the beach is mainly used by fishermen, who balance their rods on poles planted in the sand and pass the time lounging in picnic chairs.

For a few weeks during winter the beach loses its tailored look when storms bring seaweed ashore and drop it as a barrier between sand and sea. This year has been relatively devoid of bad weather, but this hasn’t stopped the Med dropping its detritus on Valencia’s beaches, part of its seven year cleansing cycle.

In some ways, even though the beach isn’t exactly beautiful to look at, winter is a good time to go, especially on a day like today, because there is almost no-one else around. I sit on a rock warmed by the sun and simply watch the coming and going of the sea, the sailboats in the distance drifting across the horizon, and the squawking seagulls ducking and diving.

But to be honest, sea, boats and seagulls can only keep me entertained for so long, so I make my way home, as usual, by the prom that runs for two kilometres along the beach at Malvarrosa to the Port, and which normally provides plenty of entertainment as I watch the Spanish enjoying their Sunday at the beach.

Just as I’m leaving Alboraya along a dirt track that runs parallel with the beach, I see a chap taking advantage of the day. I may have gone to the lengths of taking my jacket off to feel the warmth of the sun as I sat on my rock, (I’m a martyr to bronchitis and only divest if it’s steaming hot), but he’s gone the whole hog and is down to his black swimming trunks. He simply stands, staring out to sea, occasionally scratching his chest, lost to the world.

Guitarist Malvarrosa beach, Valencia, SpainJust before you drop onto the prom at the top end of Malvarrosa there are a couple of restaurants which are always busy on Sundays, their tables spilling out onto their terrace (ie the pavement in front of their premises). Things are no different today, and diners had the additional pleasure of being serenaded by a solo electric guitarist, his backing group coming from an iPod connected to a small amplifier on a trolley. Unusually, he was pretty good, and as I pass I realise that he is playing a mellowed-out version of I ain’t got nobody, which could equally have referred to his backing group as to his situation in life.

I stop to listen for a while, but know it’s time to move on when he segues into My Way (En Mi Manera in Spanish), the only song banned on BBC’s longest established radio show, Desert Island Discs. Just as I climb onto my bike a young man on a mono-cycle casually rides by me, watching what’s going on on the beach. “Now, you don’t see that on Calle Colon,” I think.

The top end of the prom is usually quieter than the area around the Port, so it gives me the opportunity to look around more, instead of keeping an eye out for any police that might nick me and fine me for some infraction that, until a couple of years ago they wouldn’t even notice. Fines are now one of the major income streams for the Town Hall, and the Policia Local have been told in no uncertain terms that if they want to be paid they have to issue more fines. Even the police themselves are up in arms, and the three main police associations are screaming that they are now no more than debt collectors instead of the ‘guardians of the peace’ they once were, (and which came as a surprise to many of us to hear). Perhaps it’s the impecuniosity of our local government that is the reason that I don’t see a single policeman anywhere.

Anyway, as I turn the corner onto the prom, (in front of the closed Police station). I see a couple coming toward me, sauntering slowly in the sun, she pushing a pram and he, who has obviously just bought a yo-yo from one of the Senegalese ‘blanket’ salesmen that line the lower reaches of the prom, is trying to get the yellow globes to work their way back up the string. Even if he was the bees-knees as a yo-yo-er in his childhood, he’s obviously way out of practise because no matter what wrist action he uses yo-yo refuses to make the return journey up the string.

Mono-cyclist on Malvarrosa beach, Valencia, SpainIt’s obviously the day of Los Reyes Magos, the coming of the Three Kings, and a more important day of gift-giving in Spain than Christmas, because loads of the kids are playing with their new toys; staccato sounds of wheels on pavement as six-year-olds trying to master the intricacies of in-line skates, the buzzing of radio controlled cars whose drivers haven’t quite got the hang of which button to push, and are replicating the driving skills of many of their parents. (Spain has the worst driving record in Europe, beating even the Italians, which surely says something not good.)

I’m totally tickled pink by a young madam of about seven, peacefully promenading with her little white doggy at her side, as sedate as any elegant lady exercising her pet. The dog’s short legs nip back and forth to keep pace with m’lady’s, but what sets me giggling is that the dog’s legs are on wheels, and the pretty purple leash that leads from the small hand of its owner to a bright red collar is the cable that controls it. I can’t help but think how lucky she is that she doesn’t have to carry a plastic bag to pick up the dog shit that was, until a recent law was enacted that forced dog owners to collect their animal’s feces, the bane of pedestrians trying to take a stroll around the city.

I wend my way home, ducking in and out of the streets around the Avenida del Puerto, just in case I come across the driver who was videoed recently sending text messages while he was driving, and find myself crossing the bridge between the Palau de Musica de Reina Sofia, Valencia’s relatively new opera house and concert hall, and the Hemisferic, which form part of the City of Arts and Sciences. As I look at the sun glistening off the tile-work of the buildings and the enormous pools that form part of the complex, I remember how wonderful were the public concerts held there until the whole financial fiasco descended on the city. We didn’t realise at the time that they were the ‘bread and circuses’ of ancient Rome, grand public events put on to hide the skulduggery and corruption that was leeching the city and region of money. Now we have neither the bread nor the circuses, and can only be grateful that the waste and endemic corruption is coming to light, and hope that no more of the current government are indicted than the twenty per cent of councillors who are now under investigation.

 

You might like to see more photos of Valencia and the beach at

Valencia, City Living

You can read more about the sad state of Valencian finances at

Valencia’s next big financial black hole

Someone shoot the white elephant

It pays to have a guru on your side

For more articles and blogs about Spain and Morocco, pleas visit my web site, Spain Uncovered

Look boss – no hands!

December 27, 2012

Driver texting

In the eleven years I’ve lived in Valencia city I’ve used the bus no more than a scant handful of times – and if the experience of Ian Nicol is anything to go by I suspect I’ll be sticking to my ancient bike or shank’s pony for my trips around the city.

In early December Ian was taking the short ride on an EMT bus, Valencia’s metropolitan bus services provided by the city council, from near the centre of the city to the port. Usually a non-event of a ten-minute ride, this one kept Ian dubiously entertained, because during the whole of the time, the bus driver was sending text messages. At first Ian took a few photos, fortunately with time and date coding, but then realised that these could prove when it happened but not that the bus was actually in motion at the time. Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, he was able to able to make a video recording using his mobile, which shows clearly that the driver has his mobile phone in his hand and is intermittently looking down at it while touching the screen with the forefinger of his right hand.

Ian is obviously a much more tranquil short of chap than I am. I’d have been screaming and shouting what a dangerous pillock the driver was, but Ian simply went on recording.

Concerned at just how incredibly dangerous texting while driving is, even if you are driving your own car, never mind a public bus down one of Valencia’s busiest streets, he tried to contact EMT to complain. All he could get was a formulaic contact page asking for the usual name, address etc., and the reason for his complaint. Amazingly enough, someone from EMT did contact him by phone but showed no interest at all about seeing either the photos or the video, although they obviously were more concerned about him than he thought, because just before Christmas they sent him a Christmas greeting, sending their best wishes for 2013, which just goes to show how considerate people can be. Sadly, they still hadn’t done or said anything about Ian’s video, so he sent it to me.

After three weeks of silence, a mere nine minutes after I received Ian’s email he received one from Maria Carmen Álvarez López, Responsable de Atención al Cliente at EMT, which suggests that either his emails are being monitored or serendipity does exist after all. Sra. Álvarez had written to say that an enquiry was going to take place into his complaint.

Being a fair-minded sort of chap, (although rarely if it has anything to do with Valencia Town Hall), I phoned Sra. Álvarez at the number on her email. I spoke to young girl named Amparo, who refused to give her surname as it is the company’s policy not to do so, and seemed vague as to who the supposed Responsable was. I accept my Spanish accent isn’t perfect, but how many ways can you say Maria Carmen Álvarez without someone finally clicking who you’re asking for. Eventually Ms. Amparo thought on her feet enough to say that Álvarez wasn’t there, and when I asked when she would be, I was told that they didn’t know because she was having a few days off. Could I speak to a manager then please? No, I couldn’t because they didn’t take phone calls and would only accept written communication. Given that it was a very serious complaint, could I please leave my phone number for someone –  anyone – to call me back to discuss it. No they couldn’t, because they didn’t take phone calls and would only accept written communication. I could see a brick wall appearing for me to bang my head on.

So the result so far is that a concerned citizen made a video recording of an extremely dangerous act perpetrated a driver on a public bus on a busy main road, and despite saying that they are going to open an enquiry into said act the driver’s employees haven’t even asked for the photos and videos, never mind seen them, which makes you wonder how any serious complaint can be investigated – or is this going to be a typical Valencian whitewash?

But there again, given the amount of cuts and raised fares that EMT is undertaking, perhaps the driver was just applying for another job, and why not use his bosses time to do it in?

One semi-amusing point in an otherwise serious topic, the bus number in which Ian was riding was 7001, which is the International Standards Office number for Public Information Symbols. As no doubt we would all like to know when a complete fool of a bus driver is sending text messages while driving, I wonder what the symbol for that would be? Suggestions, rude or otherwise, gratefully accepted.

 

With thanks to Ian Nicol for permission to use this photo and video. (You can follow Ian on Twitter at @einspain.)

Please visit my new website, Spain Uncovered, to read recent articles and blogs.

Even the mules give way

December 27, 2012

View through ambulance windscreen of winding mountain road above Imlil, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco

A few days ago we heard the sad news of the death of Habiba Amelou, a baby little more than a month old, whose small body couldn’t cope with a winter freeze in the Middle Atlas Mountains. Many of the villages in the area are extremely remote, with sometimes little access to medical help. Imlil, a village in the High Atlas Mountains, the Association Bassins d’Imlil, a local association covering the seven villages of the Imlil Valley, have made a major difference in the medical services of their area.

 

In the remote, and even not so remote villages of the High Atlas Mountains, medical assistance of any kind is rarely close to hand. Because of this there have been a number of deaths over the years, particularly during childbirth, due to lack of transport to Asni, the nearest town with a maternity clinic, or on to Tahanoute or even Marrakech for more serious cases. One of the most important projects that the Association Bassins d’Imlil has instigated is the provision of an ambulance to reduce these all too avoidable mortalities. The ambulance has been a life-line to many, particularly those in the most remote valleys who might otherwise have to wait many hours for medical assistance. But there is another ‘ambulance’ that receives scant publicity, and fulfils a role that most of us don’t want to think too deeply about. It is a hearse, on call twenty-fours hours a day, seven days a week, just as the regular ambulance is, but, by the nature of its occupants, it fulfils a more discreet service.

The way Abderrahim Ajdaà handles his ambulance as he tackles the hairpin bends of the rough track that zigzags precariously up from Imlil to Armed, the highest and largest of the villages that form the Association Bassins d’Imlil, you would think he was still driving a taxi around the roads of Asni, seventeen kilometres away. After eleven years driving over some of the roughest terrain in North Africa’s highest mountain range, his confidence is built on experience. As it’s my first trip I spend a fair bit of my time concentrating on the Moroccan flag on its stand taped to the dashboard, and try to ignore the sheer slope of the mountainside, so close that I can’t even see the edge of the road from the passenger seat. Every pedestrian, mule, Jeep and truck gives way as the ambulance climbs the narrow road. After all, it may be someone in their family it’s on its way to.

We’re not on a house call or emergency today, but Abderrahim is demonstrating in a practical way his daily round. The road ends at a flat area of rough ground, where the Reyara River bubbles and sparkles languidly before picking up pace on its way down into the Imlil Valley below. Across an almost non-existent ford is Armed, a village of almost two thousand souls, and Abderrahim points out the pharmacy, closed for the last eight years due to lack of money.

If a helicopter is needed for a mountain rescue on Jbel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, this is where it lands, on a piece of flat land beside the river, with the patient being transferred to Abderrahim’s ambulance for the onward journey down the mountain to Asni or Marrakech. But ‘flat’ doesn’t mean ‘smooth’; the uneven surface makes for a rocky and tricky landing. When the river is in flood – and people shouldn’t be on the mountain anyway – there is nowhere for the helicopter to land, and Abderrahim has to gather a team of villagers to bring the injured down by stretcher.

In more general medical situations Abderrahim takes the first call. His main work is ferrying expectant mothers to the maternity clinic in Asni, or the hospitals in Tahanoute or Marrakech to give birth. One person is allowed to travel with the patient in the rear of the ambulance. The next most common is attending accidents, mainly motor accidents, where he’s often first on the scene, even before the police arrive. Abderrahim has been trained in first aid, but the ambulance has limited equipment and if he thinks the patient needs a nurse or doctor they will be taken to the clinic at Imlil. The resident nurse, Hamid Asbayo, calls the doctor if necessary, and the patient can be treated there. If there are complications, Abderrahim makes the sixty kilometre drive to the hospital in Marrakech.

When the Association Bassins de Imlil put forward the idea of buying a hearse in 2010, Hassan Bouyenbaden volunteered to be its driver; on call day-in, day-out, just as Abderrahim is. When Abderrahim is unavailable to drive the regular ambulance, Hassan steps in, but most of his clients are at the opposite end of their life-cycle to those of his fellow driver. At fatal road accidents, he is required to attend with the police, bagging the body and removing it to the morgue in Marrakech. Fortunately this kind of situation is quite rare, and the majority of the people he transports have died of natural causes. For those from the villages of the valley who die in Marrakech, Hassan collects the body from the hospital so that the deceased can be buried in his or her homeland.

Most of the inhabitants of the locality are strict Muslims, which means that no male outside the family other than medical personnel may touch a woman. Dispensation is also given to Hassan, as he is required to handle the body in order to put it in his ambulance. Sometimes family members are too distraught to deal with the death, and Hassan has to quietly seek help from others for the removal, without overstepping the bounds of propriety. What helps in this situation is that he has lived in the valley all his life, and many of the people he is called to attend were his friends.

“At first it used to upset me, seeing my friends dead, but eventually I came to realise that we all die, and surely it’s better to have a friend attend to you than a stranger. It’s no problem for me now.”

Women will be returned to the home to be ritually washed by their female family and friends, before being enshrouded in white cotton or linen cloth; men will go straight to the mosque, where their male family performs a similar service. Sharia law calls for the burial of the body, usually within twenty-four hours. After prayers at the mosque the deceased will be taken to a cemetery, although not one with headstones and mausoleums a westerner might recognise. In Imlil it is simply a square plot, only distinguished from the rest of the bare hillside by a fence to keep out wandering goats.

The ambulance on a mountain road

A bdellrahim in his Ambulance

Flying the Moroccan flag

High in the High Atlas Mountains

Even the mules give way

Helicopter landing spot

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It may be Christmas but it’s just another day

December 26, 2012

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Christmas may be a big event for some people, but for others it’s just another day of getting on with business.

The green digital clock on the farmacia on Gran Via trips over to 22.00, and a few moments later it tells me that the temperature is 12º. What it doesn’t tell me is that the gentle drizzle of half-an-hour ago has turned into a downpour, so that when I take a photo I have to reverse my baseball cap so the peak doesn’t drip on my camera.

It may be Christmas night, but business goes on, or at least has gone on during the day. The take-away cubby hole on the side of the market is cleaning up, ready for home, but still has a few plastic containers of paella, fideua and pasta left. Everything is cooked fresh daily, and whatever hasn’t been sold by seven in the evening is let go for one euro a portion, a bargain-basement meal during these mean times.

A young indigent who has been wandering the barrio for the last year or so has taken his station outside the take-away. His demons cause him to rant and shout sometimes, occasionally bursting into tears, but he usually just wanders the area quietly or sits in a doorway for hours on end. I’ve never seen him accost anyone or cause the slightest problem, and, somehow or other, he keeps himself very clean. This evening he has stacked his fortune in rows on the narrow outside serving ledge of the take-away, neat rows of one- and two-pence coins piled ten deep. I buy a portion of paella for him, and ask the girl serving for a fork. He may be crazy, but he shouldn’t go hungry.

Around the corner, just beside the entrance to the underground car park, is the laundrette I use every alternate Sunday between two and four, Spanish lunchtime, when I can usually be sure of getting a washing machine. I take a book and a bottle of water, and have always found it an agreeable way to spend an hour, particularly when the sun is shining and I can feel its warmth on my back through the window. This evening a lady and a young girl have caught the last wash at nine-thirty, probably assuming that late Christmas evening will by as busy as I assume Sunday lunchtime will be.

On my way up to Gran Via, the dual carriageway that separates the working class barrio of Ruzafa from the chi-chi barrio of Ensanchez, I watch the manageress of Panaria on Plaza Pare Perera tilling-up. The bakery opened about eight months ago, and is part of a small chain in Valencia that seems to be flourishing on loaves of fancy bread for around three euros. I’m glad we have such upper-crust shops in the barrio, but my bread buying is limited to the anti-crisis barra for twenty centimos from a small stall in Ruzafa Market.

The staff at Panaria may be winding down for the day, but at the Horno de los Borrachos the baker has only just brought his first loaves from the oven. For sixty-one years, the ‘Drunks Oven’ has served bread, cakes, pastries and sandwiches to the vecinos of the barrio, the local residents, drunk or sober, every single night from seven in the evening until seven a.m. without missing a single day. During the main annual fiesta of Fallas they are open twenty-four hours.

Gran Via sparkles with the moving lights of traffic, still busy despite the day and hour. The ornate cast-iron lamps with their yellow globes cast a glow over the glistening pavement – attractive, but as every second one has been disconnected on many streets as a money-saving measure, cyclists complain that the intermitant pools of light are disorientating and dangerous.

Until a year ago the streets at this time of year would be decorated with bright festoons of coloured lights, but this Christmas austerity measures have cut deep. Gone are most of the fanciful decorations, replaced with in-your-face publicity. I can’t help feel that a string of lights advertising one of the national gas companies or a local brand of rice are not exactly in the spirit of Christmas, but there are so few decorations on display this year that I suppose it’s best not to look a gift gas company in the mouth.

As I loop my way home I see Chiu, the owner of the café on the corner of my street where I take my coffee every morning, lowering the damp umbrellas and stacking the chairs and tables. He’ll be back there tomorrow morning at eight, and I’ll arrive a few minutes later. The routine doesn’t change, even if it is Christmas Day.

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MOVING SHOP

November 27, 2012

Thank you for reading my ramblings over the last couple of years.

I haven’t shut up, I’ve just moved address to

SPAIN UNCOVERED

I look forward to seeing you there.

Pakis not wanted!

November 22, 2012

For whatever reason we may be discriminatory in our hearts is a private matter. But open racism – that’s a different thing altogether.

I was wandering home a couple of weeks ago and I passed a sign that said ‘Restaurante Español’. With Valencia being Spain’s third biggest city it might not seem all that strange to see a sign advertising a Spanish restaurant. The sign wasn’t in fancy lettering painted on the window, or neatly written above the door; it was on a piece of A4 paper stuck across a window. The reason the sign is there is because the bar is in one of the streets that run alongside the Estación del Norte, Valencia’s China Town, where about eighty per cent of the bars and restaurants are Chinese-run, including the Bar Restaurante Don Pepe Authentica Comida China. I’m certain there were no racial undertones to the sign, and what he was saying was, ‘I’m a Spanish caff, with Spanish owners and Spanish customers’, although he might not have used those exact words. Ten minutes walk away, though, the story is very different and far more troubling.

Ruzafa is seen as the place to be in Valencia at the moment – it’s la moda, full of new restaurants, bars, galleries and the chi-chi extras that draw the Valencianos and leave the Barrio del Carmen to visitors. It has always been a barrio de toda la vida, a working class neighbourhood that has welcomed immigrants as far back as the time of the Moors around a thousand years ago – although, admittedly, they came as conquerors.

A casual stroll across the barrio, north to south, east to west, will take you all of fifteen minutes, but you would pass through a United Nations mix of cultures, lives and histories, all living side-by-side. Arabs, Chinese, Pakistanis, Italian, Senegalese, Irish, English, Russian, Australian, people from every Latin American and North-European country and pretty much everywhere else besides, happily co-existing with their Spanish neighbours. It’s this diverse population that gives the area its unique feel. In the years I’ve lived here I’ve never heard one single racist comment or seen a racist act – until today.

To read the full story please visit Spain Uncovered. This is my new site where all blogs and articles will be appearing.

Neither flash or dance

September 29, 2012

I spotted a tweet this morning that said that a Flamenco flashmob dancing would take place in Valencia’s Plaza del Virgen at 11.30, which I assumed to be a.m. and not p.m. As far as I was aware, these are supposed to be spontaneous and unpublicised, at least as far as the public is concerned, although, like the opera one that was held in the Mercado Central a few months ago, they take a pretty lot of organising by the flashers and mobbers. But as the tweet came from the hubby of a professional Flamenco dancer and teacher, I assumed he would be in the know, and was simply offering a word to the wise, tipping the wink, as it were. Which supported the old English saying, ‘assume made an ass out of u and me’ – although it makes a lot more sense when said aloud.

So off I went in plenty of time to weigh up the lay of the land and try to find a good spot for a bit of Flamenco flashing. I saw a couple of Valencia’s finest Policia Local wandering around, and under the assumption (there we go again) that even if it the flashing was meant to be a surprise, the organisers would have let on to the police that there was something going on. But they hadn’t, so when the police chappie took out his list of events to happen in the Plaza on that fine morning it didn’t include a load of Flamencoists clapping their hands and stomping their feet. In fact, all that was on his list for this a.m. was that someone was supposed to be erecting a haima at eleven for a presentation for the city of Elche, but as it was well gone the time by then, and there was no sign of a big Arab tent, it looked as though that might be something else that might not be happening.

By 11.15 the Plaza was virtually empty, other than the criss-crossing of guided tour groups from some cruise ships berthed a couple of miles away, passing like trains at Crewe Central Station, careful not to bump into a tour from the competition.

At 11.25 even the tour groups had gone, and I had the feeling that the flashers would be Flamencoing all to themselves, apart from a group of six, dressed-to-the-nines, having a quick drag while waiting for a wedding party, and a small group of people feeding the pigeons.

Eleven-thirty came and went with nothing to show for it, but this being Spain I naturally assumed that it would start late, so I gave it a few minutes. Eleven-thirty-five came and went with not a trace of a clap, and I was hoping that someone from the tour group who were at that moment sauntering from Calle de los Caramelos would suddenly give us a twirl, or that the pretty, blond police lady might throw off her cap, let down her golden locks, and give us a bit of heel clacking. Nada.

Eleven-forty came, and I went, reflecting on the fact that the very reason I’d left Jerez de la Frontera after only five months of residence was that I couldn’t stand the bloody Flamenco caterwauling I was subjected to day-in-day-out, so why the hell had I come looking for it!

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, Derek Workman, and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

Therapist, heal thyself

September 27, 2012

A couple of days ago I was out for another gallivant on my bike around Valencia. (In an interview with El Mundo newspaper last year I embarrassingly referred to it as my ‘Rocinante’, but there you go, we all make an arse of ourselves sometimes.) I was lost in the streets at the northern end of the city when I saw a shop front with the words Crash Therapy plastered across the roll-down shutter. It being Saturday afternoon, when in most other countries everywhere is open, and this being Spain, where even shop owners think they deserve Saturday afternoons off, the place was closed. Ahh…nice to know the world financial crisis isn’t hurting everyone.

Anyway…Crash Therapy. I couldn’t help wonder what it is. Is it therapy from when you’ve had a shunt in the motor? Or maybe it’s one of those catch-alls that means a crash course in therapy, a sticking plaster for all that ails you? Hmmmmm….

Over my decades I’ve experienced a number of therapies – in a purely journalistic way, you understand. I’m no nutter, it was all a matter of research so that I could pass on my experiences to those who actually were nutters, or those with ‘emotional difficulties’ as I should probably more correctly say, to avoid discriminating against the poor souls who need a shoulder to sob on and the (occasional) weirdos who bamboozled them and charge large rolls of the folding stuff for the pleasure of doing so – theirs not the suffering nutter’s.

One of the weirdest – and, frankly, the stupidest – therapies I came across was laughter therapy, a therapy so devoid of any natural humour that it is as much akin to a jolly good giggle as gouging out eyeballs is to giving you better night vision. We were encouraged to try the Lion Laughter, where you stick your tongue out and hold your hands like claws , No Money Laughter, which I should be pretty good at but as far as I’m concerned is no laughing matter at all, and, my favourite, Stick Your Arse in the Air and Feel Like a Total Twat Because That’s What You Look Like Laughter, and no, you won’t find a video about it, but it would sum up the whole friggin stupidity of Laughter Therapy.

The nearest I came to any short of crash in a therapy wasn’t so much a ‘crash’ as a bit of a thump. Gestalt Therapy is, according to Edwin Nevis “a conceptual and methodological base from which helping professionals can craft their practice”. No idea who he is, but he must be clever because I don’t understand a bloody word he said. Anyway, as far as my (thankfully very brief) experience of Gestalt went, the therapist leading the group sat a volunteer who was feeling intense anger at a family member in a chair facing another chair, on which a cushion sat. The cushion represented the person the volunteer was angry at, and they were directed to vent their anger at the poor, harmless piece of stuffing. As they were encouraged to let their emotions flow the anger poured out, along with a lot of spittle, even to the point of grabbing the cushion and punching it. We were told that this was to allow us to bring up past hurts and get them out without doing any actual physical damage to ourselves or our anger recipients so that we could face them and calmly say what we felt to ease our pain. This may have been the intention, but by the time we finished there were a few of those who had had a good pillow shouting experience bobbing about on their toes like a prize fighter at the beginning of a championship bout, ready to go out and give someone a bloody good smack. From moderately peaceful they had gone to raging bulls, and, as has often been my experience with therapies, were let out on the world with this new life experience without being prepared properly and without any support, unless, of course, they wanted to shell out the readies for a proper – and probably very long – course of treatment.

But I’ve wandered off Crash Therapy.

When I checked online I found a place used more for a ‘fun and feisty’ way of letting off steam than dealing with the lost inner child. It took me back to my youthful days in Manchester at the Kosmos Restaurant in Fallowfield where, if you booked a birthday celebration, you could indulge in the ancient Greek wedding tradition of smashing plates. (It’s also said that the tradition comes from when two lovers had to part. They would break a plate in half so they could match them together when they met years later. Have you ever tried to break a plate in half? It shatters into a dozen pieces – a bit like most of my relationships, come to think of it.)

You are stuck in a soundproof room, dressed in a boiler suit and safety visor and given the free rein of various destructive instruments such as hammers and baseball bats to give some whelly to twenty-five everyday items, including computers, printers, bottles and crockery, to the accompaniment of whatever music gets you in the smashable mood. The basic fee is €20, but for another tenner you get thirty-five pieces of destructables. (Although, frankly, the girl in the video doesn’t seem to handle bottles too well.) When all lies in ruins around you, you rest in a Zen room for post-smash chill-out, and you get a DVD of your smashing time as a souvenir. What a welcome break from the daily sanitised grind, and I’ll be back their toot sweet to relive my Manchester youth.

As far as I’m concerned, therapies and therapists are worth every dig they get, but oh! I do wish I could have come up with this, the best ever piss-take of therapists I’ve ever come across.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, Derek Workman, and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

It pays to have a guru on your side

September 6, 2012

 

I’ve often felt as if I was spitting in the wind as far as writing about the corrupt state of the Valencian government and the so-called ‘grand events’ and ‘iconic architecture’ of the city is concerned, at least in the English language. It’s well known about and often discussed among expats, but mostly any of the nicely nasty stuff is only reported in the Spanish press, and not always in any depth.

Yesterday was party time as far as I was concerned, when I joined a group on the ‘Ruta del Despilfarro’, the Route of Waste, which wasn’t a wander around landfills and rubbish tips, but a tour organised by Xarxa Urbana a collective of ‘street journalists’ (a title new to me) who show the fiscal and corrupt black holes of the city, from rampant over-costs of the emblematic buildings to the ‘disappeared’ EU money that was supposed to wipe out the use of portacabins as classrooms, or even complete schools. What we saw was the tip of the iceberg, but even what we did see justifies their comment that “the Valencian region is a byword for corruption in Spain”.

Plenty of us have known this and agreed with Xarxa Urbana long before we even heard of them but the ‘spitting in the wind’ was getting nowhere with the the hard-faced ne’er-do-wells of either the Town Hall, under the vice like grip of Mayores Rita Barberá (who makes Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher look like a purring little pussy cat), and the Generalitat, the regional government headed by Alberto Fabra, who’s probably wishing that Francisco Camps, his predecessor, hadn’t sold his soul for a couple of handmade suits, a minor part of the Caso Gürtel, the biggest nationwide corruption case since the death of Franco, and had had to resign before he ended up in court. (He won the case by a margin of one vote, which prompted the reaction of, “Yeah…and what did you expect!” from almost everyone except the sycophants of the Partido Popular, who both Lovely Rita and Camps represent.)

Xarxa Urbana have run these trips before, and are getting international coverage, but what must have been a painful poke in the eye for the Town Hall was that this time the jolly little outing was being covered by the BBC and, in the words of ABC an ulta-rightwing daily rag, in ‘the presence of Paul Mason, one of the stars of the BBC and guru of British economic information’, who just happens to be Economics Editor for Newsnight, in Spain recording for a special about our beleaguered country to be broadcast in Ocotober.

ABC’s headline ‘Colectivos vecinales cobran por desprestigiar a la Comunidad ante la BBC’ showed their disgust that the group were charging attendees four euros to ‘discredit’ the Valencian region in front of the BBC, but with every one of it’s fifty-five seats full, no-one appeared to be reticent about their reasons for being there – to learn more about the squandering of our money by the cowboys and cowgirls in charge of our city and regional governance. And many of those on the tour had their own stories to tell of political double-dealing and flim-flam.

As well as taking in the City of Arts and Sciences, and other ‘black holes’, the tour visited the port, re-christened Puerto Americas Cup in honour of the prestigious sailing event the city hosted in 2007. Now here’s a bag full of worms. As part of the contract to hold the race, Valencia Town Hall rebuilt the berths, put in a new access canal, built all the workshops and offices needed by the competitors – multi-millions of euros or our money, the total of which still hasn’t been full added up on Rita’s abacus – and then gave the whole lot, kit-and-caboodle to Alinghi the then current champions and hosts of the event. That’s right, not loaned, not rented – gave! They eventually got it back via the courts, but have since done nothing at all with it, despite it being right alongside Malvarosa, the most popular beach in Valencia.

The highlight for me was when we arrived at the port and the BBC crew began filming. A jobs-worth watchman came over and told us that no filming was allowed as it was private property owned by the ‘Consorcio’, and we’d have to leave. By this I can only assume he meant the Consorcio Valencia 2007, a private company set up for the America’s Cup under the administration of the Spanish government, regional government and the City of Valencia, in other words, a company run by taxpayers representatives with money paid from public funds. So, logically speaking, we were being thrown off our own land by someone whose wages we paid.

No-one moved, so dogsbody whistled up the heavier brigade, who arrived in his fancy lettered 4×4 (nothing more than showing off as Valencia is totally flat), a shiny leather belt with military-style gismos hanging from it, (although fortunately, no gun) and wrap-around shades.  We were duly unimpressed, which didn’t sit well with him. When he asked one of the associates of Xarxa Urbana for his identification he was informed that as he wasn’t the police he had no rights to ask for anything.

One thing you don’t do, though, is come the heavy in front of a camera crew, and it was pretty obvious  by the size of the camera and the pole mic hanging over Paul Mason’s head that this was no home movie in the making. As the semi-heavy continued playing the big boy I heard Mason say to camera, “Well, as you can see, the police have arrived to move us on.”

“Now that,” I thought, “is one clip that won’t end up on the cutting room floor!”

 I suspect there is going to be a lot more where this came from.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site,  Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.