Flowing red under the hot summer sun

August 29, 2012

The narrow streets run deep red in the blistering mid-day sun as twenty five thousand sweat-soaked, semi-naked combatants fight hand-to-hand, or hurl their missiles into the surging rosé stained crowd.

From the first gun, battlers from Argentina, Italy, Japan, Germany and all points of the globe will join with those from the four corners of Spain in sixty minutes worth frantic warfare, which will result in no more serious injury than the occasional bruised ego. 

It’s not blood that flows, it’s the sodden pulp of tomatoes – 140 tons of them. In a country that has more weird fiestas than America has ‘howdy-doody’ theme parks, Buñol’s Tomatina must be one of the weirdest.

At least the town doesn’t try to claim that the slinging of over-ripe fruit has any deeply hidden religious significance, but is the result, as one of the many stories of its origin goes, of an early form of karaoke. 

In the nineteen forties a resident of the town was wandering across the square in front of the town hall on market day singing – badly –  ‘Amada Mio’ from the Rita Hayworth film, ‘Gilda’, using a funnel as a megaphone. Shoppers and stall-holders alike objected to his raucous rendition and began to pelt him with fruit, and as some of it missed the intended target and hit other promenaders, a salad battle soon filled the square.

The following year a local civic dignitary was in the wrong place at the wrong time and found himself the centre of unwanted attention as youths gathered in the square (this time with their own tomatoes) to celebrate what was already becoming known as ‘the day of the tomato’.

Through bannings, prison sentences, public uprisings and even a parade for the ‘funeral of the tomato’, when a giant fruit was paraded through the town as a demonstration against yet another clampdown on their bizarre celebration, the people of Buñol fought to keep their annual mush fest.

On the dot of eleven on the last Wednesday in August, a single shot gives the signal for the group of men roped to the insides of enormous wagons full of ripe tomatoes to heave their rapidly decaying cargoes onto the eager crowd cramming the Plaza del Pueblo, the main square of Buñol. 

The orgy of squashing and slinging begins as an avalanche of tomatoes are gathered up and hurled around the square. For an hour the crowd, dressed in the robes of bhuddist monks, wearing huge Mexican sombreros, luminous waistcoats, and any other outrageous outfit it deems suitable for the occasion, slithers in the bright red slush, until on the last chime of twelve a second shot is fired and the exhausted throwers sink wearily into the puree.

They don’t get long to settle though, before a swarm of town hall staff, volunteers and neighbours swoop down on them with hose-pipes, buckets and brooms. While the worn out revellers drag themselves to the showers in the Municipal swimming pool, the Plaza del Pueblo is scrubbed spotless in less than an hour. Picture a strip of tomato burnt onto edge of a pizza, and then imagine what a hundred and forty tons of the stuff would do if left to dry in the scorching August sun.

 

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.

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Mangling the language

August 28, 2012

 

One of the banes of a journalist’s life is that there is always someone willing to prove you wrong. Usually I don’t enter into the debate, accepting that everyone has a right to their say even if it’s contrary to mine. It’s not their fault that they are wrong. But I made an exception to the rule a short while ago when someone sent an email to a local magazine I’d written an article for about Spanglish. Contrary to what you might think, this is being recognised as a genuine developing linguistic form, and the article was a serious attempt to explain the current situation, backed up by research and reasoned argument stolen from elsewhere. But there is always one dickhead, isn’t there, and in this case he’s called Northill.

The basis of Mr Northill’s letter is that my article was uninformed and contrived, being that it did not deal with the hybrid ‘language’ used by the ex-patriot community on the Costa Blanca, something he quite correctly describes as ‘a bastardised conglomeration’ – unfortunately about the only point we agree on. If Mr Northill had read my article in a less deprecating manner he would have noticed that, virtually from the beginning, I say that the Spanglish currently in use in the US is forming the basis on what may or may not become an accepted language in the dim and distant future, just as Yiddish is an amalgamation of a number of north European languages and dialects but eventually became recognised as a language in its own right. In fact, there are a mere thimbleful of languages that aren’t and conglomeration of something else.

The article never refers to the manglings of Spanish used by many European residents in Spain and was never intended to. If it helps them get by, all well and good, but I don’t think it can be equated with the content of my article, which was trying to explain the gestation of a possible new language and not the chomping of the linguistically inept.

I’m sorry my research did not satisfy his rigid criteria. Unfortunately I don’t have such a person as his good old barman friend from Todmorden, currently being ‘mine host’ in Calpe, as a font of idiomatic study who he quoted as saying “Quiero un fat lippio?’ when threatening an overly boisterous customer, and translated it into ‘Would you like a smack in the mouth?’ I’m sure even Mr Northill has enough knowledge of the Spanish language to know that ‘Quiero’ refers to the person speaking so his friend was actually asking for a smack in the mouth! Correct me by all means Mr Northill, but please make sure your own examples aren’t rubbish before you do so.  Sadly, while researching my article all I had access to was a Professor of Spanish at Amherst College in America who is an authority on Spanglish, and a journalist colleague, Alex Johnson, one-time editor of the Madrid-based magazine The Broadsheet who, before he unfortunately had to return to England, wrote widely and wonderfully on all things Spanish. Incidentally, I also referred to the work of one of Spain’s most noted Hispanicists, Tom Burns, as part of my research. Unfortunately it would seem that the combined knowledge of these three gentlemen is as nothing to Mr Northill’s pal from Todmorden. I will inform said professor immediately that his attempts to codify and classify Spanglish are mere gobbledygook and, to quote Mr Northill’s rather sad and unnecessarily insulting comment, ‘a load of old cobblers”. I am sure the professor will desist his labours forthwith.

I have no wish to enter into a debate with Mr Northill or a diatribe against him. I bow to his vastly greater knowledge of the idiomatic mumblings of the foreign residents on the Costa Blanca. But that is not Spanglish, Mr Northill, especially the rather crude examples you give. That is the corruption of an elegant language to cater to an individual’s linguistic inabilities. A far different kettle of palabras.

But Mr Northill’s comments did make me think of something that hadn’t crossed my mind for years, something, for want of a better phrase, I called Aggreviated English.

My first experience of ‘Aggreviated English’ came from our local fruit and veg delivery man, but before I tell you about his particular form of ‘aggreviation’, let me explain just what the term means. It’s not simply an abbreviation of the language, nor is it just an aggravation; it’s a combination of both, an abbreviation which aggravates – hence ‘aggreviation’. It’s probably a lot simpler to give an example than enter into a linguistic discourse.

When I was a boy living on a council estate just outside Newcastle-on-Tyne, Jimmy Ball delivered the fruit and veg on an old cart pulled by a tired old dobbin called Trudi. Jimmy could be heard approaching because of his call, starting as low growl in the throat but ending with a high pitched bellow – ‘Hurookinapperyetomarays’. It never occurred to anyone to ask what he was actually saying, we just recognised it as Jimmy’s call and went to fetch the canvas bag we kept the vegetables in. I probably wouldn’t know even now had I not seen Jimmy sitting over a pint in the local pub, a few years after he retired, by which time I’d acquired enough teenage confidence to ask him what he’d been shouting all those years. He seemed genuinely surprised that I should ask.

By then my ear was becoming attuned to the simpler forms of aggreviation; the rag-and-bone man’s ‘Raaagbo’, starting loud and dropping rapidly, ending on an abrupt ‘o’; the newspaper vendor for the Evening Chronicle who had a strange hiccuping sound in the middle of his ‘Roooonico-o’, but Jimmy’s was much more prolonged and intriguing. The phrase he’d been spouting as he travelled around our streets for almost three decades, totally unaware that no-one understood a word of what he was saying, was ‘Cooking apples, ripe tomatoes’. Not the most earth shattering of pronouncements, but I was glad to have found out at last.

As a further example of this new discovery in lexicography, where does the ‘H’ go when Essex man drops it? I can tell you. It packs its bag and heads North up the A1 to be welcomed with open arms by the Geordie Pub Singer, where it joins forces with ‘A’, as in ‘hat’, to add a whole new set of sounds to the muzakal repertoire. Frank Sinatra’s classic ‘My Way’ now begins ‘Hen nowa, hthe time is neara, hits time to face the final curtayna.’ A further aggreviation is added if the singer is a devotee of the late Nat King Cole. Nat was renowned for stretching the vowels in his songs, so that ‘Blue Moon’ became ‘Bluuue Moooon’; perfectly acceptable when he sang, and in keeping with the tune, but when the GPS tries to Cole it he has neither the vocal dexterity of the ‘King’ or the breath control. Sinatra’s classic now becomes ‘Hen nowaaaaaaaa, hthe time is nearaaaaaaa, hits time to face the final curtaynaaaaaaaaaa.’ with a wavering warble in the final ‘aaa’s’ as he runs out of breath. (There is a Southern version of this syndrome where the ‘h’ and the ‘a’ are replaced by ‘hu’ pronounced as the ‘u’ in ‘gut’. Thus – ‘Hutake me to the moonu, an let me play humong the starzu.’)

These days there are dictionaries available for every form of terminology, so why not an Aggreviations–English Dictionary. For example, ‘Knava, k’nava, please may I have……..’,  it could include regional variations ‘Divnaa, div’naa, (Northeast), I don’t know.’, ‘Issmecompuo, Iss’me’compu’o (Manchester), it is my computer.’ It could lead to a whole new world of understanding. Or, more likely, it would lead to a whole new world of aggression when we realised exactly what it was someone had said to us. As a working class character in a television play once said, after suffering a diatribe from a haughty upper class bit of totty, ‘Sorry darlin’ I didn’t understand the insult.’ Perhaps it’s better that way.

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.

Moving the goalposts

August 26, 2012

(Translation below)

A couple of weeks ago in The Scratch Olympics I wrote about how sad it was that the Valencian city council was closing or blocking access to sports fields and areas of disused land that people were using for relaxation, while the multi-million-euro white elephants the Town Hall had built in a promotional frenzy now lay dead and deteriorating.

One of the groups I’d spoken about in The Scratch Olympics was a gathering of Latinos who used a disused section of road as a volleyball court. In their parsimonious wisdom the council had placed enormous concrete blocks across the road, effectively blocking access and moving on the people who had used the patch of waste land as a weekend sports ground. But you can’t keep folks down, and on my regular bike ride around the city this evening I saw a great example of simply ‘moving the goalposts’.

Within a ball’s throw of the City of Arts and Sciences, the flagship of Valencian architecture and tourism, now known by the acronym CACSA but more honestly labelled by its former abbreviation of CAC  is the huerto, the market gardens that used to supply much of the city’s vegetables, but are now used more for private consumption. There were also a number of small factories at one time, now not much more than the odd half demolished wall and patch of rubble-strewn wasteland.

A modest stroll from CAC is a tarmacked area that would probably at one time have done service as a car park for a small factory. This isn’t particularly difficult to divine, given that it still as the ghost of white lines marking car parking bays, and half-a-dozen larger yellow-lined ones to accommodate lorries. Of the building there is nothing, other than a dog-leg length of wall about two metres high and fifteen long. The shorter right-hand wall would seem to have done service as a kitchen in a past incarnation because a three-metre length has at one time been covered in white ceramic tiles, most of which are either missing now or heavily graffitied. Sticking out from this wall is a waist-high section about half-a-metre deep, also tiled, so we can assume it was a work surface of some description.

At around eight-thirty this evening, with a (thankfully) cool breeze wafting the patches of weeds surrounding the car park, I watched a fast and furious game of four-a-side volleyball, the two teams differentiated by the way that uniform-less teams have done for generations – one team played stripped to the waist while the other kept their T-shirts on. Whereas there had only been room for one net on the disused road, here there were two, both with courts carefully outlined. Along one section of the wall was the breeze-block and plank bleachers, probably brought from the last spot, and on it sat a mixed group of males and females and all sorts of ages, barracking and cheering their respective teams.

On the kitchen worktop, four ladies in pinnies hustled between two two-ring Calor gas burners with great pans of something steaming away, and a plank-topped trestle table where the ingredients were being prepared. An old chest freezer, its rusted top covered with a length of plastic table cloth, tied around with string to keep it in place, made grace as a table, and an assortment of leprositic old chairs and empty plastic crates made up the seating. Three ten-litre cool boxes made a perfectly acceptable bar.

A dumpy lady from the ‘kitchen’ waddled over to the referee with a packet held in her hands, a paper cone with a fork sticking out. She handed the fork to the ref and he took a stab at the cone’s contents, sampled it and handed the fork to a compadre at his side, who did the same. Whatever it was obviously passed muster because the cook waddled back to the kitchen with a smile.

The game kept on, even as the evening started to fade, and I wandered off on my bike wearing a smile, happy in the knowledge that someone had given the finger to Rita Barberá and her misery-guts cronies at the Town Hall, and had simply got on with enjoying themselves in these trying times. And I suspect that if the gaping hole in the fence that allows them access is wired up they’ll simply move on somewhere else…and somewhere else….and somewhere else.

(Translation: No, not prohibiting someone from peeing on your spaghetti, Mexican Spanish for ‘Prohibited, walking on the grass,’ a sign put up to stop some kids playing volleyball, so they blocked the street and played there.)

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.

Reach out to me

August 25, 2012

One of the greatest joys of the English language is that it is in constant state of flux. It always has been and, hopefully, always will be, at least so long as we don’t have an English equivalent of the Académie Française or the Real Academia Española, who wiggle their fingers around in the linguistic pot, trying to scoop out anything that might offend their dear-heart sensibilities as regards the purity of their language.

I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by texting shorthand such as ‘c u 4 t’, although I suspect that anyone who uses shortcuts on a regular basis is never likely to want to meet for tea, me or anyone else. (If you want to know just how complex this lingo can be, have a look at http://www.netlingo.com/acronyms.php/) It gets worse when they come to you in a language you don’t understand. I received one that signed off with ‘B7’ – a total blank as far as I was concerned until a Valenciano-speaking friend explained that beset is Valenciano for the Spanish word beso, a kiss, the number seven in Spainish is siete, therefore B7=beset=kiss. Not much of a shortcut if I had to get it explained to me.

So no, I don’t have anything particularly against text shorthand just so long as no-one uses it with me. What does bug me, though, is the way that our language is being changed by using totally false intimacy throughout the internet, which, far from actually creating any form of friendliness or confidence is succeeding in doing nothing but really getting my back up.

A couple of days ago I had to write to bitly.com, the file-shorting website, because I wasn’t able to paste the urls I needed to shorten into the box provide. I explained what my problem was and had an email back from a young lady who shall remain nameless, asking a series of question so that she could help me resolve the problem. I answered them in as much detail as I could. When she replied she did so with an introduction that I’ve been getting for a while now on emails from ‘across the pond’, which I dearly wish they would keep there. Below is my reply.

Hi.

Nothing has changed. You just told me to do exactly what I said I’d been doing in my first email but without success. The link won’t paste. I’ll use the keyboard or another file shortening system.

One question though. Why do so Americans now reply to an email by saying, “Thanks for reaching out,” whether I’ve simply sent an email or made an enquiry. I haven’t ‘reached out’, I’ve simply sent an email or made an enquiry. It’s almost as if I’ve put out a begging bowl asking for alms. What on earth is wrong with simply saying, “Thanks for your email”, which is perfectly friendly and doesn’t treat the recipient as if they are lesser in some way because they have to ‘reach out’ for help? It’s another case of false intimacy, like calling people who answer online questions, ‘Happiness Engineers’. Happiness has nothing to do with it, they are simply people trained to answer questions and help resolve problems, perfectly acceptable and important, but they do not provide happiness, they simply set themselves up for ridicule.

Sadly, ‘reaching out’ didn’t do me a lot of good because, as I said above, and despite sending all the information you asked for, you just told me to do exactly what I said I’d been doing when I ‘reached out’ in my first email, but without success.

Regards,

Derek

The ‘Happiness Engineer’ is in relation to an enquiry I sent to WordPress about a problem I had. To be fair, the answer I received did resolve the problem, but it was the ending that got me. The charming lady who helped me signed herself off as a ‘Happiness Engineer’, a term that I find particularly nauseating, (see above). This was my email to her, and her reply.

Thank you, I’ve done that.

 Whoever thought of the title Happiness Engineer? Don’t you feel embarrassed by it? It’s one of these awful examples of having to say something different when it really isn’t necessary. It’s like someone saying ‘Thank you for reaching out to me,’ when you sent them an email. I didn’t reach out to them, I sent them an email. It’s as if I held up a begging bowl. What’s wrong with good old ‘Technician’ and ‘Thank you for your email’?

You’re welcome, Derek, and no I’m not embarrassed at all.  I don’t know who thought of the name.  But as cheesy as it might sound, it means more to me than just “tech.”  Most people here have non-standard job titles.  It’s just a part of the culture — and if you ever meet an Automattician in person, you’ll see the titles fit.  You might check out a local WordCamp to see what I mean.  (http://central.wordcamp.org/ )

A couple of points here. The company who set up WordPress, and offer a whole lot of other software, is called Automattic, and it would seem that anyone who works for it is called an Automattician. I don’t remember anyone ever being called a Woolworthician, or a Marks and Spenserician, or, coming even more up to date, a Googleician, (although if they cotton on to Automattic it might not be far off). I suppose it could be a play on ‘mathematician’, but if it is I’d rather they played with something else.

I had a look at the site  suggested, and was reminded of nothing more than the happy-clappy, save your soul, be the bestest person you can be sort of events I went to a few times years ago, when you could say I was more open minded – although I’d say I was more brainwashed and easily influenced. You could see that the attendees were just the sort of people who would love being called ‘Happiness Engineers’ and be every so glad you ‘reached out to them’, and I’ll be forever grateful for the wonderful work they do to make life easier for me, digitally speaking, even if I do find their language more Klingon than comprehensible.

But please, stop destroying my beautiful language with your inane attempts at being my pal. I’m not asking you to use the language of Shakespeare because, to be quite frank, I don’t understand him and I think it’s vastly over-rated. But answer my emails without assuming I’m ‘reaching out’ to you, and realise that by calling yourself a Happiness Engineer you are more likely to be taken for a red-nosed clown than for someone intelligent who might be able to help me resolve a problem.

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.

A real load of old CAC

August 11, 2012

In the noncommital, typically prevaricating politician’s way, Alberto Fabra, President of the Valencian Community, said that while they haven’t had any concrete offers to buy the City of Arts and Sciences, they will consider serious proposals. You would think that a city as drowning in debt as Valencia is would snatch the hand off anyone even slightly interested in taking control of a  skeletal white elephant that has been haemorrhaging money since the day it was conceived.

There is no doubt that the City of Arts and Sciences is a stunning complex, a series of futuristic buildings, gardens and large pools, but as a science museum it is about as much use as a plastic baking tin, full of tedious and tatty exhibitions that occasionally inform but rarely enthral. (Known by the acronym CACSA these days, it was originally referred to by the more simple CAC, which adequately describes the museum, given that it is a load of shit.) I was asked to write an article about the best places in Valencia about six years ago and tried to get a quote about CAC from a friend in the tourist office. She wouldn’t give me one, and neither would anyone else there because they were all embarrassed about the appalling exhibitions that were the norm, and were receiving increasing volumes of complaints on a daily basis – and nothing has changed.

To be fair, they got one thing right, the catering for private events is some of the best in the city, and until the recent collapse of the economy was about the only thing they made money on. A few years ago I was invited to the launch of Mike Oldfield’s 97th version of Tubular Bells, a major digital release that took you to cartoon worlds where you could navigate your way at the touch of a button, all the while accompanied by the tingly-jangly of digitalised metal tubes. Hundreds of the great and good of the music industry, and, this being Valencia, their brothers, sisters, boyfriends and girlfriends out for a free meal, gathered in the IMAX cinema in the Hemisferic. Seven minutes into the show the modem supplied by the museum feeding the complex mixing desk where Oldfield reigned shut down, and despite the composer’s fuming and blaspheming wouldn’t kick off again. I didn’t care, as far as I was concerned it was a load of CAC anyway.

If the museum was gutted and simply used as a party space (a couple of years ago they gave permission for weddings to be held there) it would be of no great loss to the city, and at least Valencia would still have the emblematic structure that it punts worldwide to show what a funky, hip, now sort of place it is … yay, bro, and all that. But what has been increasingly getting up the nostrils of both locals and opposition politicians alike is the vast losses that we residents are funding, not to mention the catastrophic over-costs that the Town Hall and the regional government and have been playing down for years.

Inevitably, trying to unearth a true cost for the project, which includes the Hemisferic, Museu de les Ciències Príncipe Felipe, l’Umbracle, the, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, and latterly, the Agora and Pont de l’Assut de l’Or bridge, is a bit of a lucky dip, and sources vary, but it is said that the final cost, by the time the Agora is finally, if ever, finished, will be 1,300million euros – thirty times Santiago Calatrava’s original bid.

Okay, I can accept that some of the increase has gone on new projects that Calatrava only had vague ideas about when he first put his designs forward, (and despite public acclaim, he was only one of the designers, the other being Félix Candela from Madrid – it’s like people thinking Raymond Loewy designed the Coca Cola bottle; he didn’t, and despite never actually saying he did himself he never denied it either, and people believed the myth for years). However, in 2008, Jose Luis Villanuevo, Director General of Projects for the Town Hall, claimed that the overpayments were because the architects – without actually mentioning Calatrava by name – had to make modifications to the project. Some modifications! And there’s been a certain reticence until lately to admit that the original agreement gave that nice Sr. Calatrava the right to charge a percentage of the finished costs. He’s already been bunged 94 million euros – more than twice his original bid for the whole project, fees, building and all. How much will his final bill be?

Rumour has it that those long stairways at either end of the science museum were one of those ‘modifications’ because dear old Cally forgot to include fire escapes and slapped them on only after being forced to do so by the fire authorities

Sadly, Calatrava has become a bit of a one-trick pony – and a dangerous one at that. His design for the l’Assut de l’Or bridge that links both sides of the riverbed between the Oceanogràfic and the Agora, has such a severe rake that you can’t see any traffic on the opposite side and whether the traffic lights are on red or green. There has already been one death attributed to this shortcoming. Murcia city council has just had to fork out 60,000 euros to lay a non-slip surface on the Calatrava-designed bridge between the barrios of Vistabella and Infante Juan Manuel, because of the number of people falling on their arses when it rains. Bilbao had to do the same with the Zubi Zuri bridge, also designed by Valencia’s favourite son.

Favourite son of Valencia Santiago Calatrava may be, but he makes sure the city of his birth and the one that has handed him enormous quantities of greenbacks over the years doesn’t see a centimo in return from him. His official residence is in Switzerland therefore denying the Spanish government of millions of euros in IVA, and it might be nice if he handed back the two million he trousered from the farce of the Auditorio in Castellon, where he was granted the contract by Francisco Camps, the disgraced ex-president of the region – without any public competition, and which was canceled before a design was put on paper. And as if the lake of dinero the Town Hall lets him swim in wasn’t enough, they even gave him a ‘thank you’ of a historic building on Plaza de la Virgen in the city centre. They got a poke in the eye when a local newspaper reported that during the building’s restoration some metal beams with the Town Hall’s stamp were found covered over alongside the architect’s new home. And despite protestations and denials all round, there were enough eyebrows raised over the idea that as if it wasn’t enough for the snout to be firmly in the trough it looked as though peelings were being gathered directly from the kitchen as well.

Here’s your chance to have your own private museum, IMAX cinema, water-park and enormous empty shell in the shape of a Grecian helmet – but you will need to be able to throw about 50million euros a year down the toilet if you do. And why not; that’s what the Valencian government’s been doing for years while claiming the place to be one of the world’s greatest tourist venues.

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.

The Scratch Olympics

August 5, 2012


While the Olympics is going great guns in London, doing its best to justify the price tag that has  blossomed like one of the spectacular fireworks at its opening ceremony from an original estimate of £2.4bn to anywhere between £13bn and £24bn, depending on who you believe, I came up with an idea as to how Valencia could host the Scratch Olympics to bring it back to international sporting prominence without having to divvy out the vast, toilet-flushing quantity of readies that it lavished on its two major white elephants, the Americas Cup and Formula 1. Unfortunately, when I went to review some of the sports arenas I had in mind to stage the events in I found that our Mayoress, Rita Barberá, she of the calm disposition and well considered word, and her cronies had pre-empted me.

We’d have no problem with cycling events because the Town Hall is very proud, and down-right boastful, of its 130 kilometres of cycle lanes. It was while I was tootling around on a stretch near the Municipal Cemetery a few months ago that the seed of the Scratch Olympics was planted.

A three-lane in either direction dual-carriageway has been built along the southern side of the city, needing a series of new intersections with traffic lights. At one of these new intersections a bend in the road has been cut off and a set of traffic lights put in place. Alongside the now defunct section of road was a patch of open scrub land, and an enterprising group of Latinos, mainly Cubans with a smattering of Bolivians, and Ecuadorians, had created a couple of improvised volleyball courts. One end of a length of plastic netting had been strung from a pole hammered into the ground in the scrub land, and the net stretched across the road and anchored to a chain link fence on the other side. They’d even gone to the lengths of marking the outline of the courts with white paint.

On weekend afternoons groups and families of all ages, women included, picked three-a-side teams to wage volleyball war, although that might just have been their spirited way of playing, but it looked pretty ferocious to me. Sweat poured off short brown bodies, most of which were decorated with a tattoo of some description, and dribbled down the waistband of gaudy baggy shorts. Families sat on a rag-bag of plastic chairs under brightly striped beach umbrellas eating spicy tortillas, while teams waiting for their turn sat on bleachers made from a plank supported by a pile of breeze blocks at each end. A few entrepreneurial souls surreptitiously sold beers from a cool box hidden under a blanket.

In contrast to the three-a-side teams of the Latinos, fifty meters along the road on a patch of dirt surrounded by chest high weeds, a group of Indian men played their version of volleyball, and with teams of up to nine-a-side you wonder how everyone got to hit the ball. Shorts and T-shirts, vests and traditional dhoti, tracksuits, jeans – a wardrobe as varied as their gastronomy and culture. Aficionados squatted on their haunches or sat cross-legged on torn-off pieces of cardboard shouting out advice to the players, just as they would in any Hindustani village. On the other side of the cycle track a group of men lounged on the lawned area below shady palms watching their friends steaming in the sun. Where much of the Latino game, with teams one-third the size of the Indian’s, seemed to be based on simply getting the ball over the net, the Indian’s play a much more team-oriented game, aware of their team mates and using each in his position.

Watching the Latino game reminded me of a time a few years ago when I went to a very basic neighbourhood sports ground in Cabañal, the historic section of the port area that lovely Rita has been trying to drive into the ground for her own political ends by dumping all the problem families in the city and allowing it to fester as the drug dealing centre of Valencia. A working-class and ex-fisherman’s enclave, it still had a sense of community, despite the Town Hall’s machinations, and the sports ground was a focal point for grans and granddads to come and watch the kids thrash around a football pitch made of sand, alongside the bigger boys of the Sunday leagues being much more serious, as if they were taking on Barca at Mestalla, Valencia City’s home ground. At the beginning of the afternoon the sand pitches were carefully marked out, but by half-time there was barely a white line recognisable, which made the ref’s job a bit uneasy.

As I was sinking a one euro bathtub of Spanish brandy at the small caff I saw four dumpy Cuban ladies come into the ground pulling behind them their trollies full of the weekly shop. One of them lifted a basketball off the top of her Mercadona bags and they walked over to one of the three volleyball nets, leaving their trollies in a neat row just outside the marked court. For twenty minutes they knocked the ball between them and then returned to their shopping, packed the ball away, and sauntered off home.

I went back last year and discovered a barren plot, the café, groundsman’s office and toilets demolished and the goalposts pulled over. All that was recognisable from the boisterous community sports ground I’d visited earlier were the faded white lines of the volleyball court. Alongside the wasteland was a super-dooper new sports pavilion, fully equipped and functional, but which had been closed within a few months of it opening because there weren’t the funds to run it. Rita and her bare-faced cronies kidded no-one that this had been anything other than a ruse to clear the original sports ground to make way for a road extension she’s been trying to ram through the courts for the last couple of decades, and has been making the lives of Cabañal’s residents hell, despite having lost her case all the way up to the European courts.

While I was down in Cabañal I took a ride to Valencia’s biggest white elephant, the port built for the America’s Cup, which has spent the last four years slowly becoming a semi-wasteland. I watched three young lads of about twelve jumping off the pier into the canal that once saw the pride of the world’s racing fleet sailing up it, but now sees nothing more than the joy-riding catamaran that takes giddy party-goers for a wiz around the bay. The kids were having a great time, so at least we had the spot for the Scratch Olympic diving. At least they were, until two officious jobs-worth’s drove up, one on a motorbike and another in a van, and gave them a stern bollocking, both of them writing the youngsters names down in their notebooks, before watching as the poor kids gathered up their clothes and wandered shame-faced away from the water. Job well done, chaps.

Not deterred by the past, though, I took a ride to the volleyball courts beside the municipal cemetery. The road section had been blocked off with heavy concrete bollards to stop access, and the piece of totally barren and unkempt land had been fenced off at the only reasonably open area, where I’d watched the Indian’s having a great time a few months ago.

So perhaps I should scratch the idea of the Scratch Olympics. We’ve got a world-class velodrome where nary a bike rides, an America’s Cup standard port which hasn’t seen a boat in four years and a Formula 1 race circuit that drivers hate and has been run at a loss since the day it was built and won’t even see any more cars racing because the race has been cancelled for the foreseeable future, because of the bankrupt state of the city, no doubt exacerbated by the 21 million euros they hand over to Bernie Ecclestone each year for the pleasure of letting him run his vastly loss-making enterprise in this fair city. But sadder still, all those free open patches of land or basic cheap-and-cheerful neighbourhood playing fields and sports grounds are now either derelict or off limits for anyone who simply wants a knock-about with their pals.

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.

More than just a daily read

January 4, 2012

I try to avoid mentioning the ‘crisis’ in the things I write, not because it isn’t affecting me – far from it, it’s as disastrous for me as it is for many people – but because you can get tired of reading about how worse life is going to be in 2012 than it was in 2011, so I prefer not to write even more bad news. One thing I’ve noticed, though, is that where once the Spanish press were always giving away freebies, there hasn’t been anything accompanying the morning paper for ages. I was wandering through my archive when I found this, written in the heyday of promotional give-aways – was it really only a couple of years ago?

‘One of the pleasures of life in Spain, expat or otherwise, is the morning stroll to the newsagents to pick up a newspaper before a gentle meander to the cafetería for a coffee and croissant. What confused readers of the newspaper La Razon recently was that they didn’t have to get as far as the caff to get their pastry – it was presented to them when the picked up their copy of their favourite daily.

Whereas the British press may occasionally bung readers a free shampoo or scrap of paper scented with the latest ‘must have’ odour from Lanvin, the Spanish periodicals are far more giving in their freebies. Had our La Razon reader changed his allegiance to Levante a couple of weeks ago he’d have got a pack of longanizas, dried sausage, to have for his mid-morning snack. A couple of days later he’d have picked up a tin of aceitunas rellenos, stuffed olives, (no clue as to whether the olives were black or green or had sabor de anchoas or pimento stuffing) to go with them. (Longanizas have a Methusalah sort of shelf-life and the name lends itself to a popular Valenciano saying ‘Hay mas dias que longanizas’ a sort of Spanish sausage version of ‘another day, another dollar’.)

Just so this newly acquired reader wouldn’t forget where the bounty came from, the next gift was an advertising fridge magnet, but God forbid that you should think that Levante is trying to push itself too much to the fore. These pretty little magnetic plaques were reproductions of posters for early 20th-century products. You could be enticed by the 1922 Gran Concorse de Avion, decorative cigarette papers from Alcoi (a town near Valencia and boss fagpaper-maker in age-old times), or Oranjina, the fizzy drink in the funny shaped bottles that seemed ‘Oh so French!” when we went there in the ‘70’s.

We’ll pass over the stick on tattoos offered a few weeks ago, to come right up to date with their latest give-away, a bottle of sun tan lotion – a big bottle of sun tan lotion. Well, they would, wouldn’t they, because summer’s here, but just try convincing your boss that honestly, you’re not intending to knock off early for a couple of hours of bronzey, but you didn’t have time to nip home to drop it off, and besides, it’s only factor ten and what bloody good is that in these days of global warming!

Not to be outdone, Las Provincias, Levante’s biggest local rival, has been doling out its own enticements. If I’d wanted to look even more camp than I usually do I could have had a chi-chi set of earrings a couple of weeks ago, but they were a bit too sparkly for me. I’m not sure I fancied the ‘specially selected coffee set’ they offered for nowt last month, particularly as they have one of the biggest local circulations and I didn’t want to take coffee with a friend and find that I could have brought my own cup and saucer and not have spoiled her table setting. LP’s summer promo last year was a prettily decorated fan, but I’m not much good with a flick of the wrist – much more the macho knotted hanky on the balding bonce. (A totally uninteresting historical note here: the Valencia region produces 100% of the fans made in Spain. You never know, it may come up in a pub quiz sometime.)

I’ve always considered myself a loyal sort of chap but I have to admit that Las Provincias lost my vote recently when Levante offered me a bottle of Rioja if I turned coat. Forgive me, but it’s like buying either the Preston Herald or the Preston Evening Gazette. How different is the news going to be! And if I’m going to kop for a bottle of tinto and a newspaper for €1 call me a traitor if you wish, but don’t throw stones at this particular glass window when you would do the same!

All this largesse might be well and good for thee and me, but there’s always a price to pay. Spain’s got its W H Smith sort of newsagents where you can get every known periodical from Mushroom Growers Monthly (free packet of Death Cap attached) to My Cuddly Little Teddy Bear (usually bought by mothers, with free vomit bag attached for fathers). Mostly though, you buy your newspaper from a tiny shop that is the last free space on a Y-junction that could conceivable be rented off. If you could catch a passing cat your couldn’t swing it but the bosses at the newspapers expect these shops, the dimension of a modest-sized public toilet, to store boxes of bathroom cleaner, cartons of tamarind juice, containers of this, that and the often bloody useless other that they have to give away with a newspaper that, on its own, sits quietly in a pile on the counter top.

My newsagent, Pepe, has his own way of dealing with them. He plonks the boxes down outside his shop and sits on them, taking in the summer rays. Given his girth, love of nosh and whatever ominous gaseous escapes that might provide, and a bad temper if disturbed, very few people have the temerity to interrupt his siesta for the sake of a can stuffed olives. After all, they are only thirty-five centimes in Mercadona just around the corner.

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.

Kineua and Otudates, two rare Canarian potatoes

January 3, 2012

With influences from Africa, Latin America, and the Spanish peninsular, as well as recipes of the islands’ own creation, the Canary Islands are said to have the most original gastronomy in Spain. Gastronomes might argue the point, but there’s no beating the Canarian ‘tater.

The humble potatoe was first discovered in Latin America by Spanish conquistadors, although no one can say exactly when the first one was brought to Europe or from exactly whence it actually came. Despite claims that Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake introduced it to England, this appears to be the stuff of legend as there is no evidence to back the claim up. Historians believe that the tuba arrived in the latter part of the sixteenth century, and as there are records showing potatoes being sent from Tenerife to Antwerp in 1565, it is generally assumed that the staple diet of most of Europe first arrived via the Canaries.

The sweet potatoe reached England via the Canary Islands and was the common potato during the Elizabethan years. At that time, sweet potatoes were sold in crystallized slices with sea holly (eringo), a thistle style plant with a blue flower that grows on sand dunes throughout Europe, as an aphrodisiac. Shakespeare mentions this sweetmeat in  “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (“Let the sky rain potatoes…hail kissing comforts and snow eringoes”), and the Empress Josephine introduced sweet potatoes to her companions, who were soon serving them to stimulate the passion of their lovers. (Shakespeare also mentioned Malmsey, also known as Sack, an important wine export in the 16th and 17th centuries. Originally produced in Tenerife, the main area of production is now Lanzarote.)

Known locally by the original Indian name of papas, the Canarian potatoes we dine on today are direct descendants of those said to have come from the Andes in the 16th century. Small, wrinkled and knobbly, black, red and yellow, they have their own distinctive flavour. (You may well hear of two local varieties, Kineua  and Otudates – bastardised versions of ‘King Edwards’ and ‘Out of date’ respectively, words said to have been stamped on the sacks when they first came to Spain and mis-read by the non-English speaking locals. This smacks heartily of a local giggle at the dumb tourists expense, given that it was the Spanish that introduced the potatoe to the English.)

The traditional way of cooking papas is with a large amount of sea salt (they were originally cooked in sea water), the quantity being decided on by putting the potatoes in fiercely boiling water and pouring in enough salt until the potatoes float. They are served in a small dish, with a white encrustation of salt on them and known as papas arrugadas (wrinkled potatoes). Traditionally they are accompanied by mojo picon, a piquant sauce made from garlic, paprika, cumin, breadcrumbs and wine vinegar.

The dish is an accompaniment to almost any meal or it can be eaten on its own, washed down with Canarian wine. Simple and simply delicious, no one should leave the Canary Islands without having tried papas arrugadas con mojo picon.

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’s good to talk

December 24, 2011

I was sauntering back from Mercadona this evening with an ecoligical bag full of last minute veg for Christmas, before stopping off at Consum for a couple of bottles of their pretty well-priced Rueda. To be honest, the veg weren’t particularly for Christmas, it was just that I wanted something to go alongside the chicken I’d roasted earlier today (with shaved ginger and slivers of garlic slid under the skin, in case you want to know).

It was a blow when they closed Marks and Spencer in Valencia about four years ago, and I lost the only place within walking distance I could buy a Christmas pudding for one. Laugh if you will, but that meant a lot to me, the good old M&S Christmas pudding for one. I’ve had a cardboard carton of Birds Custard Powder in the cupboard for years, which gets spooned out now and again when I serve up a – usually – burnt apple crumble. Yes, I know, it’s almost impossible to bugger up a crumble, but take it from me, my oven can, and does regularly.

Anyway, we’re not here to talk about puddings.

I was taking a detour around a bulky old granny when her phone rings. I hold up my hands, it still strikes me as strange when I see an old biddy take out a slim-Jim telling-bone and chat into it as naturally as if she were jawing over the wall with a neighbour. I’m a throw-back – I admit it.

So there I was, skirting the old dear with her shiny patent leather handbag and iphone, when I hear her say,

“Hijo, ¡que pasa! No te preocupes, estoy en la calle muy cerca de tu casa y…….”

She thinks it’s her son, wondering where she is. Not that far away, apparently. And she continues yammering on.

“Dos minutos, nada mas, y tengo un botillo de vino para la comido y…..”

Quiet.

“¡Padre! Lo siento muchísimo.” It’s the vicar, not her son at all.

“Es un miraglo. Tu voz tiene lo mismo sonido de mi hijo.” The fact that the vicar and her son have a similar sounding voice seems to be something of a miracle to her. It may well be, but she gets stuck in and tells him how lovely it is to hear from him, but she can’t chat for long because she’s late for pre-Christmas lunch with the son and family, and she thought that was him on the phone wanting to know where she was, even though she was only a few minutes late, and you’d expect that wouldn’t you because the queues at Mercadona when she popped in for a bottle of tinto were terrible, but you’d expect that, wouldn’t you because it was Christmas Eve day and everyone was getting the last few bits in for the family dinner tonight and her and Javier and his family had decided to make it a family lunch instead of dinner, what with her Miguel having passed on last year but one, and to be honest, she couldn’t take the late nights like she used to so……..

I didn’t find out what the vicar called for, and I suspect neither did she. But it was a lovely little moment, nonetheless; an old dearie, done up to the nines, on the way to her family for lunch, and she gets a call from God’s local rep, just before his son’s birthday.

It’s more than I bloody get!

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.

Thursdays Child – A stroll around the Bab el Khemis market.

December 23, 2011

When painter and writer Danny Moynihan, friend of avant-garde (or simply weird) artist Damien Hirst, and author of Boogie Woogie, a novel that dished the dirt on the New York art world, decided to restore a riad in Marrakech’s medina, he and his wife, actress, film-maker and former showgirl Katrine Boorman – daughter of film director John Boorman – trawled the markets and souks of Marrakesh for fabrics, a well-known dealer for 20th century furniture …. and the Bab el Khemis flea market for “almost everything else”.

Of the twelve gates in the 12 km-long, rose-pink 12th-century wall that wraps around the ancient city, Bab el Khemis is one of the oldest. It takes its name from the Thursday market where once camels, horses, mules and asses were sold, and, at least according to Arthur Leared, who travelled the country in 1872, “On the sale of each animal a guarantee that it has not been stolen, verified by a notary, is required”. How anyone could guarantee the provenance of a rag-tag assembly of worn out critters, (and you could probably use the same term for the dealers), many of which had walked hundreds of kilometres across sand and mountain to end up as camel meat on the tables in the open-air restaurants of the Jmaa el Fnaa, remains a mystery.  Jmaa el Fnaa itself was the scene of the Friday market that sold horned cattle, and near the Souk el Ghezel, slaves from the Sudan and Sus were sold on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays during the hour before sunset. While it’s unlikely that any of the commodities sold at this market would end up on a butcher’s slab, the life of many of them wouldn’t have been a whole lot better than the pack animals auctioned off at the Bab el Khemis.

It’s Thursday, and as the Thursday market has been on my ‘must-do’ list for ages, and I haven’t yet got around to doing it, I saunter off to see what somewhere that has been described as ‘one of world’s greatest mixes of junk and treasures’ has to offer on this fine day. I’m secretly hoping that I might find a decent second-hand Brooks bike saddle at a bargain price, as I do at every flea-market I go to. I haven’t as yet, but it doesn’t stop me secretly hoping.

When I get to the gate I’m slightly disappointed not to see the hordes of hustlers and cascading bric-à-tat that I’d imagined from the various descriptions I’ve read about the Khemis Thursday market. Mainly what I see is a lot of young men selling mobile phones and their accoutrement. Some are as carefully displayed in small glass cases as the sparklers Audrey Hepburn saw in the window of Tiffany’s when she was on her way to breakfast; others are simply tumbled in a ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ early Tesco fashion, but there’s plenty of action going on. I’m impressed by the chap who has brought a full home gym to sell, and wonder if he brings it every week or simply anchors it to a post until the next Thursday. I hope for the sake of the poor donkeys that he brought it by van, because I’ve got one of them at home, left by a previous tenant and carefully avoid by me, so I know how much they weigh. I tried to move it once so I could decorate the spare bedroom where it lives. I bought a bed-settee for the living room instead. Respect, man.

I was equally intrigued by the detailed inspection a tall gangling chap was giving a dentist’s chair, circa 1950, (the chair, not the chap, although by the look of him it could have been getting its final coat of paint around the same time he was getting his first nappy changed). Excellent piece of kit it was, and in fine condition. In fact there were two of them, so the erstwhile punter would be stuck for choice if he only wanted one. Perhaps he was considering opening his own clinic and was looking to bulk buy, and even a pair of chairs nearing pensionable age were a damned site preferable to most of those you see used by peripatetic ‘dentists’ in the souks, something rescued from the kitchen, where they simply plonk the agonised patient down before delving into the dentures with a pair of ancient pliers.

It turns out I’ve got the wrong gate. I’m not at the Bab Khemis, that’s a much grander entrance around the corner. I’m at a side entrance, but I’ve been sufficiently entertained by what I’ve seen so far that I decide to dive into the souk and come out by the main gate later, to see if I’m missing anything. Needless to say, I get lost in the skinny alleyways and don’t find the right gate until a taxi driver points it out to me a couple of days later.

I stroll in through an archway that draws me into a clattering, banging, screeching, grinding, shower-of-sparks-flying pandemonium. But it’s only pandemonium to my ears and eyes; to everyone else it’s just the daily noise of the metal-workers souk. Whether it’s something that involves metal in its construction – mopeds, bicycles, ancient sewing machines – or it is something that will be made entirely from metal – window grills, decorative arches, tables and chairs – there’s someone here who can fix it or make. Scattered everywhere are large sheets of metal, long strips of steel two fingers wide, pencil-thin rolled rods that are bent and twisted to create intricate designs. Sparks shoot from angle grinders like spinning Catherine wheels as young men with no protection other than a pair of sunglasses and a cloth wrapped around their face – and sometimes neither of those – cut, burnish and smooth. Everything is covered by a fine black powder, but this is Morocco, and the dusty monotone is alleviated by the brightly coloured djellabas of passers-by.

Work stops in one tiny workshop when their machine literally grinds to a halt. The intermittently spinning blade indicates that the carbon brushes that drive the motor are worn out. They are awkward devils to replace at the best of times, but with the make-do-and-mend temperament that you find in most third-world countries, the worker simply strips the case off, packs a bit of cardboard into the spring on the brush housing so that it can’t be forced back, re-assembles the machine, and within a couple of minutes is back at work, the machine still spluttering and kicking, but at least it’s okay for a few more hours yet. It makes me smile; I remember doing the same when I was an antique restorer many years ago in the Lake District; make-do-and-mend was sometimes the only option.

I watch a group of four men working on different parts of an ornate arch, just over two metres high and slightly less wide. The main structure is finished, and a young man draws the curlicue design in chalk on the concrete floor of the workshop that will be created by the thin metal rods at his side. When he is satisfied with the design he measures the first section, a shallow curve, and cuts a piece of the required length from the five-metre rod. With a lump hammer and his cold chisel he slowly curves the metal until it reproduces perfectly the design he has drawn on the concrete. Everything cut, bent, curved and twisted by hand, and each piece slotting perfectly in place. I’m fascinated and could watch him for hours, but I’m dying for a coffee.

Turning away from the street of the metal workers I wander down a cluttered alleyway of wonderful ancient doors, rolls of antique rugs, Lloyd-loom chairs, exquisitely painted tables, worn and patinated with age, a 50s pram, plastic garden recliners – and yes, I do even see the kitchen sink, as well as one for the bathroom, along with its bath, toilet and bidet, all in the chunky cut-corner style of art deco. I also pass men and women squatting on the ground behind a pile of odds and ends that can have no conceivable value other than to someone who has nothing of value at all; a Kodak cartridge camera, a pair of stiletto-heeled shoes with one stiletto, an alarm clock with no hands, odd socks, seven-year old magazines in Spanish – the same detritus you see on every flea-market in the world. It used to sadden me as I walked to work at the Marche aux Puce at Clignancourt in Paris many years ago, to think that this was all these people had, and would pack up at the end of the day exactly what they had laid out at the beginning. It still does.

I hear the Koran being sung, the beautiful a cappella coming from a tinny-sounding loudspeaker hung outside a café at an alley junction bustling with second-hand clothes vendors. Anticipating a hot coffee, the sound draws me towards a table like the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Parking myself in one of those plastic garden chairs that succumb to too much time in the sun and bend when you lean backwards, I wave at a passing waiter and ask for a café au lait. It could well be my accent, or he may not speak French, but he casts a bemused look around the other clients, obviously not having understood any of the three words I’ve just spoken“Mint tea,” a voice says in English, but I’ve no idea which table it came from. Obviously coffee’s off the menu.

“Bien,” I say, and the waiter goes off to get it. He comes back a couple of minutes later with a glass of something that looks as if it has been sitting around for a while, probably at the bottom of a u-bend of a kitchen sink. I reach into my pocket for some money.

“One dirham,” a different voice says.

“One dirham!” Ten centimos, cheap in any currency, about one-tenth what you would pay elsewhere. I hand the coin over – never look a gift glass in the mouth.

A mange,” says the chap with the grey stubble and wool bobble hat at the next table. They may not be big conversationalists, but they all helpfully want to get in on the act.

I suddenly realise that I’m sat at a workers caff, and everyone else is getting stuck-in to bowls of bean soup or something made from bits of innards whose origin I’d really rather not know. But it’s cheap and fortifying and obviously pretty popular. (I try some another day. The stock was good, but I had to close my eyes when I dipped the spoon into the bowl.)

No-one objects that I’m taking up a table with only a cup of mint sludge, so I sit for a while and watch the second-hand clothes salesman hawking their wares. I haunt the ‘pre-used’ clothes stalls at my local Monday market in Valencia, and think I’m pretty well turned out in my two-euro shirts and three-euro jumpers (I once bought a cracking Stasi-style leather jacket for twenty euros, and it’s still going strong), but they are nothing compared to what’s on offer here. If Ryanair weren’t so parsimonious with their baggage allowance, I’d be elbow deep in the piles of check shirts, corduroy trousers (when was the last time you saw corduroy trousers?), sweaters – I’ll pass on the tartan one but I definitely fancy the hooded jacket with the toggle fastenings. I haven’t seen toggle fastenings since my green duffle coat when I was seventeen.

Pulling myself away from kitting out a new wardrobe, I wander into an enclosed part of the furniture makers souk, piled to the ceiling with beds, tables, fat mattresses and, it has to be said, some painfully ugly mogernised pieces, (that’s not a typo, it’s a derogatory word a friend invented to cover all the ugliest aspects of modern design), that are similar in quality design concept to the little gold bear that waves its arm up and down that you see in tatty Chinese shops everywhere. Who could conceivably want one?

One of the things that always amazes me is that in Europe, and most probably in the US and elsewhere, so much of the furniture is made from composites; plywood, block-board, chip-board, MDF – in other words, sawdust, wood shavings and a lot of glue – but in Morocco they make their furniture out of proper wood, the stuff that actually comes direct from the trees. Okay, some of it might look as if it has been rescued from pallets, but it’s still wood.

A stooped ancient lady came toward me, supporting herself by a crutch on her right side, her left hand held out, hoping for a coin to be dropped in it. I put my hand in my pocket, randomly pick a coin drop it in her palm as we pass, one of those automatic actions that neither acknowledge. She’s not a happy bunny, though, and obviously the coin wasn’t of grand enough value, because a few seconds later I hear the tinkling of it hitting the cobbles, and look down to see it skittering past me – she’s thrown it back! A few others hear it and look around, but no-one spots it. I’m tempted to pick it up, but if it’s not enough for her to keep it’s probably not enough for me to shame myself by bending down to pick it up in front of everyone, so I leave it and walk on. Maybe someone will find it who believes in the dictum, ‘see a coin and pick it up and all that day you’ll have good luck’.

As I continue my walk through the furniture souk, I pass a young lad in his teens carving intricate scroll work in the top of a small table. His curved chisels are almost worn to nothing, from generations of grinding and sharpening. He uses a squared-off length of wood with one end roughly round as a handle as he carefully taps the chisel, turning his hand slowly to create a curve in the scroll, all the while chatting to his friend whose busy planeing the sixty degree angle of one of the joints that will form the traditional hexagonal table. Once again, I’m back at my workshop in the Lake District thirty years ago, choosing a length of wood from my scrap box to use as a mallet to carve the finer points of a design, my usual rounded mallet being too weighty for fine work. I’m suddenly brought back to reality when I look further into the workshop and see a large band saw where, beneath as sign that tells you without any subtlety, ATTENZIONE ALLE MANI! – watch your hands in any language – a worker is cutting a fine curve in a piece of wood without any guard on the blade. I shiver at the thought that there’s someone could easily lose one of his mani if he doesn’t pay enough attenzione.

In the wider alleyways you can hear the rattling sounds of mopeds and small vans long enough ahead in time to get out of the way and let them pass. It’s not the same with the donkeys and carts, though. The carts usually have rubber tyres, although nine times out of ten, worn down to the webbing, and the donkeys don’t exactly make the coconut clacking sound of horses galloping, given their docility and sedate pace. The first thing you know that you are stopping someone in pursuance of their livelihood is when you hear someone shouting, “Balec, balec,” which guide books will tell you means, “Make way, make way,” but is usually said in a tone that more realistically says, “Oi, you, shift your arse!” You turn around to see the doleful stare of a donkey looking at the design on your T-shirt, not that it’s really interested in knowing that you ‘heart’ Agadir, but because that’s how tall he is, and frankly, he doesn’t care whether you move or not.

I find myself back at the door I came into the souk by, more by chance than design. I didn’t find my Brooks saddle, but there again, I refrained from being tempted by the toggle jacket. Still, tomorrow’s another day, as they say, or as far as the Bab Khemis flea-market is concerned, next Thursday is.

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.