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The Funny Side of the Mountain

A Humourist's view of life in Spain. As a comedy writer, rural Spain is often a great source of inspiration. These are just some of my random scribblings.

New Year Shenanigans
03 January 2020

As the New Year unfolded, I got to wondering about some of the strange things we do to celebrate. Things like singing unintelligible Scottish folk songs which celebrate reunions while wishing everybody farewell or telling ourselves lies about losing weight and staying sober for the whole of January.

In Spain, the New Year is celebrated by eating twelve grapes. One between each strike of the clock. Supposedly this is an ancient tradition to bring good luck to each of the coming months. In reality, it has only been going about a hundred years and was more than likely started by the wine industry in order to offload their end-of-year excess harvest.

Not to be outdone, the lentil growers promote a tradition of eating lentil soup on New Year’s Day. Apparently, each of the tiny round lentils represents a coin and eating the soup of “coins” is believed to bring you wealth in the coming year. Even the underwear manufacturers have got into the act. As anybody who has ever visited a Spanish Street Market will attest, underwear is a very important part of Spanish commerce, therefore, it will come as no surprise therefore to discover that there is an ancient New Year tradition associated with these garments. In order to ensure love in the coming year, it is essential that one is wearing red underwear as the year starts. Course, one can’t get away by just raiding last year’s underwear drawer as there is a clause to this tradition which states that this only works if the red underwear has been given as a gift. Nice touch!

With envious eyes, other Spanish producers marvel at these marketing triumphs and wonder how they too can introduce some ancient customs of their own. The chorizo makers guild have revived an ancient tradition that says that the first person entering your house after midnight must be carrying a chorizo sausage. Desperate to keep up in the ancient tradition race, the olive oil industry insist that pouring a bottle of olive oil over one’s shoes makes the year run smoothly, the Nougat and Confectioners Consortium discovered a lost book of the Bible which says eating half a cubit of nougat before midnight ensures you have plenty of energy to greet the coming year and the Beer Makers Collective say that each litre of beer drunk in the first hour of the New Year represents a new opportunity to meet new best friends. The garlic growers are still struggling to gain acceptance of their newly discovered ancient tradition that eating a raw bulb of garlic at midnight ensures that the first person you kiss will be your forever partner.

All of this has led the Society of Ambulance Drivers to create their own tradition of seeing how many people they can cram into the back of an ambulance at half-past midnight.

Fireworks are a more international tradition and one about which the Spanish are particularly enthusiastic. The tradition has it that to ensure a year of good luck, it is essential to let off vast amounts of fireworks and bangers in order to scare away any lingering evil spirits before the New Year starts. The Spanish of course relish any excuse to get busy with the fireworks. We have fireworks at breakfast time to forewarn everybody of the coming fusillades and then they continue at random times throughout the day, culminating in a flurry of all remaining fireworks simultaneously going off at midnight. Those of us with dogs have the added joy of 25 kilos of dog leaping onto our laps every few minutes in order to protect us from the bangs. By the time the final midnight volley arrives, we’re all partially deaf, slightly shell-shocked and covered in dog hair.

Strange traditions of course are not restricted to Spain, and the strangest celebration of New Year’s Day is probably the town of Mobile in Alabama. Here, they lower a 12-foot-tall moon pie down the side of the 34 story RSA BankTrust building at the stroke of midnight, when it is cut and served to the public.

Even the concept of New Year itself isn’t quite as ancient as one might think. Prior to 1753, Britain and its possessions celebrated the New Year on March 25. And in France, in 1793 the new revolutionary government introduced a decimal calendar with ten days per week, ten hours a day and a hundred minute an hour. Oddly, they only managed to keep this going for 12 years. Clearly, the 18th century would have been a tricky time for TV companies to do their traditional global New Year telethons. “We’re waiting for France, they’re still on Dixday and waiting for the clock to strike a hundred.”

And finally, my Life-Hack for 2020

To mean to buy a calendar for 2020? Don’t worry, just go to the kitchen drawer and pull out the one for 1992 instead. It will still work. In fact, you only ever need to keep 14 calendars to never waste money on a new one.

Happy New Year!

Like 1        Published at 10:08   Comments (0)

Horses to Water
11 December 2019

When we bought our house here in the Alpujarras, it came with a plot of land adjoining which was designated as ‘Rustic Land’. Essentially this means it’s agricultural and cannot be built on. For this reason, Rustic Land in this area is very cheap as all one is allowed to do with it is keep animals on it or grow vegetables. Or, more often than not round here, cannabis. The other things which are very cheap around Andalucía, are horses. One can pick up a mongrel lump of a horse for a hundred euros or if you’re prepared to look harder, they are often going free.

Rural Andalucían men have a strange relationship with horses. They are seen as status symbols in much the same way as guns are in Texas. The bigger the man aspires to be, the more horses he needs. Which is why the area is full of very small men with even smaller bank balances but who own several horses they can’t afford to feed. Eventually of course, the matriarch of the family instructs the man to either get rid of the horses or find a job. Consequently, there are many horses in need of a new life.

My wife had always nursed an idea that she might eventually want her own horse, so we decided that as we had the land, we might as well set about organising the relevant legalities to allow a horse to live on our little piece of rustic land, should we ever decide our life was missing a horse.

This was the point at which we collided with Spain’s interesting bureaucracy. For those who don’t know, this is an amalgamation of the laws of the seventeen separate states, layered over the original Roman legislature laid  down in the second century, added to by a few Royal Decrees, several Papal directives, improved by Franco and eventually tinkered with by the paper-mongers of Brussels. After that, they are passed down in sacred ledgers to be stored in the vaults of the Town Hall.

As most of these laws are totally ignored by the indigenous population, nobody has ever bothered to redraft any of them or even translate most of them from the original Latin. However, they lay in wait ready, to trap the unwary newcomer in a tangle of paper which would make the Gordian Knot look like a shoelace tangle.

Step one, we need permission to have animals on the land. This is handled by OCA, the Spanish version of the Ministry for Agriculture, and should be simple. For a domestic animal such as a horse they require a shelter and a way to dispose of the manure which doesn’t involve chucking it over the fence, which is what the locals do. It also requires a supply of fresh water fit for the horse to drink. It was here that things started to fall apart.

As our house was next to the land, a simple hosepipe down to the field would seem to do the job. OCA agreed and they approved our lean-to shelter and all looked good to go. We just had to get Council Permission now. This involved showing the local Council that we had a shelter and a source of drinking water for the horse. While they were quite positive about our shelter, the hose pipe was more problematical. Apparently, some dusty law states that animals must have access to agricultural water. Back in the OCA office, they confirmed we could only secure their permission if we had a supply of fresh water for the animal. The only solution appeared to be to set up two water supplies, one to please OCA and one to please the Council.

Agricultural water comes from a system known as acequia channels and was another thing the Romans left behind. Using vast amounts of slave labour they created a network of water conduits that drift down from the mountains to feed the livestock and horticulture of Andalucía. For the most part, it’s an efficient system and works well. However, these conduits are controlled by a political system of such complexity it would make even the most dedicated Brussels bureaucrat cry. Each acequia is run by a Committee which is headed up by a President, a Treasurer, a Membership Secretary, an Auditor and a Chairman. They also have their own rulebooks and convene regular meetings to discuss the water.

As we already had an unused acequia channel running across the land, we figured that all we needed to do was ask that we be allowed to access it and we would have our horse permission. Not so.

Firstly, we needed to locate the President of this particular acequia who would provide us with the right piece of paper to show the Town Council. The only problem was, nobody knew who it was. After much asking around, we discovered his name but that he didn’t own a telephone or any email facilities but that he sometimes sat in a little shed at the top of the village. Try as we might, we could never catch him. Eventually we tracked down somebody who knew his wife and so the message went out. When we eventually found him, he was more than happy to oblige, provided we paid the appropriate fee and oh, could we write out the permission for him to sign as he didn’t actually read or write himself.

Happily armed with our permission, we returned to the Town Council only to be told they didn’t recognise this particular acequia channel as it had never been formally approved, despite the fact it had been in constant use for the last two thousand years. Not wanting to give up just yet, we set about trying to secure formal approval for this particular acequia, a process which required raising the matter to a higher Provincial Council in Granada.

After much petitioning and an endless stream of paper, we finally secured formal recognition for this particular channel and we headed back to the President to ask for our supply to be turned on. It was at this point we were told that there was no actual supply of water in this channel as it had all collapsed many years before. So, while the Committee was still conducting their meetings, the Treasurer still counted his money and the Membership Secretary still communicated regularly with the members, there was no actual water going anywhere.

We did however, obtain a written notification from the Treasurer that we had paid our dues, a notice from the Membership Secretary that we were indeed members and a confirmation from the President that we were now entitled to draw water from this acequia. We presented the pile of permissions to the Council who marked the whole lot with their official stamp and informed us all was now in order and that we would receive our piece of paper in due course. Move on three years and we are still waiting so a series of follow up visits to the Town Hall resulted in a flurry of conflicting responses. These ranged from ‘We have no record of your paperwork’ through ‘It will be ready tomorrow’ and even, ‘Shush, don’t say anything, just go ahead anyway’.

In the end, we decided to get another dog.

Like 4        Published at 12:10   Comments (4)

Órgiva Guidebook Entry – Rejected
28 October 2019

The local Tourist Office invited entries for their new Guidebook. For some reason, they rejected mine.

 A Tourist’s Guide to Órgiva

 Entering the Órgiva valley is to invite a smorgasbord of new and authentic experiences. Even as one crosses the river over the historically maintained Seven Eye Bridge, one’s senses suddenly become alive. The eyes feast upon the scattered buildings where old and new co-exist in a melody of architectural styles and where even the electric company can express their creativity, unhampered by the oppressive planning regulations which blight modern cities.

The relaxed and other-worldly feeling which permeates this town is beautifully reflected in the flow and drift of the local traffic. If you have ever mused over the seemingly random and over-zealous regulations which control traffic in the rest of Europe, you can breathe easily in Orgiva, where the only rule is to keep out of everybody else’s way. Here one can relax whilst driving. Throw an arm out of the window in joyful abandonment as you enjoy your post lunch-time drive and you will be greeted by the friendly waves of the locals as you meander aimlessly through town.

Of course, the finest way to enjoy the special nature of Órgiva is on foot. Parking in the town is a joy, as apart from three reserved places outside the Police Station, one can park anywhere, absolutely anywhere. Just stop your car next to where you want to be and leave it there.

As one wanders through the narrow streets one can easily entertain the idea that nothing much has changed for centuries. The dogs which run free could well be the descendants of those who accompanied the first Iberian tribes. They mingle freely with the townsfolk, sharing scraps of food with the human population as they have done since time immemorial. The smells which regale one’s nose remind us of much simpler times and one cannot help but marvel at the durability of Roman sewerage systems.

Like many towns, Órgiva has shops. There is a clothes shop, a chemist, twelve bakeries and a chainsaw shop. The supermarket is a delight for those who struggle with the problems of choices which overwhelm the average Waitrose customer. This supermarket has chosen to eschew the tasteless notion of infinite choice by only stocking one item of each category. With the exception of chicken nuggets where one can choose from thirty eight different varieties. The only area where the notion of choice is truly represented is to which meditating ascetic one wishes to donate one’s returned trolley euro at the end of your visit. Choose carefully and you may well be rewarded with a personal meditation or a Namaste.

If one needs a little help, then there are plenty of tradesmen eager to oblige. If one needs an expert to attempt repairs to one’s computer, car or roof, then there is always somebody’s cousin ready to have a go. Often the same person as the locals seems to have dispensed with the archaic and restrictive notion of just being an expert in one area. It is refreshing to encounter a culture where enthusiasm and optimism counts for more than boring qualifications.

Come and enjoy a break from reality, visit Órgiva.

Like 0        Published at 15:27   Comments (2)

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