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A Foot in Two Campos

Thoughts from a brand new home-owner in the Axarquía region of Málaga. I hope there might be some information and experiences of use to other new purchasers, plus the occasional line to provoke thought or discussion.

181 - Anybody Got Any Knickers?
26 September 2019

Church halls pretty much anywhere in the western world all look remarkably similar.  This one was just like the one in Yorkshire I went to in the 1960s as a Brownie, and the one in south London in the 1990s when I hosted fundraising jumble sales, and then in Somerset in the 2010s when I ran charity training courses.  This one, though, was in a small Axarquía town in inland Málaga province.

Ranged along the standard-issue folding tables were heaps of naked and half-dressed Barbie dolls, piles of teeny dresses, hats and trousers, and bags of colour-separated miniature boots and shoes.  And five magnificent women, Alison, Janet, Barbara, Mary and Trish.  They work on this project throughout the year, knitting, sewing, crocheting, shampooing dolls’ hair, putting together matching outfits.  Then each doll goes (temporarily, they assured me) into a plastic bag with four outfits and a little checklist.  Finally, in December, they will be carefully placed into a pretty cloth bag and delivered to Los Ángeles Malagueños de la Noche ready for Kings’ Day on January 6th when the children get their presents.

Their other project for homeless people is the sponge bags, another of Janet’s brainwaves.  We gave out 180 last year and they hope to match that this year.  A sponge bag, each with a flannel, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, and a bar of soap.  Two years ago (or was it three now?) I distributed forty of them at the homelessness day centre and was desperately moved by the delighted gratitude shown by the attendees on receipt of something so simple that we all take for granted.

Back in the church hall Mary made tea and I sliced a cake I had brought as a very inadequate thank you to these stalwarts.   I gave them the message of gratitude from the Chair of Los Ángeles Malagueños, and described for them how the Kings’ Day toy distribution happens, and how lots of children write their letters to the Kings in advance, and how we try to find toys that match their wish-lists.  Many of dolls made here by this group get put in the bags for those children.  (See Sunburnt Angels for the story).

I was useless.  And they were all so skilled.  An actual hairdresser was washing and combing the dolls’ hair!  I was captivated by the bags of teeny tiny shoes that someone else had bought and donated.  But it was a fiddly job, finding shoes to fit each doll!  Why are these things not standardised?   I managed to put a dress on one doll and then to find her a pair of shoes.  The team explained about different brands of dolls, and the problems of the angle of the foot and its lack of flexibility.  I decided that my minimal talents lie elsewhere, so I collected up the mugs and went off to be vaguely useful by washing up, now that the sink was no longer acting as a hairdressing salon.  As I disappeared into the kitchen I heard a frustrated cry of “Has anyone got any knickers?  This is a lovely dress but you can see straight through it!”  Undeterred, the team rifled through the boxes of tiny accessories, and knickers were produced.

Especially at the moment, TV documentaries and so-called “reality” shows like to depict us as “expats”  lounging around our swimming pools (in truth, few of us have them) or huddling together in our bowls clubs (I’ve never set foot in one).  The actual reality might be too boring for them.  The actual reality was there in that church hall that afternoon.  Kind people, not seeking recognition, living in their new country, driving around collecting donations of toothpaste or dolls, crocheting and sewing through the winter, and spending a sociable but intensive afternoon once a month creating Christmas magic for children and families they will never know.




©  Tamara  Essex  2019                    


We sometimes sell some donated items to raise money to buy small missing items for the doll project or the sponge bag project.  In addition, the general needs of Los Ángeles Malagueños de la Noche are unending.  Donations can be sent direct to them – here are the details for the account for Los Angeles de la Noche (this is their international IBAN number which receives donations in any currency!):
Unicaja: ES60 2103 3034 42 0030013426

Simply go into your own Paypal account and for the recipient, put the email address:

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180 - Settled?
05 September 2019

There was a nurse on my flight home to Málaga.  A Spanish nurse, working in a GP surgery in Dorset.  British husband, dual-nationality totally bilingual daughter.  We’d been chatting in the queue about the newish Ryanair rules requiring us to jam our handbags INSIDE our cabin bags, just for passing through the gate before boarding.  ¡Qué pena!  What a pain.  She was flying to Spain for just a couple of days, to collect her daughter from the Spanish grandparents in Granada province to bring her back for the new school term.


Inevitably THAT subject came up.  The other Spanish nurse at her surgery had already packed up and left the UK.  She hadn’t wanted to go through the palaver of applying for Settled Status because she’d been out of the UK for a year recently when her abuela(grandmother) had been ill, and she already knew that would cause hiccups in her application.  This woman, Almudena, had put her application in but had not heard the outcome yet.  She was a bit worried, as she’d applied quite early (the Settled Status application system was piloted first in the NHS before being rolled out) so she thought there might be a problem.  Without it she was worried she wouldn’t be able to travel in November.  I’d read similar concerns on the Facebook forum for Spanish people in the UK.  I have no idea whether their concerns were justified or not – but when you have those uncertainties, you daren’t make plans.


The young woman in front of us turned to listen.  Her t-shirt bore a feminist slogan in Spanish.  She joined in the conversation, almost spitting her answer.  “No voy a pedirlo”, she said, her upper lip curling slightly.  “I’m not going to apply.  It’s not fair.  I went there to work, cleaning up their grandmothers so they don’t have to.  If they don’t want me there then I’ll leave.  I can work anywhere.”


“I thought the same” said Almudena.  “I was furious.  I made my life there, I had the right.  Just because their stupid country made a stupid decision, why should they turn MY life upside down?”  The presence of the feisty one had brought out more of Almudena’s frustration.  Talking just to me she had only had positives to say about Britain.  She had called it “home”.  But the anger had been there, simmering very close to the surface.  Now it was “their stupid country”.  I didn’t object.  How could I?


The young care-worker said she might go to Italy next as someone from her village was already working there, and she’d like to add Italian to her impressive list of languages.  Though other EU countries don’t go out actively trying to recruit nurses and care-workers in Spain.  Only the UK does that.  Ironic, really.  The Home Office refuses Settled Status on some technicality for a nurse with 25 years of experience in the NHS (having been educated and trained at Spain’s expense), and at the same time the NHS advertises in the Spanish nursing press and general newspapers to encourage more, to replace those who are exiting.  Meanwhile, the Spanish health service welcomes the returners with open arms.  They now speak perfect English (useful for dealing with British patients in Spanish hospitals who don’t have the language) and they have worked in a variety of settings in the UK with a wide range of nationalities.  Excellent attributes!  But, sadly, attributes which are not valued in the UK, in our rush to either actively eject these workers or simply ramp up the Hostile Environment so they leave of their own accord.


We filed on board.  After an acquaintance of a mere half hour, Almudena hugged me and wished me a good flight and a good continued life in Spain.  I wished her luck with her Settled Status and reminded her to join the Facebook group for Spaniards facing Brexit.  A couple of hours later we landed in Málaga and I headed home to Colmenar.  Yes I still do keep “a foot in two campos”, and I love my visits to Dorset to see my lovely friends.  But I am settled in Spain.  I feel as though my “status” is that of “settled”.   My adopted country is being kinder to me than my birth country is to Almudena and countless like her.  I shall go back in October for the big protest march.  I’ll march for Almudena too, and for all the nurses, care-workers, shop staff, plumbers, mothers, partners, neighbours and friends who don’t want to leave, don’t want to be pushed out, don’t want to feel so UN-settled.





©  Tamara  Essex  2019                                       

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179 - Escaping the Heat
29 August 2019

Forty degrees and higher.  Really, that is too much.  The rhythm of the day changes to suit the temperature.  At the hottest time, after a lazy late lunch, it’s time for a siesta.  Late at night, after midnight and into the small hours, it is finally cool enough outside to sit on a kitchen chair on the slope of our little street and share some comfortable time with the neighbours, catching up with the minutiae of life.


Fifty of us from the village (49 Spaniards and me!) escaped the heat a week ago and went on the holiday organised by the town hall, travelling up north to Galicia where not only are the temperatures 12-15°C lower, but there is even that blissful possibility of a little light rain!  As always, the town hall staff had organised a cracking programme covering all the sights of the area, but (also as always) every day was packed, from early breakfast in the hotel through three or even four group-pic.jpgdifferent visits in a day, and ending with late nights and singing in the bar.  Every village has a Pedro, and ours entertained us with songs and jokes long into the night.   Even better (or maybe worse!), this year our hotel was in a pueblo celebrating its annual feria.  Despite having celebrated our own feria the week before, some of our group sallied forth to participate;  I felt my age and retreated to bed, the music and the fireworks close enough to enjoy but far enough away not to keep me awake.


We had excursions to Santiago de Compostela (bagpipe music in the streets!), Pontevedra, Combarro, Cambados, Monte de Santa Tecla, several bodegas, a river cruise, and innumerable castles and Santiagocathedrals.  Galicia had a, well, an “uncomfortable” history with the English, and possibly a dozen times our tour guide made reference to the marauding English, the treasures stolen by the English and now in the British Museum, and the damage done by English pirates.  I did a lot of apologising!   Then, by way of a change, we crossed the border into Portugal and visited Oporto.  The official city guide there had a much more positive view of Great Britain and spoke glowingly of the two countries’ relationship, the impact of various British people on the growth of the city, and finally led us to an ancient bookshop, Librería Lello, with Bookshop2twisting wooden staircases, that had been on the brink of failing fifteen years ago, until in a radio interview one day J K Rowling mentioned how this quirky bookshop had inspired elements of Hogwarts and of Diagon Alley, when she had worked in Oporto for a year teaching English.  On the point of closure, within ten days of the interview the bookshop began to receive a trickle of visitors which rapidly turned into a flood.  Within two months they had to institute a queuing system, and two more months later, a charging system – 5€ refundable against the purchase of any book.  To this day, tickets need to be bought in advance, and the 200-strong queue is fenced on the other side of the road, as the bookshop’s success was threatening that of the neighbouring shops.  The magic of Harry Potter pops up in extraordinary places!


Queimada2Queimada1On our final night the hotel organised a traditional Galician ritual, una queimada.  A witch, a burning cauldron, scary Celtic music, atmospheric chanting, all to make the local fruited alcohol, la queimada, which is like a very strong mulled wine or punch.  An unforgettable finish to the holiday.





Exploring the rest of this enormous, beautiful country is such a joy.  I love my “escapadas”, whether on my own, visiting friends in other parts of Spain, travelling BoatTripwith friends, or these frenetic holidays with my village.  Each style of travel has its charm and its advantages.  The trips with this lively, noisy, kind bunch of people that I am delighted to call my neighbours, provide me with an intensive week-long language immersion.  They might leave me exhausted and in need of another holiday in order to recover, but they further deepen my ties with this special little village which has embraced me as much as I have embraced it.



As the August heat continues (surely hotter even than last year?), I escape again and fly to Dorset for a week of visiting friends in more manageable temperatures.  I messaged a friend asking what the weather was going to be like.  Her reply pinged onto my phone:  “The weather is going to be lovely over the Bank Holiday weekend”.  A minute later the phone pinged again:  “Well, lovely for Dorset”.  It’s all relative.



©  Tamara Essex  2019                                              

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178 - Big Blue Skies - Small Cloud
07 August 2019

Back when I worked (oh how long ago it seems, now!) I was up with all the jargon.  Words like social inclusion, stakeholders, outcomes and future-proofing.  The charity sector’s version of management-speak.  And yet all of a sudden I am “future-proofing” all sorts of aspects of my life!  And it feels quite serious.


Purely by luck rather than any sort of forward planning my house will, I think, do me well into old age.  Watching friends both in Spain and the UK needing to make adaptations or move to more manageable accommodation or nearer essential services triggered a very serious walk around my house, looking at it dispassionately.  Will it work for my later years?  Yes, I think so.  There’s a downstairs bedroom with easy access to the bathroom.  At a pinch, a stairlift might even be possible.  I’m in the village centre, easy access to shops, buses, neighbours etc.  And, as importantly as any of those practicalities, it’s where I want to be.


A couple of friends have thought that I’m being premature.  But a stroke, a fall, a broken hip, a debilitating illness, these things can strike at any time.  We all know that.  We’ve all seen it.  And how much harder is it to move when in the middle of any of those problems?


So the house will suit me until they carry me off to a nursing home or to the crematorium.  Yet all the while, all the small changes I can make now, all the slightly bigger changes that I can envisage and budget for further down the line, the over-arching question-mark is still there, hanging there, that uncertainty, probably manageable for most of us, probably not for some.  Is there any point in planning for the future while the dark cloud of the unmentionable B-word hovers over us?


In the meantime, a big part of future-proofing continues to be improving and perfecting the Spanish language.  Because only through the language are deep friendships made, and only through deep friendships are real roots put down.  So I carry on studying, carry on practising with friends, including with Jose, my inter-cambio language partner since I arrived (and always my best resource).


Yet all the while, all the time the language improves, that cloud still hangs there.  The hours and the money on lessons … we lack the certainty to be 100% sure that it’s all worth while.  The brain says “of course it is!” and I continue to actively help and encourage other British people wanting to learn Spanish.  But deep inside the niggle is there.  Learning and improving the language assumes a future here.  Despite the clear blue Spanish summer sky, we are never without that cloud.  It just hangs there.


So there is not just the normal future-proofing that everyone should be on top of – updating the will, ensuring that loved ones are protected – five million of us have extra future-proofing to do, we have to do Brexit-proofing.  Of course, everyone has to, not just those of us who exercised our Treaty rights to live in a different country.  Everyone needs to prepare (just like the leaders of the Leave campaign, most of whom have demonstrated their patriotism by moving trust funds, wealth management companies, or their manufacturing base out of the UK).  But we lesser mortals have to plough through a list of additional tasks, whether we are citizens of EU27 countries living in the UK, or UK citizens living in one of the EU27 countries.


Future-proofing our residency cards.  After five years of official residency in Spain we are entitled to change them for a card that has the word “permanent” on it.  Only a small change, but the “guidance in case of No Deal” that the Spanish government has prepared for us sets out that people without “permanent” residency may have more hoops to jump through in the future when we become “Third Country Nationals” and change to a different, non-EU identity card.   When we have fewer rights.  When we don’t, in fact, have the RIGHT to be here, we only have “permission”.


Future-proofing our driving licences.  I finally got round to exchanging my driving licence for a Spanish one.  In case of No Deal.  Because we don’t know.  Because so many things remain unclear.  They have taken my British one, given me a temporary one, and I check the postbox each morning awaiting the Brexit-proof Spanish licence (which will need explaining when I drive in the UK!).


Health care.  The big one.  Frankly, all I can do is check my savings account and my ISA and hope and assume that there is enough in there to take care of me in the case of No Deal.  You move to another EU country safe in the knowledge that the 300,000 British pensioners who have done the same before you, have their healthcare funded by the UK (from the taxes paid throughout our lives) paid to our new host country through the EU-wide agreement.  Without a Deal, many will reluctantly return to the UK, unable to pay for healthcare and medications out of a pension which every month buys fewer euros.  Pensioners faced with bills of 1,000€ a month, some even more, just for medications.  Those of us lucky enough to have come out here with a bit of a cushion check it nervously, wondering if it will last.  The enormous blue sky stretches from the village to beyond the mountains.  And in the middle, unseen by everyone except British people, hangs that cloud.

I went on one of my little road-trips last week.  Una escapada.  A lovely few days, meeting old friends and new.  Back via a village that’s not too far from me, Torrox Pueblo, which traditionally hangs umbrellas in the main square to provide spots of shade and a bit of colour.  Lovely!  Colourful.  Photogenic.  From nowhere, between the coloured brollies, up in the blue Spanish summer sky, a white cloud drifted across.



The cloud is always there.  Life goes on, we future-proof, and as far as we can we Brexit-proof.  But life is in limbo for five million people about to lose our rights.  There’s a cloud that doesn’t go away.  Never a day or even an hour goes by without it forcing its way, uninvited, into our thoughts.  And a coloured umbrella won’t be enough to protect us.



©  Tamara  Essex  2019                         

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177 - Forty Days
17 February 2019

Forty-four days.

I go for my morning walk, my feet heading automatically to the Enchanted Place.  The almond blossom is just finishing, and the grass smells fresh.  The view is clear, across to the rocky outcrop that so dominates the village, across to our big mountain, with just a touch of snow on its peak, down to the neighbouring village, and back through the frame of the almond trees to the village that I call home.  I shake off the worries, the cloud that hangs over, and turn back, retracing my steps and round to the bakery where Gloria puts my bread roll in a bag as I enter, without waiting for me to ask.


Forty-three days.

February.  The skies are blue but indoors it is chilly.  I light the fire after lunch and settle down to some Spanish homework.  No more exams for me, but I keep going to classes and there’s always more to learn.  Suddenly in the Spanish article I’m reading the word referéndum appears and at the same moment a log slips and I jump.  I glance out of the window and it seems greyer.  The flames flicker but there’s a chill.


Forty-two days.

On Facebook I click on a group I belong to, of Spanish people living in the UK.  At first I joined to help me get used to casual badly-written Spanish, and in case I could help with advice.  Now I stay to understand the processes they face, in case we will face something similar here.  It seems inhuman, excessively-demanding, and every day on the group there are awful stories of people with 25 years or more in the UK being refused “Settled Status” because they can’t PROVE they have lived there (including someone who has worked consistently for a Local Authority).  A few weeks ago the Prime Minister lifted the £65 charge.  As so often, she missed the point.  The point is that they, like me, moved because they had the right so to do.  As long as we met the fairly basic requirements (of working or being self-sufficient) we had the RIGHT to live elsewhere.  What the EU citizens in the UK are currently having to do is ASK permission.  Permission which can be … and is being … refused, apparently randomly.  This small Facebook group of 5,400 Spaniards log on each morning to share their happiness at a successful application, their distress at a refusal, their confusion because applications must be made through an App but it only works on Android phones.  The UK’s Home Office trips them up at every turn, and they turn to the group for advice and for solace.

Here in Spain we do the same.  Following parliamentary votes, party divisions, British Consulate press releases and online updates.  Following them slavishly, following the advice and support groups that exist for British people in each of the EU countries.   We all have friends who haven’t quite got all the required paperwork in place, and we worry for them.  Those of us with official residency here will have to do what the Spanish in the UK are doing, we will have to ask permission to stay.  Can they refuse?  Yes, though we obviously hope our adopted host nation continues to be more welcoming to us than the UK is to the Spanish nurses, architects and bar-workers whose right to live there has changed to requesting permission.


Forty-one days.

I’m out with Pilar and Ana in Málaga.  A coffee, a film, drinks and a few tapas.  Gossiping, relaxing.  They avoid the subject, though they are following it closely too, worried for me.

A couple of weeks ago it was announced that pensioners living in EU countries would only get the normal inflationary uplift one year more, then their pensions would be frozen at that level.  Last week it was announced that pensioners living in EU countries were no longer entitled to NHS care if they visited the UK.  There is now clarity about the restrictions on people without official residency.  All those second-home owners, part-timers, the winter “swallows”, many of them elderly, who sank their savings into their much-loved Spanish holiday-home.  90 days in 180 days, but that’s for the whole Schengen area, not just Spain, so those who liked to take a week or two to drive down, exploring France on the way, will have to start spreadsheets, counting, rationing their days.  Their right to spend time in their own home is suddenly restricted, suddenly diminished.


Forty days.

I come out of the oldies’ gym in the village, waving goodbye to the women and jumping in my car to head down the autovía.  In Málaga the city is gearing up for Carnaval.  The lights are up, large and small stages pop up in the squares and side-streets.  The cycle of another year is underway.  After Carnaval it’ll be Semana Santa, then feria, and so it goes on.  After six years here I still love each of those events.  I’d miss them.


It’s not that I won’t be able to stay.  I will hand in my little green residency card, that I was so proud of in 2013 when I got it from the police station, and I will ask permission to stay.  I have no doubt it will be granted.  But I still have to ask permission.  They will grant it, I’m sure, but it is not a right any more.  So it feels different.  It ever so slightly changes everything.


I’m unutterably sad.  I know I’m lucky, I know I’m protected from the worst impact.  Some of my rights are protected by dint of already being here (though the protections become far fewer if there is no deal, and here we are at forty days and we still don’t know).  Others cannot follow us, not so easily, not by right.  Back there in the UK the impact will be much greater.  I know that.  We all do.  But right now, as I take a mug of tea up onto the terrace and gaze across the village rooftops, as the countdown clicks down to under forty days, the selfish part of me surfaces.  I think about the Home Office refusing permission to Spanish people.  I think about a friend here worried about not having residency papers.  And another friend whose healthcare needs may cut short his Spanish dream.  And I think about needing to ask permission to stay, and about the forthcoming general election here in Spain and I worry about what that might mean for my adopted country but also what it might mean for us third-country immigrants who no longer have rights but must ask permission to stay.   Permission to stay at home.

©  Tamara  Essex  2019                                 

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176 - Two Thousand Years Ago
14 December 2017

It’s fascinating to think about life in other ages, though significantly harder (for me, at least) to separate those epochs in my mind and understand the differences, and which developments took place when.  Málaga is a city that offers answers to many of those questions.

A visit to the caves and museum La Araña, a little to the east of Málaga, had sparked my interest in a way that history classes at school never had.  Perhaps it was because the Head Archaeologist himself showed us round, or perhaps it was his light-hearted and very human style of presentation, and certainly it was when he led us deep into the caves and then turned off the lights, but this visit kindled a desire to discover more of Málaga’s fascinating and layers of history.

Julian, the bearded archaeologist, also changed forever my use of the word “Neanderthal”.  Sloppily, like many people, I use the word as a short-hand for any ignorant, knuckle-dragging idiot.  This is desperately unfair (on the Neanderthals!).  As we sat quietly in the network of caves with just a flickering candle for light, Julian described how this inner cave was used by the youngsters, while the parents were in the cave nearer the entrance.  Not only were the children unable to pass without being noticed, but the acoustics meant that the parents could hear clearly whether the children were chatting or sleeping, and the children could just hear the distant comforting sound of their parents further below.  Julian showed us the different forms of knives, and casually mentioned one which was used to mince and mash the food so that the toothless elders of the community could eat.  In that moment, he painted a picture that brought to life these hard-working Neanderthal cave-dwellers as individuals and families, cutting up food for granny, listening for the children’s voices, caring and loving, just like us.  I told Julian how the word is used in modern Britain and he laughed.  It’s not used that way in Spain, he said, but mostly because pre-history is not well-taught and this era is glossed over in a few moments of the teachers’ time.

I’ve already written about the superb Museo de Málaga (Blog post 169).  Earlier this month I had the chance to go again, this time with another archaeologist, a young woman who had actually found many of the items in display.  Golly, it adds an element of reality to the tour!   First we visited the roman theatre (el teatro romano).  In the Visitors’ Centre there is a fairly splendid skeleton, which had been found beneath the pedestrianised road which now runs beside the roman theatre.  “Yes I found her” said Olga, casually, adding that the woman’s rings and bracelets are now in the main museum.

After the tour of the roman theatre with a guide who has to be one of the funniest I’ve ever heard, Olga led us through the historic centre of Málaga, following the line of the old city walls, and showed us into a number of public and private buildings in which the ancient walls can be seen well-preserved in basements.  At some sections, she waved her hand, blithely announcing “I found this section, too”.  In many countries, a young archaeologist in the 21st century can work their whole lives and just find fragments of Roman porcelain or Neolithic arrowheads.  But for Olga and for us, Málaga with its multi-layered past buried not too deeply is the gift that keeps on giving.

She showed us the stone stores she had uncovered where garum paste was made with fish blood and innards (commendably leaving nothing to waste, but … bleargh!).  She described finding a skeleton – a person – and how the position in which they lay, and the adornments they wore told her reams about their life and their status.  The Roman era was perhaps one of the most class-defined of all, and your status was constantly reinforced, whether by where you sat in the theatre, by how far down the staircase the home-owner came to greet you, or by how far into the home (through how many patios) you were permitted.

Later, in the museum itself, I asked Olga if I could take a photo of her beside some treasure she had found.  “Certainly”, she said.  “The jewellery?  The skeleton?  The pottery?  The coins?  The garum stores?  The statue? …”.   She could go on.  “The jewellery”, I said, cutting her long list short.

And now it is the Christmas season, and Málaga does it magnificently.  The lights are on in Calle Larios, and the nativity scenes (los belenes) are in place.  Another glance back to life 2,000 years ago, a belén here in Spain is so much more than just the little stable scene that is traditionally seen in Britain.  “Belén” is the Spanish for Bethlehem, and so the entire village is laid out, often covering 30 square metres or more.  Figures and sections depict Egypt with pyramids and camels, the imperial Roman empire, and the Palestinian village of Bethlehem, surrounded by village life continuing as normal – market stalls, fishermen returning with their catch, a bakery, a wine seller.  In the centre of all this normality is the stable scene, beautifully lit. 
Geography gets fudged somewhat – the cathedral belén includes Málaga’s roman theatre, and the lovely Italianate one in Museo Carmen Thyssen has a backdrop behind the stable, of Málaga port and beach, with a flamenco guitarist sitting on the wall!  Families file past, pointing out the different stories to their children, and unknowingly teaching them, too, about life in Roman times.

We learn our history through many forms.  History lessons probably sink in for some people but certainly don’t for others.  Christmas subliminally teaches us quite a lot about the Roman empire and how people lived;  we have fairly clear images of people’s clothing and lifestyles, whether rich togaed Romans or poor Bethlehem shepherds.  A single line from a bearded archaeologist can change your perception of an ancient people.  And sharing a beer and some boquerones with a young woman who regularly digs up dead Romans, Visigoths and Neanderthals can awaken a desire to explore more of what lies six feet below my feet as I explore Málaga’s 21stC depictions of the Bethlehem of 2,000 years ago.


©  Tamara  Essex  2017                                  

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175 - Finding Luck
30 November 2017

The tradition began a few years ago.  A coachload of villagers from my pueblo and a nearby one had gone off on a holiday together to Almería in the autumn.  On one of the excursions, somebody said they wanted to nip off and buy a Christmas lottery ticket.  Suddenly everyone around decided to go too, and the coach returned from Roquetas del Mar with people clutching over 200 of the precious lottery tickets, for themselves and for presents within their families.

And the luck fell their way.  Forty-four pensioners from Villanueva de la Concepción and another twenty or so from Colmenar, plus all the lucky recipients of the lottery ticket gifts, won a serious lump of cash each.  Let’s just say that if anyone had a mortgage or a massive credit card bill, they don’t any more.

So ever since, a “lottery stop” has become a built-in, unmissable and obligatory part of any of the pueblo excursions.  And it’s very difficult to avoid taking part – imagine being the ONLY one on the coach that doesn’t have a ticket!

Thus I found myself passing handfuls of euro notes up the coach, and adding my own 20€ to buy one single “décimo” ticket for “El Gordo” (the Fat One, the nickname of the big Christmas lottery).  We were on our way to Madrid to see “The Lion King”.  The volunteer at the front was carefully noting each person’s name and the number of décimos they were buying.  The cash was shoved into a deep leather bag.  Once in Madrid, our long-suffering guide tried desperately to interest us in a bit of Madrid’s history, but more attention was being paid to where exactly the famous kiosk could be found – reportedly the luckiest lottery vendor in the whole of Spain!   Walking up the beautiful main street, La Gran Vía, the guide pointed out the theatre where “The Lion King” was on, and the restaurant opposite where we would meet to dine beforehand.  Half of us were listening, the other half were checking the Maps application on their phones, looking for Calle del Carmen 22, the location of Doña Manolita, the kiosk where our tickets were to be bought.

The guide led us off towards Puerta del Sol, an important plaza that hosts major political rallies.  The last time I had been there, back in 2011, it was full of tents and makeshift communal kitchens, libraries and creches, as the Indignados occupied the square, starting a worldwide movement (and launching the new left-wing Spanish political party, Podemos).  Today it was calm, with just one small demonstration of half a dozen people protesting against new Israeli settlements in Palestine.  The guide struggled in vain to keep the attention of the group – Juan had checked his phone and the famous kiosk was mere yards away!  In the middle of some explanation about something or other, a splinter group snuck off (tightly clutching the leather bag from the coach).

I waited politely until the guide had finished, then sprinted after them, finding Juan still in the queue outside Doña Manolita’s.  The Policía Local had put lines to keep the queue in order, and were there to check that nobody tried queue-jumping.  Juan reached the front and handed over a really rather significant wodge of cash, buying tickets for 62 of us, many buying for extended family members.  As we left with our large heap of décimos, the queue had become even longer.  For many, this is money they can barely afford, being thrown away on a never-to-be-fulfilled dream. For a few, it will be the end of struggling, working three jobs, and being unable to give their children everything they want.  Even at 20€ a go, more tickets are sold when time are tough.  There’s always just that chance, isn’t there?  Ojalá que me toque.  It could be me.

Meanwhile, back on the bus to return home, we played bingo.  I had the good luck to NOT be the first to fill a line, as the prize was a pair of pants, won by Josefa, who paraded up and down the coach wearing them on her head.  ¡Ojalá que no me toque!

But it didn’t end there.  In November we went away again, to Murcia, again with some villagers from Villanueva de la Concepción, with whom the luck had been shared a few years ago.  Again the list was made, the money collected, and the precious Lottery décimos bought and distributed.  The state lottery in Spain is run by ONCE, the national charity that helps blind people find work.  Kiosks all over the country are staffed by people with disabilities, while others are licensed to sell the lottery tickets from strips that they carry around bars and restaurants.  Almost 80,000 people, all of whom are registered as blind or have another disability, make a living through ONCE.  So at least, if you aren’t a winner, the money has gone to a genuine charity, and at a MUCH higher rate than the UK lottery (where less than 5% of the funds go to charities, the other “good causes” being state responsibilities such as the NHS, education, sport etc).

So on December 22nd, the children of San Ildefonso school will sing out the numbers, bars all over Spain will be showing the lottery programme, families will gather round the TV, and the precious décimos will be spread out on the table.  It’s décimo because you just buy one tenth, so if you buy lots then everyone in your family has the same number.  If one wins, you all win.  I will line up my ticket from Doña Manolita in Madrid and my ticket from Murcia.  And if we don’t win, the ritual of the singing children (video here) will remind me of those two trips and the fun we had.

In addition I’ll buy at least one bought from a shop or club or bar in my own pueblo.  That’s important, because if one wins you all win.  And what better than to celebrate a win, be it large or small, with your neighbours?


©  Tamara  Essex  2017                                       


Like 1        Published at 16:23   Comments (2)

174 - Growing Old in the Pueblo
11 October 2017

Officially, I’m not old.  I’m too young to get a pension, and I’m not sixty yet.  My pueblo organises events and trips for the “oldies”, but technically I’m too young.  Technically.  But thanks to last year’s heart attack, I can sneak in.  The doctor “prescribed” me the Thursday gym sessions in our health centre for “los mayores”, the oldies of the village.  This apparently minor decision on the doctor’s part opened a door to a new world, a world inhabited by friendly, active, welcoming, and hysterically-funny older people.  You could say that this was a world into which I had not wanted to enter, but now my fears have gone.

Little by little, through the gym group, I have met more of the village oldies and made more friends.  But the best of all is that membership of the gym group gives me access to the magnificent array of events organised by the wonderful Baltasar in our ayuntamiento (town hall).  Balta is the supreme expert in achieving small grants from the Junta de Andalucîaand the Diputación de Málaga (the first is the big regional layer of government, and the second is the province, roughly like a County Council), as long as he can demonstrate that there is a cultural, health, or educational aspect to our trips.

So this week has been the 15th “Semana de los mayores”, the week of the oldies.  We’ve been along the coast for a posh spa day (with a quick walk around the botanic gardens to justify the grant).  We’ve been around Málaga bay on a boat trip (with a museum visit, captured in a photo to send with the grant report).  A long country walk (with breakfast), a karaoke evening (with afternoon tea), lunch on the two day-trips, petanque (with breakfast) and dominos (with afternoon tea).  You might be forgiven for thinking that much of the grant gets spent on food … !

It’s always scary getting old.  You can’t help but wonder where you will be and how you will pass your later years.  Especially if you are single, and especially for any woman, as we are normally the ones left behind.   At the lunch in Málaga, we filed into the grand dining room, and one woman grabbed a big round table and shouted for “las solteras”, the single women.  It was the table with the loudest laughter, and a fascinating conversation amongst those women who had chosen to remain unmarried.  During the country walk, I was strolling and chatting with four ladies.  At one point my foot slipped slightly, I wasn’t at risk of falling but the stones made that sound of someone slipping.  Instantly there were eight hands supporting my arms and back, ensuring my safety.  Within seconds they saw I was fine and we walked on, laughing some more.  A moment that is easy to forget but actually says a lot.   And throughout the week, this vibrant group of so-called oldies impressed me with their humour, their caring nature, their vitality, and their ability to engage whole-heartedly with the opportunities around them.

Getting old in my village doesn’t seem too bad.  I’m less scared about “the third age”.  I think I will embrace it with vigour, alongside the happy, laughing oldies of Colmenar.


©  Tamara  Essex  2017                                                            


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173 - Time Travel and Big Green Knickers
27 July 2017

A few days after the announcement of the new Doctor Who, I did a bit of time travelling of my own.  From Málaga airport, instead of my usual Ryanair flight to Bournemouth, a red Jet2 flight bore me half an hour further north to Leeds-Bradford airport for a reunion.


Forty years ago nobody had even conceived of the internet.  Twenty years ago we had email and a bit of dial-up internet access, but no Google or Facebook.  Finding people was well-nigh impossible.  So in 1997 when some “old girls” of Leeds Girls’ High School organised a 20-year anniversary gathering, they did well to track down as many as they did.  But for many of us, that event, like the anniversary, passed us by unnoticed, unmarked.


Then came Friends Reunited, LinkedIn, Facebook and proper search engines, and life got easier.  Out of the blue a message in my inbox from a classmate from the 1970s started a chain of events that drew me back to Leeds.  Through Deborah I found Amanda, then a few more.  A Facebook group was formed.  Too many names.  A bit overwhelming.  Unrecognisable surnames taken on marriage, profile pictures of children or pets.  I’d left at 14 when my family moved away, so I just assumed that I hadn’t overlapped with many of them.


This spring an invitation to a reunion appeared in my inbox.  I looked at the list, the first dozen who had signed up.  Unfamiliar names.  I felt detached.  Class of ‘77?  I’d left in ‘73, did my O-levels in Australia, and an A-level later at a tech college.  Leeds Girls’ was a school of high-achievers.  My dad’s death when I was 17 had sent my life in a different direction, these girls would all be hugely successful – did I want to go?


I ignored it for weeks.  Then suddenly a name I recognised messaged the group offering to sort accommodation at Leeds University where she works.  I looked more closely at the attendance list.  I clicked on a “Sarah” who had a blank profile pic.  Scrolled down.  Her photo appeared, and all at once the years fell away, and there was a completely familiar 14-year old girl.  A closer look, and I could see that she had changed;  the life etched on the features, a touch of grey in the hair, the reality of being 58.  But underneath, there she was, the 14-year old girl, mischievous, grinning, and transporting me back 44 years.


The event now seemed attractive.  I clicked on a few more attendees.  Jane, Heather, Sarah F, Sarah D, Claire, Christine, Julia, Nadia, Ruth.  Yes!  These were my friends, albeit some with different surnames.  I booked flights.  Booked the offered accommodation.  Booked the lunch ticket.  Memories began to surface uninvited, some jumbled, but mostly good.  I put a question on the Facebook group about a teacher, and a hysterical thread developed.  The gym teacher.  The geography teacher who didn’t seem to like any of us (but we can all explain the formation of oxbow lakes in our sleep).  Universally good memories of the English teacher.


I flew over and made my way towards the university accommodation.  The bus from the city centre went past Leeds Girls’ High School, now being converted into posh flats and completely inaccessible.  After our time there our school had merged with the boys’ grammar school and our buildings had been used first as a film set then left to deteriorate.  A moment later the bus passed Ford House, the junior part, where I had started at the age of nine.  Despite the scaffolding and the hoardings, I had images of small girls in green felt hats and big green knickers.


At the university residences I headed across the car park and an explosion of shrieks alerted me to the location of our accommodation.  I was greeted by smiles and hugs and faces completely familiar from 44 years ago.  The kettle went on and the reminiscing began.  Later at a nearby wine-bar two more old faces joined us.  We ALL remembered Paula.  Best at everything, but too nice to be annoying!  Memories flowed, and lots of mentions of big green knickers (the very much unloved element of our uniform).  Back at the residences, we produced wine, biscuits, laughs, a few tears, and an unstoppable flow of stories, and we staggered to bed at 2am.



The next day was the big event.  A huge amount of work by the organisers.  The old boys’ grammar school had also been sold, so we were meeting out at the new “Grammar School at Leeds” (there was unanimous disapproval of the use of “at” in their title).  Welcome drinks, shrieks at every new arrival, formal photos on the steps, lunch, an enthusiastic rendition of the school song (with at least three girls able to do more than just the first verse from memory, in Latin!), and a display of archive material, school magazines etc.




Another wine-bar evening, another late night in the kitchen of our flat.  Apparently at the 20th anniversary there had been a bit of competitiveness, a bit of jostling for position.  Now, aged 58, nobody cared about that.  The shared life experiences of loss, disappointments, minor achievements, finding our comfortable places, bound us together.  Next morning a final breakfast, hugs, promises not to leave it so long, and relief that through the magic of Facebook the connections made fifty years ago between small, shy little girls are now rekindled and will never be lost.


Then, through the magic of I left 1970s Yorkshire, landed a few hours later in Spain and was instantly caught up in 21st century Málaga.  I’d time-travelled for a short weekend.  We’d been 11-year olds again.  Detentions, sports days, house loyalty, Speech Days, and big green knickers.  It was as though it was yesterday.



©  Tamara  Essex  2017                                                                  


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172 - An Educational Escapada
06 June 2017

Poco a poco, paso a paso.  I suppose it is a mark of how life here has become normal and familiar, that in recent months it has only been my “escapadas”, or escapes, that have seemed to warrant a blog post.  Daily life in Colmenar and Málaga trundles on.  Half a week in the city, attending Spanish classes, helping my groups of Spaniards learning English, coffee with Jose, and a weekly meal out with Spanish “foodie” friends, discovering more fabulous restaurants.  Half a week in the village, relaxing in pueblo life, coffee with friends or neighbours, joining in the oldies’ gym class, walking in the campo, shopping in the village shops, queuing at the ayuntamiento to sign up for the latest Junta-subsidised weekend away!  Normality.  My new normality.  Not interesting enough to write about.

But the out of the ordinary, yes.  Exploring, travelling, that always throws up something of interest.

Last month a coach-load of Colmenareños piled onto a coach for a weekend in Doñana national park, in the far south-west of Spain.  On the bus Baltasar explained the approximate timetable, the arrival times (más o menos – more or less) and departure times (más o menos).  He added for my benefit that we would be on Spanish timings, not English ones, so the “más o menos” was important for me to remember.  Thanks to an educational grant from the Junta de Andalucía, available for educational visits, our weekend programme needed to include some “culture” and education.  So on the first morning a string of four-by-four dune buggies pulled up to take us into the National Park, with commentary to explain the three different eco-systems of the dunes & beaches, the marisma (salt marshes), and the forest and scrub areas.  We saw deer (ciervo), wild boar (jabalí), flamingos (flamencos) and storks (cigüeña).  Sadly the rare lynx (lincesremained out of sight.  We stopped to view a couple of large oval thatched buildings in the park.  My Spanish neighbours were aghast at the roof and were muttering to each other about how it would let in water in the winter.  I explained to them how it worked, and showed a photo of my thatched cottage in Dorset.  Some were impressed that the extranjera knew anything about countryside crafts, others seemed to feel sorry for me, living in a house without even a proper roof.

The next day we went to el Monasterio de La Rábida, pretty much a museum of Christopher Columbus (or Cristobal Colón, as he is known here).  And it’s not just his name that is different.  This was meant to be an educational part of the weekend, and what I learned is that what we learn at school is filtered through our own national perceptions, and through the “truth filters” created to suit each country.   Turns out that Columbus was Italian, born Cristoforo Colombo.  I’m not sure I knew that!  He moved to Portugal as a teenager, then to Huelva in Spain, and ultimately set off on the voyage of 1492 from Palos de la Frontera, near the Monasterio.  Our guide in La Rábida asked lots of questions of our group, and received answers chanted back to her as though we were a school group.  It seems that this part of history is taught with vigour in Spanish schools!  Far more so than in British schools.  I had an incorrect half-formed idea that Queen Elizabeth 1 had part-funded his journey, whereas in fact she was not the monarch at the time he sailed, it was Henry VII.  Chatting to our village’s mayor as we were leaving, he seemed surprised how little I had learned as a child about this massively important part of Spain’s history.  I didn’t like to tell him it was probably the only thing we HAD learned that even mentioned Spain!

On the final day we visited El Rocío, where the country’s biggest romería ends up (a romería is a pilgrimage on horseback).  The village has no concrete or tarmac, and is covered with sand.  Instead of angled car parking spaces, there are wooden rails for tying up horses.  It’s a fascinating, memorable place to visit – surprisingly I was almost the only one of our group to have been there before.  Another example of the incomer exploring more than the locals do.

Then the coach whisked us back to Colmenar.  Gracias a la Junta de Andalucía for the subsidised holiday!  Oops, I mean the fascinating educational visit!  And we were back to sleep in our own beds again.

Travel is a wonderful thing.  It opens your heart and your mind and makes you understand and appreciate difference.  Coming home, on the other hand, fills your heart, and makes you appreciate the familiar.


©  Tamara  Essex  2017                                       

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