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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.

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                                       


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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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171 - Four Breakfasts and a Barbecue
26 April 2017

Another month, another “escapada”.  This time to Cádiz, a city I had overlooked for far too long.  Three nights in probably the best-located Airbnb flat anywhere, with a terrace looking directly onto the tower of the impressive cathedral.  It was the flat of Francesca and Carlos – for me the real benefit of the Airbnb system is being able to stay with locals and get their tips about things to see and places to eat.   

Day one breakfast was at La Bodeguita de Plocia, Francesca’s recommendation, a short walk from her flat towards the port.  Eight of us at a big shared table.  Me, one elderly Spanish woman, and six Guardia Civil.  That was an interesting conversation!  One of the police put his gun on the table between us, which had the effect of slightly putting me off my tostada.

I like Cádiz – that first experience of strangers chatting together over breakfast turned out not to be a one-off event.  The second day I headed for La Bodeguilla de Cádiz, up towards the city’s northern beach.  The locals are not surprised when a foreigner speaks Spanish, they seem to take it for granted.  But when an American entered and spoke English the bar fell silent and everybody stared.   It felt a bit like a cross between one of those spaghetti western saloons, and Royston Vasey.  “A local bar, for local people”.  The bodeguilla is a little away from the tourist centre (though nothing in Cádiz can be far) and it is a locals’ bar, recommended by a friend whose sister lives in Cádiz.  When the American left without ordering, I wondered aloud if I should have translated for him.  My new breakfast-mates protested vehemently, saying “No!  We’re having breakfast together – you aren’t here to help foreigners.”  Although I was just as much a foreigner as he, my foreign-ness was overlooked because we were speaking the same language.

The third and final breakfast was late on Sunday morning.  Francesca and Carlos had gone to Málaga to celebrate his birthday with his family, and the flat was mine.  So I slept in, and enjoyed padding around and fantasising that it was mine.  The morning sun behind the cathedral projected a perfect shadow of the spire onto the living room floor.  Outside, the cathedral square was sunny but packed with Sunday tourists, so I breakfasted in a little hidden bar behind el Arco del Pópulo.  A recently-widowed mum and her six sons and daughters at the next table were deciding who she would go and live with.  The sons, just like the daughters, were keen to have her and care for her.  She sharply reminded the boys that she wouldn’t be their cook.  It was both sad and uplifting.  This time I was happy to breakfast in silence and eavesdrop respectfully on a family planning the next phase of its life.

The car gives me the freedom to wander and explore new corners of my adopted country.  The language allows me to enter it and engage with it, rather than tread on its surface and view it as a tourist.  I am a tourist, of course, on these escapadas, but I value hugely the conversations with strangers that offer me an insight into another culture.  Plus, following the dining tips of various breakfast companions has led me to some exceptional and bars!

Back in my pueblo, I had signed up for a day out with the village oldies, a trip down to the reservoir and a gentle walk.  As the chartered bus rolled down Calle Camino de Málaga towards the excitedly-chattering group in the square, more bustled towards us from every direction, everyone carrying enormous cool-bags plus baskets laden with food.  I wondered to my neighbour how it was going to work, if everyone brought enough food for six?  She shot me a glance laden with ridicule.  “There won’t be too much ….” she assured me.

Piling off the bus at the edge of the Zona Recreativa we grabbed the bags from the luggage compartment and headed down the slope to grab a space at one of the big stone tables.  It was only 10am but the first event on the agenda was “second breakfast”, an unshakeable Spanish tradition.  This being the Monday after Semana Santa (Easter week) Antonia’s table produced a selection of small “pavitos“, a baked item, a cross between bread and pastry, wrapped around a whole egg in its shell, and some “hornazos”, slightly bigger, and with eyes!   What with breakfast and chatting and wandering between tables to see what people were eating, it was 11.30 before the long-suffering town hall organisers could get us on our feet for a walk around part of the reservoir.  Juana and several others dived off the path a number of times, returning with handfuls of wild asparagus, that I could never see in the undergrowth – I think it’s in the Spanish genes!

We returned an hour and a half later, and it was time for games.   Moderately gentle, as this WAS a trip for the older residents, we split into two teams and played various ball games, throwing and passing big rubber balls.  One of the games involved shouting the name of another person then throwing them the ball.  Mildly problematic for me as my own neighbours had opted out of this exercise and I was surrounded by faces I vaguely recognised but which did not have names attached.  My heart sank as I heard my name called and a second later the ball arrived at my chest.  A brainwave struck, and I shouted “María!”.  A safe guess, and at least five faces turned towards me.  I picked one, gave her a look that was trying to say “Yes, you, María, I KNEW that was your name!” and I threw the ball.

Every stone table had its own stone barbecue, and by now most had been lit, and the smell of wild rosemary and thyme wafted over towards us.  A quick game of beach tennis (with some sort of scoop bats) and we stopped for lunch.  Coolbags were opened, mountains of Tupperware appeared, even plates and proper cutlery.  A Spanish picnic does not involve pre-made sandwiches eaten out of silver foil, goodness no.  Bread is carved fresh from the loaf, huge salads decanted into big serving bowls, and decent glasses appeared from somewhere to be filled with decent wine.  Bottles of excellent olive oil were carefully unwrapped (our table of five had three litres of olive oil between us), and meat spread out over the flaming wood.  It was a veritable feast.  And sharing food, and laughing, and breaking bread, with good friends and neighbours in the beautiful surroundings of the natural woodland, beside the reservoir, was on the one hand nothing more than just another “día en el campo” (day in the countryside), and on the other hand it was so much more.


©  Tamara  Essex  2017                               


PS:   If you have some Spanish, it is worth listening to a monologue about a day in the countryside by the Malagueño comedian Dani Rovira.  His affectionate and hysterical take on this ancient Spanish tradition is fast but very funny.

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170 - Una Escapada
07 March 2017

Juan-Jesús was probably about seven, though hard to tell.  He’d been staring at me in the bar earlier, where I’d been chatting to a charming old guy about the provenance of the local jamón.  The old fella had offered some useful tips about villages I should visit between Huelva and Extremadura.  Obviously the child had spotted my accent, and seemed captivated by it.  170-treeLater, while I grabbed some photos of Cortelazor’s 1,000-year old oak tree (the original meeting-place of the town council), I caught a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye, and there was Juanje again.

He told me which street he lived in, and asked where I was from.  When I said I was from England his face lit up and he switched to speaking in heavily-accented English.  “I know about London” he said, confidently.  “That’s good,” I replied,  “tell me about London”.  Without a pause he began rattling off a list of facts.  “There is Bridge Tower there.  Is many people.  Queen Isabella born London.  Also Weeso Turto.  London very big.  More big than Sevilla.”

Not every seven-year old British child could rattle off five facts about London, on demand.  I was impressed.  By this time we had reached the end of his street. I told him his English was excellent and he smiled with good eye-contact before waving goodbye and running down the cobbled slope.  I carried on with my midnight stroll around the pretty village, vaguely wondering who “Weeso Turto” was.

I was on a mini-roadtrip, fulfilling my new year’s resolution to explore more of Spain.  Only three nights away, so I hadn’t gone far.  West past Sevilla into the province of Huelva to Aracena.  My first overnight was chosen randomly, based on fabulously cute pictures of a rustic house in Cortelazor where the owner offered a room through Airbnb.  A great choice, as I’d never have visited the village otherwise.  It’s not famous, and I don’t think they see many tourists, so I was viewed with surprise and interest (but no suspicion or hostility).  Strangers spoke to me spontaneously in the two bars where I spent the evening, one of my drinks was paid for by goodness-knows-who, and three locals 170-jamongathered round to explain “la dehesa” to me as I tucked into a tapa of local jamón (and were appropriately impressed when I already understood dehesa and had spent a day on one!  122 – Of Acorns, Olives, and Old-Andaluz).  Between them, they mapped out my route for the following day.  One got very excited and shouted that I simply MUST go to Jerez de los Caballeros.  He looked quite crest-fallen when I said that my friend Lola had already put that on my “must-do” list.

Both Lola and the stranger in the Cortelazor bar were right.  Jerez de los Caballeros is a simply stunning village.  An excess of towers, spires, beautiful old buildings, and a plethora of huge storks’ nests cropping out from the high points, made this a high-point of the whole trip.

Then on to Zafra.  As Lola and Pilar and Susana had all told me, it’s very difficult to eat badly in Zafra!  The dehesa land all around the region provides not only the Iberian pigs for jamón, but also free-range (happy!) cows and sheep.  The local speciality is “carne de retinto”, free-range beef from red-haired cows, which I tried in a cute bar in the corner of Zafra’s Plaza Chica (“little square”).

With two nights in Zafra, I was able to head north on the straightest road I’d ever been on (the speedometer kept creeping upwards and I was constantly having to reduce my speed on this long, empty Roman road).  The destination was Mérida, where there are purportedly more Roman ruins than anywhere outside Rome.  A touristy town, understandably, so it was useful that my friend Leticia had given me a recommendation of an excellent non-touristy restaurant.

Back in Zafra I was torn between trying yet another of the magnificent bars and restaurants, but in the end the lure of Manuel’s cheese croquetas was too strong and I 170-zafrachicareturned to the little backstreet bar that I’d found the night before.  I was greeted as a regular (after one visit!) and Manuel grabbed a map to help guide me on the following day’s drive.  He recommended more local villages – Jabugo, where the altitude and the wind provide a particular method of drying the pata negra hams to make particular fine jamón.  Llerena.  Cazalla de la Sierra.  He too was impressed that I’d already visited Jabugo on my route out of Cortelazor, so pushed me towards the other two.  I’m always happy to accept random advice!  Sometimes it works out really well, and if not, well, I always like to stop somewhere for a coffee.  The whole trip was made infinitely better by the detailed guidance of some Spanish friends and a couple of foodie British friends.  They are already helping plan my next escapada.

While I was driving I heard on Spanish radio that the King’s sister the Infanta Cristina and her husband Iñaki Urdangarin would be sentenced in half an hour for their part in the caso Nóos corruption trial.  I timed it perfectly and stopped in a bar in Llerena to watch the news.  At a minute to eleven the bar suddenly filled, as all the Spaniards from the street piled in to see the sentencing.  His was announced first – six years and three months.  There was quiet muttering in the bar (“pffff, no es suficiente”).  Then hers.  Nothing.  Her claim that she had seen nothing, heard nothing, done nothing, was accepted.  One old man spat at the telly and pushed his way out.  The rest seemed more resigned, rather as though they had expected this verdict.  “Una ley pa’ellos, otra pa’ nosotros” (one law for them, another for us).  And people wonder why there is so little respect for powerful people.

“The price of greatness is responsibility,” as somebody said.  This “golden couple”, privileged, royal, rich, were greedy for more, and irresponsible with their power.   Who was it said that?  I pondered as I walked back to the car.  Ah yes – Winston Churchill.  And in that moment another puzzle was answered.  “Weeso Turto he born London” Juanje had told me proudly three days ago.  Take into account the Spanish difficulty in ending words, putting a “t” in the middle, or sounding a “ch”, and there you have it.  Weeso Turto = Winston Churchill.


©  Tamara  Essex  2017                                      

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169 - The Infinite Breadth of My Ignorance
15 February 2017

I love my friends.  And they just know such interesting STUFF! 

169-groupWe toddled off to the Museo de Málaga last week, my second visit there, this time with a mixed group of British and Spanish.  I’m a bit rubbish with museums, usually.  Ten minutes, a quick waltz round, and then head for coffee.  But this museum is more interesting than most.  It benefits from excellent info-panels in Spanish and English, and it has simply fascinating exhibits.  Jewellery, stones, pots, tools, statues, mosaics, columns, ranging from artefacts a thousand years old right back to stuff from 30,000 years BP.

Yes, “BP”, not “BC”.  The first time I had gone, I’d noticed this abbreviation;  apparently back in the second half of the 20th C, geologists, scientists and international carbon-dating experts agreed that for the world-wide scientific community it wasn’t appropriate to use a 169-bpdate rooted in just one religion, not recognised across the world.  So they came up with “BP”:  not a petrol company, but an abbreviation for “Before Present”.  And in Spanish, “AP” – antes de presente.  Now, according to the archaeologists, “present” means January 1st, 1950!   However this discrepancy isn’t terribly important, as if a museum item dates from, say, 1865, they will put the date.  Or 1792.  Because in those cases the actual year is known.  However, once it gets to more than about 3,000 old, they will put 3,000 BP.  So 15,000 BC would now be 17,000 BP.  I could only see it mentioned in el Museo de Málaga when really quite big numbers were involved!

So, for the first five or ten minutes of the visit, I was able to feel moderately smart.  The group followed me trustingly from our meeting point cafetería to the museum, and listened with genuine interest as I explained this new(ish) abbreviation in English and Spanish.  I was, as one of them told me, “la que corta el bacalao” (she who cuts the cod – a lovely saying, meaning “the one in charge”, or “the big cheese”).  But that was the end of my brief sojourn as the cutter of the cod.

169-coinsWe were gazing at an impressive display of jewellery and pots from, oh I can’t remember, quite a lot of centuries BP, all found in Málaga though some originating from other parts of the Mediterranean.  “Of course this collection reflects why the Mediterranean is called that” said Gary in a throwaway comment.  I froze to the spot.  The Med?  Why is the Med called that?  And what’s it got to do with museum exhibits?  Huh?

169-headsHe saw my blank expression.  “You know,” he said.  “Medi-terra-nean.  The middle of the earth, or the centre of the world”.  Gulp.  Well yes, now you mention it, that seems blindingly obvious.  Latin origins, “medius” and “terra”.  The centre of the known world at that time.   Northern Africa, the western parts of Arabic and Asian cultures, and southern Europe.  Basically, the trading areas which were developed in the Phoenician era, bringing late Bronze Age culture from the near East to Greece and Italy, to northwest Africa, and to the Iberian Peninsula.

169-potsAs we wandered the rest of the museum, I pondered my ignorance.  I benefited from a good education in the 1960s and 70s.  And I did OK in history O-level.  Maybe my habit of checking out museum coffee-shops and gift shops rather than concentrating on the information panels has impacted on my ability to retain this kind of knowledge?   Considering this train of thought, of course, completely prevented me from taking in the facts on the very informative labels on the exhibits.

We studied a fascinating map of ancient tombs, including of course the magnificent 7,000 year-old dolmenes of Antequera.   We moved on to a map of the earliest settled cities;  Málaga is generally considered to be the third oldest city in Spain, after Cadiz and Sevilla.  Gary added “Of course, Antequera must be up there in the list too, given its name.”  I froze again.  Me quedé de piedra.  “It was originally known as Antecaria” said Gary,  “antiquarian!” he grinned.  Damn!   Got me again.  Obvious really.  And I did some Latin at school!

I suppose it’s just the way ones mind works.  What Gary and Manuel and Lola and others in our group were able to do, was make those links.  I need someone to point them out.  The guides came to tell us it was chucking-out time.  Every one of us was determined to return – there is just so much to take in.


A dozen of us walked a few minutes to my favourite  Argentinian bar.  Once again I was the one who “cuts the cod”.  My recommendation of the empanadillas was snapped up by the majority.  See?  I DO have useful knowledge to share!


“The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.”
– Albert Einstein

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”
– Aristotle


©  Tamara  Essex  2017                                                 


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168 - Space for Two Campos
26 January 2017

“Seen through Mediterranean eyes, we English are a cautious, fussy, elderly-minded people, living without large ideas among a litter of temporary expedients: far too taken up with the problems our muddle creates for us to have much faculty left for practising the arts of life.” 

Thus wrote Gerald Brenan on his return to England after the tour of Spain about which he wrote in “The Face of Spain” (1950).  Spain had captivated him, as it does so many of us, yet he at least in part fell into the trap of seeing the host country through rose-tinted spectacles, and seeing only the negatives of the home nation.


This outlook, and its polar opposite, can be seen to this day in the modern home of the written word:  the internet and Facebook forums.  There are British people in Spain who will not hear a negative word spoken of their adopted country, and who react to any criticism with their standard (and tedious) cry of “Well if you don’t like it, why don’t you go home?”  In equal numbers there are the detractors.   A mild and justifiable comment that electricity prices are rising, that the internet can be slow in isolated mountain hamlets, or that a favourite bar is slightly marred by a “lack of attention to detail” in the toilet department, rapidly spirals downwards into a general attack on Spain, someone describing it as “a third-world country” and someone else following this up with “If it weren’t for us, they’d all be riding around on donkeys”.  This is, I suppose, the general nature of the internet.  It seems to force people to extreme positions.  I assume (and for their sakes, I hope) that at home they do not spend the entire day firmly glued to these polarised outlooks.  Even those who can describe Spain as a third-world country presumably spend some of their day enjoying the excellent food, stunning countryside, and warm acceptance by our very-much first-world neighbours?  Even those who will hear no criticism in public, presumably sigh as they lay out the rugs for the winter and think back wistfully to the days of UK wall-to-wall carpets and centrally-heated luxury?

Brenan, to be fair, wrote that paragraph on his return from a three-month tour in 1950 revisiting his old stamping grounds and visiting new areas, and within a few more paragraphs expressed openly exactly this struggle between negativity and positivity, finding in the end a degree of equilibrium and recognising the good and the bad in both countries.  That equilibrium that any emigrant or immigrant seeks.  That balance, and a way of managing loyalties to two countries and two cultures.

Everyone has to manage that their own way.  Some do it by not visiting their homeland, and rely on the attraction of the Mediterranean to ensure that a regular stream of friends and family come out to visit them here in Spain.  Personally, I love my visits “back home”, though I do feel like a visitor, and feel that although the outward flight from Málaga to Bournemouth is in one sense “going home”, I know full well that it is the return leg, Bournemouth to Málaga, that is bringing me “home”.  Yet I do feel “at home” in Dorset, whilst at the same time feeling like a visitor.  Just as in Colmenar, in Shaftesbury too a walk to the Post Office takes hours, as I am hailed by old friends and distant acquaintances, dragged off for a coffee or a visit to the art gallery, lunch dates made, and the usual town council chaos unpicked and dissected.  A stranger stops me in the High Street and asks me the date of this year’s Shaftesbury Local Food Festival, though I passed on the mantle of organiser many years ago and the food festival merged with the town’s arts festival and changed its date.  I have no idea when it is, though people still assume I do.

Maybe it is all about roots.  Although newer, my roots in Spain already feel deep and permanent.  Although long-standing, my roots in the UK feel more shallow, but still strong.  Different, but balanced.

And “difference” is a key word here.  Mostly I would argue that “better” and “worse” just don’t come into it.  Yes of course, in a few superficial areas – I am amazed that the 10€ and 20€ buttons on petrol pumps have not yet made an appearance in the UK.  That every remote mountain bar has automatic lights in the loos to save energy impresses me every time (even while loo paper is all-too-frequently absent).  On the other hand, electric power showers are unheard-of in rural Andalucía, and any request for cashback at Spanish garages and supermarkets is met with a blank stare.  Some useful and simple inventions have simply not travelled between the countries, despite the huge number of people travelling in each direction.  Different.  Not better, not worse, just different.

In that awful, gut-wrenching, equilibrium-shattering month following the referendum, I thought at first I would be forced to move back to the UK.   Not something I want to do, but it would hardly be ghastly.  Then I thought I would have to take Spanish citizenship.  Again, not my preference, but I could do it and already have the language.  Then I realised that probably my post-Brexit future is simply a matter of visas;  more paperwork, more expense, but nothing insurmountable.  So I went back to visit friends in Dorset last week with a renewed commitment to and pleasure in my dual life in two campos.  Many friends (both Spanish residents and UK residents) have reported an “atmosphere” in the UK, a post-referendum unpleasantness.  Maybe in Dorset we are sheltered, but I didn’t sense it.  Yes, of course I am aware of horrendous hate crimes against immigrants in many parts of the UK since the referendum, but I spend my time either in London (which continues to thrive in its relaxed multi-cultural Remain-voting environment) or in Shaftesbury (where the Arab guy who sells The Big Issue was told to “go home” the day after the vote, but has experienced no negativity since then).

Nowhere is perfect, and nowhere is truly awful.  I always used to love going on holiday, and by the final day I always used to get excited about going home, too.  Now I love Spain, but it has not replaced the UK in my heart;  I’ve just made more space to fit both in.  New friends in Spain have not squeezed out old friends;  there’s space for them all.

I missed the snow in Spain last week, and enjoyed a sunny week in Dorset.  The weather seemed to be on the turn as my plane taxied away from the gate at Bournemouth.  Thick frost on the aircraft windows looked like snowflakes;  two hours later over southern Spain the snow on the distant Sierra Nevada glistened though Málaga had shed its temporary dusting of snow and was bathed in winter sun.  Two countries, and both are home.  Not better, not worse, just different.


©  Tamara  Essex  2017                                                      



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