Searching for an ideal Andalucían ‘fixer-upper’

 

Whenever I travel, and wherever, I always think “Imagine living here!” Be it a Mexican city of millions, a dusty market town in Rajasthan, Venice Beach, a Tibetan refugee settlement or an island off the Oregon coast, I always seem to find a dream home and want to move in. (Blame those ‘sail, raid and settle’ Viking roots of mine) As was to be expected, the same thing happened when we first visited Andalucía. Not that we were looking to buy anything, nor could we have guessed that we were to come back to live here. However, my head started churning and my keenly developed ‘fixer-upper’ gene went into overdrive. Just seeing all those tempting stone ruins and ramshackle barns in perfect state of decay.

When my husband retired and we returned to Andalucía for an open-ended sabbatical, it did not take many days before we both started dreaming about ‘our’ private little slice of Andalucían paradise. We were still Canadians (my husband a citizen, myself a permanent resident) but we felt that it would not hurt to look around. Who would not want to have a small pied-à-terre in southern Spain? With almost unlimited time on our hands and a Virgo in the family (the before-mentioned spouse), we started doing research and making lists of areas of interest. Fortuitously we wanted more or less the same thing; a charming Andalucian town, not completely overrun by expats, situated reasonably close to an international airport, with proximity to nature, an ample selection of cafes and a few shady town squares, art, culture and history and last but not least, a friendly local community.

Looking for a new hometown on the Internet is quite different for seeing it with ones own eyes. And ears. A town might seem ever so idyllic in photos, but when you get there you might realize that it is located right along a noisy highway. You might believe you have found your Nirvana, until you discover that there is a single windy road to get out of town with an hour-long drive to the next human development. Not an issue if you are looking for utter isolation or are writing a doctorate on dung beetles, but we instantly knew when we got there that these types of places were not for us. A lovely photogenic village might upon closer inspection have too many vagrant dogs to allow one to go for a peaceful afternoon stroll, it may suffer from water shortage if another golf course construction gets green-lighted, or it may be that the local residents just don’t give you that warm and fuzzy feeling. There are so many details one cannot pick up on online. Certainly not from real estate sites whose descriptions tend to omit less desirable facts.

The size of the town is something equally important to consider. We had lived in too many cosmopolitan cities and knew that we wanted a small town. But how small is small before it gets claustrophobic? How is your tolerance for village gossip? Is a single café enough to fulfill your gourmet and social needs? Or do you need a theatre, concerts and high speed Internet to be happy? Are train and bus service vital for you to get around? Does schools or other family services play a part in your decision? What about a medical specialist or a notary who speaks English? And can you live without a decent hair stylist?

We figured out that our ideal town should be less than 100 000 inhabitants, yet certainly have more than 25 000 residents, allowing for at least a couple of commercial streets and a small selection of cafés and bars. We have friends who have bought picture-perfect fincas, surrounded by unlimited vistas of rolling hills and olive groves. To be located miles from the next town may seem like heaven, until you realize that you have to jump in the car to go and buy bread. And God forbid if you should need a hospital…

The house itself is a whole other matter. Spain has literally millions of properties available so one has to narrow down ones search. Do you want a flat or a house, free standing or attached, a tiny balcony, a good-sized garden or an entire vineyard? Do you want something ready to move into or do you wish to renovate? Clearly everyone has different needs, budgets and dreams. One can find huge homes for virtually giveaway prices especially on the coast, but one may end up living in a ‘ghost community’ all the neighbouring houses are for sale or simply abandoned. You can even buy a whole village now, just be sure to bring your friends along or you will be very lonely. With so many considerations to take it behoves one to look into them before making any purchases or signing any papers.

We wanted a fairly small home. Something easy to maintain and quick to lock up when we want to go travelling, with lots of light and windows, ideally a big terrace to grow an olive tree and a nice quiet street. As we started our home search, I began taking photos of ruins and teardowns. To assure that my aging parents’ hearts were kept strong, I would send the worst photos to them saying we had found our dream home. Those half fallen down walls? No problem, I would learn stone masonry. And my husband would fix that collapsed roof in a jiffy. There was of course a secondary purpose to me sending the photos, as I hoped that once we found our dream place, it would not actually seem so daunting for my old folks.

As we started viewing properties, we realized that for our particular case we were better off buying ‘a wreck’ and building from scratch than taking on somebody else’s building project. Having spent my career designing film sets and making TV interiors, I love converting spaces. An occupational hazard so to speak. Added to this, the southern Spanish style is almost polar-opposite to my more subdued Scandinavian taste. At the risk of making gross generalizations and knowing that I am certainly not the judge of what is de mauvais gout, I have made the following observations. People in rural Andalucia (and elsewhere in small-town Spain) tend to like dark woods, ideally amply carved. They tend to fill their home to bursting with heavy furniture and drapery. They love to use a combination of multi-coloured Arab wall tiles and may top the design off with a sweeping white marble staircase if they can afford it. Just as my sparse and somewhat industrial taste seem outlandish and unfinished to many of our neighbours, the Andalucían love for brown kitchens may seem drab and depressing to me. There are of course many stunning exceptions and lovely Spanish building styles. However, at the price range we could afford and in the types of neighbourhoods we were looking, the brown on brown was the general style going. Buying a renovated place would probably mean bringing in the bulldozer. In other words, we were in the market for a teardown.

We had looked far and wide for a home to our taste and our wallet size when one day we discovered that the house right next door to our rental property was for sale. It was tiny. It was crocked. It was old. The roof was about to fall in. “Imagine living here,” I thought. We had finally found our dream casita!

 

To read what happened next, check out my upcoming blog ‘Our 3-meter wide slice of Andalucian paradise’.

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Steady hands! Cleaning the feet of a 350-year-old baby Jesus

Any legitimate antique restorer or person who has dabbled in furniture restoration (the latter of whom I belong) have heard about Ecce Homo, one of the most catastrophic attempts at restoration, as well as one of the most virally successful faux pas of all time.

Ecce Homo, in case anyone wonders, is a religious fresco of Christ by the 19.th century Spanish painter Elías García Martínez. It was hanging in the Santuario de Misericordia in the town of Borja in Zaragoza for almost a century without any worldly recognition. Then in 2012, an 81-year-old parishioner and self proclaimed artist decided to ‘fix’ it because she was upset by it’s peeling paint. The result may have been an artistic travesty, but it certainly was a welcome blooper for the news-hungry worldwide web. The Before and After pictures (see below) prompted international mockery. A flaked, but genuine and moving portrait turned into an altogether altered Jesus, whose facial hair looked like a pelt, with beadlike, shifty eyes and a drooping mouth smeared over by the ‘alternist’. One can assume she hadn’t gotten to fix that part yet, as she later claimed that she hadn’t finished her work on it (when she was so rudely interrupted…).

The story does not end there. The poor restoration has inadvertently provided a massive boost to Borja, making this once insignificant village a popular tourist destination. People from all over are flocking to see Ecce Homo. Legal action against the ‘artist’ was proposed, as well as trying to peel back layers of over-painting to restore Christ to his original state, but the so-far 150 000 people who has paid the entrance fee to see the ruined fresco naturally put it on the back burner. Meanwhile, the artist had a nervous breakdown due to the media hype, then proceeded to require for royalties for her ‘handiwork’ from the visitor fees, so she could give them on to her chosen charity. A celebrity of sorts, the restorer is credited with the stabilization of the local economy. Her own paintings are now growing in appeal, especially with the ones of a rather macabre taste. The latest is the NY (Off Broadway??) comic opera about the unfortunate fresco. I am sure it will be a raving success. As the director claimed, “God works in mysterious ways.”

So, what does Ecce Homo have to do with my story? Nothing really, if it had not been for the mother superior of our local convent sending a message to ask if I could help them with a restoration project. Immediately thinking of Ecce Homo, I prayed it would be a broken chair and not a 500-year-old painting of a Madonna. I went and saw ‘our’ nuns and the madre told me how grateful they were that I could have a look at their restoration piece. Sor Clara, one of the more swift-moving sisters was asked to go and show me the object, me still hoping for that three-legged chair, dreading the century old canvas of a virgin…

Sor Clara brought me up some stairs, passing several carved and painted niches. She stopped at one of these, the content of which they wanted me to fix. It was a statue of baby Jesus standing on a plinth, about 50 cm tall. The baby had curiously adult features the way one see in old religious paintings. Sor Clara and I brought the treasure carefully down the stairs and into the nun’s official visitation room. Madre, now joined by Sor Nieves (sister Snow) was waiting, anxious to hear my most sought-after opinion. I told them immediately that I am not a professional restorer, simply someone who enjoys fixing old things, primarily broken and worm-ridden farm furniture. I asked them how old they thought the statue was, and they said it was about 350 years old. Three hundred and fifty! Even if their estimation was off by a few decades, I could see the uproar. Ecce Homo was barely hundred years old and he was an adult Jesus. This was an innocent baby! Knowing the devoted Catholics of Ronda, I would be lynched, tarred and excommunicated if I as much as made a single nick on their baby. And the last thing I wanted was a Ronda sequel of the Ecce Homo affair…

I observed the statue closer. The figure and its base had obvious damages and miscolouring, in addition to having a lot of wax droppings from centuries of annual Christmas masses and Easter processions. I asked the sisters to carefully undress him, so I would not be the first one to break off his arm or unburden him of a finger. The outer robe was newer (I dare say in some synthetic fiber), but as we peeled off yet another white gown, the fabric and the embroidered edge got finer and more delicate, until finally we had him down to his century-old peach-coloured loincloth.

Curiously, baby Jesus, like other young children, had dirt in the places that most kids gets grimy; between his toes, on his hands, behind his knees, in the ears etc. In addition to the dirt, he had a big crack running along his face, and several places where he was lacking paint. I told the nuns that I would do what I could to help them, yet not promising anything. They were all content, saying that their baby Jesus would be ‘like new’ after I would be done with him. Absolutely Not!, I said. They should not wish him to become new. He is lovely as he is with his scars of time. I said that I could carefully try to clean the dirt of him, but I would not touch the paint. If they wanted somebody to repaint him, they would have to look for professional help. To me, a complete restoration would ruin the statue.

As I knew that the old baby Jesus would fare badly with an unnecessary trip across the San Fransisco plaza to our restoration workshop, I brought my restoration teacher, ironically named María Jesus, to see the statue instead. She agreed with me fully, and told the nuns that it was a real treasure. There was nobody in our town, she said, who could do this type of fragile restoration, not that she would dare to recommend anyhow. Ronda has many wood carvers and gilders who are excellent at what they do, but this statue needed a top-notch restoration painter and when it comes to that one has to look to Cordoba, Granada or Sevilla.

The next few days I went to the nunnery to perform my volunteer job as a Jesus cleaner. The nuns let me pick my work spot and found me a worktable that we placed in one of their lovely blossoming courtyards. We also went up to their stash of clothing for the poor to find some cotton T-shirts that I ripped into shreds and used as cleaning cloths. I brought a couple of liquids, recommended by my teacher, and started carefully cleansing the surface of dirt, millimeter by millimeter. The object is to do it without bringing up paint or dissolving the old varnish which protects it and gives it its lovely old gleam. With Q-Tips and Japanese toothpicks as my primary tools, I managed to unearth some of its original colour and rid the young lad of a not-insignificant amount of candle wax from his blond locks. Of course, at the time when this statue was made, it was generally believed that an angelic creature like this must be blue-eyed and golden haired, in spite of that the subject in question was Middle Eastern.

Cleaning ‘my’ baby Jesus in in the courtyard in peace and serene calm, I was almost ready to sign up for the order. At least I could see the attraction of this life. Though of course while spending hours working on a dirty fingernail, a stubborn ear canal spot or an especially grimy toe, one cannot help but also overhear the more everyday shall we say squabbling of the nuns as they patiently go on with their monastic life.

One day upon my arrival, the priest was there. He told me that they had decided to send Jesus to a professional restorer in Seville. The nuns regretted it profusely, as though I was not the one who immediately told them that this was a job for a professional. Sor Nieve told me that they wanted to also send the virgin in the hall, who seem to have mysteriously developed a maquillage-ed and rose-coloured complexion. Virgins, as we all know, are supposed to be pure white. Why not send her along for a two for one mother/son deal, I thought, but did not say out loud.

My work with Baby Jesus ended with cleaning his toes, and having read the bible many moons ago, I know I should be honoured. And I am! I am trilled to have been allowed to be part of the journey to restore baby Jesus back to health.  It is rather ironic that they would ask me to help, a nordic heathen, neither Catholic nor Christian. But I am always glad to help, and I love history, art and antiques. I would volunteer again in a heartbeat if I were asked to clean a statue of Krishna, an imprint of Buddha’s foot, a marble carving from the Koran or a Viking ship. Not that anyone will be crazy enough to ask me…

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Is it the heat or was that mountain talking to me?

A lot can be said about the Spanish heat and when one lives in Andalucía, people never seem to tire of the subject. Just as they stop bemoaning ‘que frío’ (What a cold!) far into our balmy spring, they start whining about ‘que calor!’ (What heat!), until they re-start complaining about the cold again in the fall.

However, these days they might have a point. Our thermometer have been soaring into the mid-forties for nearly six weeks even here in our usually rather ‘fresquito’ mountain village. Heat wave after heat wave (usually blamed on Africa, not Global Warming…) have been overlapping without a single nights’ repose. Even the oldest of Ronda residents say that this is not normal. If you are foolish enough, and foolish one do get in this heat, to leave your car in the sun to pop in for a quick errand to replenish your all-important ice supply, you will come back to a literal frying pan of over 50 degrees. Celsius, that is. One is best advised to keep out of the heat and only venture in the early morning or late night. But, when the mountains are calling, one sometimes has to make an exception…

The other day my husband and I decided to visit the famous El Torcal near the town of Antequera in Malaga province. We had seen pictures of the hoodoo-like landscape and were keen to explore it ourselves. Driving into Antequera, El Torcal is located 12 km up a winding road, ending at an otherworldly plateau at about 1100 meters. Arriving during siesta hour when no Spaniards wish to be stirring, we decided to start with lunch at the café, while overlooking the amazing landscape.

El Torcal Nature Reserve is said to be one of the most impressive limestone landscapes in all of Europe. The Jurassic age stone, some 150 million years old, spent its first millennia under water. Movements of the earth trusted the sea beds into mountains, which then rain and wind eroded and chiseled away at for further millions of years, forming some most incredible shapes.

Not being ones to back away from challenges, we left a few visiting families with cokes and ice creams and sat out in the 40-plus-degree heat to explore this enchanted landscape, bellies full and water bottles in hand. The Torcal trails are frequently sign posted and well made and meander harmoniously through valley after valley of sculpted rocks. Not surprisingly in this heat we only saw two other individuals on our walk, though they might of course have been a mirage?

As one spends most of ones time staring UP in utter disbelief and jaw-dropping amazement at the troll-faced rocky outcrops while handing oneself blindly along and only intermittently peaking down to catch ones bearings, one cannot avoid but getting completely lost in time and space. They say that the furthest walk, which is only about 4,5 km long, takes 3 hours, though we must have spent an eternity. Time becomes a daze. The upwards gaze also is conducive to taking a wrong path and coming to one of many dead ends, so after being lost at least twice in spite of said signage, we ran into one of the resident wild goats with her offspring. They were clearly used to human explorers, staring at us with an ‘I wasn’t expecting you people until after the siesta’ look.

Like being in Monument Valley, possibly on acid, we started feeling that peering eyes from above observed us. Haughty eagle heads topped cliffs and flat nosed gangsters seemed to holler across the valley to yet another shady rock figure. We even passed a whole jury, all clad in stone. It would take the most cynic of minds not to see mythical beings with giant noses coming out of these rocks. Some have actually been given official names, such as the Sphinx, the Jug and the famous Camel. The further on one ventures, and possibly the hotter it gets, the more the mountains come alive.

They say that the best things in life are free, and that is certainly true of El Torcal. If our visit was at high noon, I can just imagine how fantastically eerie it must be to explore these rocks alone on a foggy November eve. (For more information go to: http://torcaldeantequera.com/)

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When I was ‘barred’ from my first Spanish election

Today, May 24th 2015 are the Spanish municipal elections and my first time to vote in Spain. Or so I thought…

As residents of Ronda since November 2012, my husband and I brought our valid Spanish ID cards and headed for the local election hall this morning, eager to cast our vote. Typical for a small town like Ronda, we met friends and neighbours throughout, participating as controllers, party representatives or doing their civil duty, verifying voters. We were sent to a specific table based on the street we live and my Spanish husband voted without further ado. When my turn came, they could not find my name on the list. They checked both the foreign list and then the citizen lists, in case my name by error had snuck itself onto it. They checked by my first name and then by my last, but nothing came up. They asked me to check at the next table, in case, and then the next. In the end I had checked the lists at all the tables to no avail. A voting official went onto the online list and confirmed that my name was not there. Regrettably, she, like the all said, very friendly and courteous, they were not able to help. As far as this election was concerned, I did not exist.

I was starting to be rather ticked off at this point. People in many countries still fight for their chance to vote in a free and fair election. Women have risked life and limb in the past to assure our vote. I should be on the list and I wanted to vote! In fact, to assure I could vote, I had been to the town hall with a friend and politician who works there a couple of months back to assure that my name was indeed registered. Again, three weeks ago, when my husband and I officially changed our address and had to register the change at the town hall, I specifically asked the clerk who dealt with us after the paperwork was done if I needed to do anything else to participate in the upcoming municipal election. She said no, this was it. I was registered.

We decided to walk up to the town hall to see if there was an error that could be rectified, or alternately, to launch a complaint. A political representative and fellow community gardener was there and lead us to a clerk who verified my information. He could see that I had been registered in Ronda (empadronada) since the end of 2012 and that our address was changed on May 5. of this year. He said that there had to be a treaty with Norway for me to vote and another clerk looked into this matter and confirmed that indeed there was a reciprocal treaty between Spain and Norway and that I could therefore vote, though only in municipal elections. At least this matter was cleared. I was allowed to vote and I was officially registered in the town, but this was apparently not enough. Had I registered my intention to vote, the first clerk asked? I said that I had stated my intension to vote verbally, twice, in this very office, and not a single employee of the town hall of Ronda had on these occasions advised me of this last step. In fact, I had been wrongfully informed by one of their employees that I was registered and good to vote. Nothing could be done at this point, I was told. My consolation was that if I came back to the office on Monday during office hours to state my intension to vote, I would be able to vote in the next municipal election, in four years time…

Leaving the town hall, I wondered how many other foreign residents of Ronda this would have happened to today. How many of the approximately 1750 foreign residents in Ronda had been properly informed of their right to vote? And further more, how many of these had been properly informed of their need to state their intention to vote in writing or through some kind of form, which apparently is available at the town hall? There were certainly not sent out any letters to this effect, neither was there posters at the town hall informing foreign residents, nor information for foreign resident voters on the town hall web site. In fact, I doubt that the town hall of Ronda has cared to inform themselves about the foreign residents who has chosen to stay here. Who are they? Where did they come from and why did they settle exactly here? The ruling party has lately spent considerable amount of money on campaign posters, ads, friendship ribbons for the mayor-esse, billboards, and the typical Latin-style megaphone-on-the-roof car announcement. Yet, nobody thought about informing the foreign residents about how to participate in the municipal elections. Are ‘just a few foreigners’ not worthy of their time or are they afraid we will launch our own party?

My husband and I are grateful that the foreign residents of Ronda represent only about 5% of the local population, as we would not have wanted to live in a place where the majority were foreigners. But regardless of numbers, the foreign residents have rights. We have chosen to live in this town. We invest our life savings, earnings and pensions here, which more often than not are higher than the Spanish counterparts. We also pay taxes to the town and should therefore be accepted as residents of equal rights. However, in the town hall of Ronda you will be hard pressed to find a single person who can communicate in English. To me, this is not only unfortunate for Ronda, but also unacceptable for a town which biggest trade is tourism and whose desire is to be seen as a global travel destination.

I consider myself a rondeña by adoption and choice. I love our new hometown as much as any native. In the couple of years we have lived here I have probably volunteered more for Ronda than most citizens who have spent their entire life here. Yet, to some I will always be considered a Guiri, a derogatory term for foreigners. If I can do anything about it, I hope that before the next election is up, Ronda’s foreign residents will not only accepted as part of the community, but also embraced as a valuable potential resource, as well as a multicultural and multilingual asset to the town of Ronda.

And, should you happen to be a foreign resident living in Spain, make sure you register your intention to vote at your local town hall in good time before the next municipal election, round about May 2019.

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With obstinate donkeys, randy mules and strapping stallions on the trail

What happens when a dozen pig-headed and handsomely decorated donkeys, three love-lusty mules, two shiny stallions and a hundred party-loving Andalucians go for a mountain hike? This is what we discovered when we set out on the second annual Ruta Arriera Serranía Romántica walk yesterday.

Donkeys may seem like a Spanish tourist gimmick, a romantic hoved animal from bygone times. However, one does not have to go back many decades before donkeys and mules were the pillars of Spanish transportation and vital for movement of goods between towns and villages here. In James A. Michener’s Iberia, he described how donkeys were still used to pull barges of oranges on and off shores in the 1950’s. Los Arrieros are the traditional Spanish muleteers and they still exist. Our oldest muleteer was well over 80, about half my size and without a single tooth. Admittedly he had to do part of the trail in the follow vehicle (probably happily safe-guarding the transported food and beverages), but who am I to judge?

As part of this month’s Ronda Romántica fiesta, the Andalucía’s hiking association Pasos Largos and Ronda’s Tourist Association organized the annual ‘Arriero’ walk to commemorate the importance of pack animals in local history. Last year, we walked a hundred strong from Ronda to El Burgos and this year our goal was set at the town of Benoaján and it’s cat cave or Cueva del Gato. As a requirement for joining the walk all needed to be in period costume (18-19 century peasant style), donkeys and pack animals included.

The walk started out with the participants being given handmade terra cotta cups, which immediately was tested out with local brewed Anís, strong enough to strip paint off cars. Our 9 am start was somewhat delayed for reasons unknown, yet no less predicted. Finally off, with cheers and un-period-like cellphone cameras in hand, we did a detour along the old Arab city walls and up through town so oriental and other tourists could photographs rondeños with braying donkeys and well-hung mules in tow. Two hours and multiple pit stops later, we were barely out of the La Dehesa quarter of town. Yet, the mood was rising with the temperature and the lively hiking crowd had already started singing and clapping as they walked along the ridge above the Descalzos Viejos (the barefoot monks) vineyard.

By midday, we tied up the animals and took our first proper break by a river. Nothing like a generous supply of chorizo on white bread, topped with cans of Cruz Campo beer to motivate one to hike for hours in unprotected sun!

I should at this point share a practical observation of hiking in a long period dress. Though it sweeps up dust like nothing else, it is a perfect personal shelter if one needs to ‘spend a penny’ where there are no bushes. And as many female hikes also know, the bushes are never there when one needs them…

As the sun had reached a scolding 30*C, it was time to continue the steepest part of the path. It always amuses me to think of how absolutely impossibly illegal and unfathomable this type of adventures would have been in the overly safety-conscious Canada or the overly willing-to-sue-the-ass-of-anyone USA. Just before we took off, an Arriero came up to my husband with three donkeys, handing him the rein of one, urging him to “Just hold her, please”. And thus our donkey, which we nicknamed Mamacita (as she was clearly pregnant), was ours to pull and drag and plead and sweet-talk and bring along for the entire walk. No questions asked, no papers to sign, no precautions made and no donkey-pulling certifications required. Not that anything usually goes wrong, and the hiking association do have insurance should something happen. But it is ever so freeing to know that big brother is not always watching and that safety is not always up to the government, but is sometimes up to us as adult allegedly sane-of-mind individual. And then, of course, there is something so amusingly Spanish about the macho Arrieros, who will pull and rap and jump on their mules and arrive with hands cut and other manly battle wounds, usually quite unnecessary were it not for the show-off factor.

Having lost a third of the group before the last killer hill (where an alternate, less steep route was available) and another third of our group to the first bar of the village of Benoaján (where alternate, more efficient pain relief was available), we finally arrived at out destination. In tact with local tradition, consumables of all forms and shapes would emerge from packs and pockets. The not completely period-style follow vehicle pulled up and an industrial supply of beer, sausages, tortillas, meats and cheeses were brought out. It always baffled me what Spaniards manage to bring with them on hikes, but that is a story for another day…

A couple of buses waited to pick us up and bring us back to Ronda, while the stallions were ridden back to our barrio in style. Our day of the past was over. And what about the donkeys, you may wonder? I was assured by one of the Arrieros that Mamacita and the other donkeys did not have to suffer another walk that day, but would be transported back in a proper cattle trailer.

Spending a day with mules and donkeys, one cannot but have great respect for these ‘beasts of burden’ that have carried Spain’s past on their back. The animals are not stubborn and dumb as an ass, the way we have been taught to believe. They just know what they want and what is good for them. If they are hot and tired and somebody asks them to walk, they will refuse, simple as that. I mean, wouldn’t we all? If they walk with a heavy load up a narrow path and somebody suddenly jumps on their back mid-hill, it is not only natural that they turn around and run downhill instead, unwanted rider on, off or in between? And if this will cause other donkeys to turn around and people to fall and scramble, this is also natural and to be expected. To me, this shows the good sense on part of these animals. And as far the moral of the story, I am not sure who is the real ass…

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The joys of ‘getting lost’

Have you ever noticed that some of the best discoveries in life are done when one is lost – mentally, physically, geographically or metaphysically speaking?

I love to get lost in a foreign city, walking at random, choosing the most interesting-looking streets. When one gets sufficiently misplaced and has discovered many yet unknown to one treasures, one can just jump in a cab or pop onto a bus to ‘be found’ again. The only city where this does not seem to work is Amsterdam, where it is virtually impossible to get properly lost, as, at least in my experience, every street eventually take you back to the same place. (All roads do not lead to Rome, they lead to Leidseplein…)

Being lost in nature is of course a whole different matter and can be dangerous if one does not treat it with its due respect. In the loving embrace of mother nature one can get so lost that one may not find ones way out again. Natural forces can be unpredictable and weather can change from one minute to the next. Here in Andalucía we get stiff winds from Africa. A cool morning can quickly turn to a scalding 40-degrees-plus day, yet to transform back into near freezing temperatures in the evening. Ample water, sunscreen and layers to cover ones skin is a must all year around. No place to get lost, you’d think…

Though I am not suggesting that you should start aimless wanderings, even in nature there are times when getting just a bit lost will lead to wonderful new discoveries and amazing vistas. When we go hiking with our monthly group, the entire trail is pre-planned. It seems to easy when we chug along, but what we had not thought of was that our guides plan every step and often forge out in the wild several times beforehand to make our hike safe for all.

We had the pleasure of going on one of these exploratory hikes in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park when this Sunday’s tour was to be charted. Of course we knew we would never get properly lost, as our guides know ever last peak and valley and can name each mountaintop from here to Morocco. The Andalucian outback are crisscrossed by innumerous paths, old farm roads, animal trails, division trails between properties, dried up creeks and waterways, goat paths and donkey trails where cork and other rural crops used to be transported, and our guides miraculously seem to now them all. Yet, nature being nature, there are times when one needs to cross unmarked territory. Trails change and rocks may fall. Places that are safe in dry weather might be hazardous after a period of rain. But that is the exciting thing about joining the pathfinders. Feeling that we are just a bit lost and ‘off piste’ as we forge through woodland areas and crawl over stony ridges to find our next path. We know that they always bring us safely to our destination (and to a bar with a cold Cruz Campo) at the end of the hike.

So, thank you for a wonderful day to Rafael and Rafael, our guardian angels, and our other co-explorers. We love ‘getting lost’ with you!

 

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Exhibit your recycled art in stunning Andalucía!

The Andalucian environmental organization Ronda Limpia is planning its second annual Día de Ronda Limpia in the mountain town of Ronda in Southern Spain. The event will be held in Ronda’s breathtaking La Alamada del Tajo on April 25, 2015.

Ronda Limpia is a volunteer organization aiming to educate and encourage better environmental habits. As part of this years’ celebration we will host an exhibition of recycled art and invite anyone interested to participate with their art pieces, sculptures and re-created utilities made from recycling and what otherwise may be considered as garbage.

Last year, our recycled art competition included more than one hundred works from local, national and international participants. This year, we have decided to make an exhibit instead, as our goal is to display as many creative uses/reuses of recycling as possible.

Anyone can participate, regardless of age and ability. All works will be exhibited and will be carefully recycled after the exhibit, unless the maker is there to pick it up. Participants will receive a small gift from Ronda Limpia. Deadline for registration is April 17.

Anyone wishing to participate should send an email to the Delegación Medio Ambiente de Ronda at mambiente@ronda.es with name, email, address, name of artwork, materials and techniques used and approximate size.

Artworks may be mailed to:

RONDA LIMPIA
c/o Delegación Medio Ambiente de Ronda
Ayuntamiento de Ronda,
Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, 3
29400 Ronda,
Málaga,
Spain

If you should feel inspired to take part, please take note that as this is an all-volunteer, shoestring budget event, we cannot return any of the works by mail. We still encourage participants to join us from wherever you may live, just for the joy of having your work displayed in an Andalucian garden and to show the world what one can do with the ‘unwanted’.

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Fifty Shades of female regression

Fifty Shades gets front window placement in our neighbourhood’s newspaper store. Note says: Yes, this is the trilogy the whole world is talking about. Photo © snobb.net

People have gone Fifty Shades crazy! First, the books hit us like the plague. Then, timely planned for Valentine, the Hollywood movie came out, earning a whopping 81 million dollars on the first weekend in the States alone and becoming the biggest box office success of all times. Next, guaranteed, we will be inundated by Fifty Shades lingerie-sets with whip holsters, kinky video games subjugating women, build-your-own-torture-chamber kits and any other merchandising they can squeeze out of their shady brand. The author, Erica Mitchell, better known by her nom de plume E.L. James, must be laughing all the way to the bank!

My husband and I were stuck for eight long hours at a foggy former military airport just south of Oslo during Christmas 2012. The entire departure area had just a single place to purchase anything, a combined magazine store and café. After having read every paper available and consumed anything remotely eatable from their scant counter, we broke down and bought the first book of the Fifty Shades trilogy. Having read raving reviews about it, with even famous sexologist hailing it as the long-awaited novella-style female answer to soft porn, granted we were curious. And we were not alone…

The books have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 52 languages! The supercharged best seller sold faster than any other author in history, more than 70 million books in the first eight months on sale in the US! In 2012, the author was named one of the ‘100 most influential people’ according to The Times. Three years and counting, Fifty Shades can still be found in almost every Papelera in villages across the conservative, über-Catholic Andalucía. The books popularity echoes the author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter success story, though while Rowling’s legacy was bringing the joy of reading back to literally millions of children and youngsters, E.L. James’ legacy, though surely heating up some bedchambers across the nation, may be to bring thousands of women under the whip and chain of their potentially domineering partners. It is not the astronomical sales of the books that I find scary, but the values, or the lack of values that this ‘epic’ propagates. It is the scary notion that millions of people think this is a ‘new’ and exciting discovery of sex, and furthermore what ideas the books may give men who already are prone to violence?

Like movies, works of fiction is dependent upon on our ‘suspension of disbelief’, requiring the author to infuse some seemingly genuine human characters and a semblance of truth into a drama for it to seem plausible. In the case of Fifty Shades, the protagonist, dramatically named Anastasia Steele, is a 21-year-old female university graduate who happens to not only be a barely-kissed virgin (surely the only one on the North West coast of USA), but also gorgeous, long-legged, peachy skinned and bone-thin. As to be expected, she is completely unaware of  these assets and her affect on men. To me, sh4 is not believable, and cannot be equaled to cognitive estrangement, where the character’s ignorance or lack of knowledge justifies the suspension of disbelief.

Things do not get any better with the antagonist, Mr. Grey. Like a modern day Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, he is handsome, haunted, dangerous and astronomically rich. Using the contemporary version of the white horse, he sweeps ‘our heroine’ away in his private helicopter, which he of course knows how to pilot being so dexterous. Seasoned in the arts of S&M by his former nanny and thus strangely unhappy unless he can tie up and whip his female conquests, he presents ‘our heroine’ with a contract stating that she must kneel outside the torture chamber waiting for her ‘dom’ to come and pull her by the hair and that she is not allowed to speak unless spoken to. From their approchement at the hardware store where our cash-strapped protagonist works, until Mr. Grey breaks her virginity with instant success and climax on all parts, the book goes from bad to worse, with monotonously predictable sexual encounters every couple of pages. Having all the fittings of a cheap Harlequin romance, the story is completely implausible, the dialogue trite and our ‘heroine’s inner dialogue (with her ‘Inner Goddess’) infantile at best. So, my question is, why has this novel become so popular? Was it one of those ‘at the right time and at right place’ type of scenarios? Are the readers of the world so hungry for some smutty female porn that anything will do, even if it subjugates them?

Virginia Slims cigarettes used the ad slogan “You have come a long way, baby”. Not that female smoking is a great achievement of women’s lib, but I certainly feel that Fifty Shades has brought the female sex a hell of a long way back, regressing us to the time of being officially known as ‘the weaker sex’. Women’s liberation spent decades and even centuries to disprove and bring down misinformed and scientifically erred stereotypes of female sexual needs and wants, such as that women are naturally submissive, that they mean ‘yes’ when they say ‘no’, that they have endless orgasms, especially when raped, and that females generally like to be treated roughly. Then come Fifty Shades, poorly written, but timely and cleverly marketed, and brings all the stereotypes back again. The books portray the female as weak, poor, innocent to the point of ignorant and naturally submissive, and the male as strong, rich, handsome, powerful, violent and domineering. What is wrong with this picture in 2015?

I did not buy nor read the sequels to the first novel, as I find it neither great literature, nor the ‘hot stuff’ it was hailed to be. I had recently read Follett’s Pillars of the Earth before I went on to Fifty Shades and for all the ad nauseam sex scenes of the latter, I found the few sexual encounters in the former far more titillating. In fact, I rather take Anaïs Nin’s short stories written 50 years ago than the thousand-page tomes of Fifty Shades. But then again, with porn, it is usually more about quantity than quality.

As I walk around in my Andalucían neighbourhood, I look at the women and wonder if they all have read the book. Is bondage and submission what women’s escapist fantasy today is all about? Of course, people can do what they want behind closed doors, and I’ll swing myself on the chandelier as much as the next person. However, I find it most worrisome that the sex in Fifty Shades is now assumed to be every woman’s dream and desire. It is a dangerous proposition, certainly here in Spain where female and spousal abuse is rampant, and more dangerous still in other cultures where women have no voice and where abuse is seen as a spousal rights. Thankfully, I am not the only one to bring my thumbs down on Fifty Shades. Critics seem to collectively slam the movie and mock the book. I particularly enjoyed the movie commentary of Alynda Wheat (People): It’s too bad the movie also imports James’s atrociously written prose and bizarre sexual politics, but then, no one buys a Fifty Shades ticket for the dialogue.”

E.L James is not the first, nor will she be the last to write ‘cheap porn’, though I believe she is the first female in history to have created a world famous ‘brand’ from pornographic books. She ‘owns’ the expression Fifty Shades, which probably is already accepted as a new expression in the Oxford Dictionary. She has made porn literature something everyone now can display at home without shame. She has also made written porn big business, being the world’s top earning author last year (95 million dollars). Add film- and merchandising royalties and she is soon richer than her fictive antagonist, Mr. Grey.

While the producer and the author is entangled in a power struggle as to how many explicit scenes they should include in the second and (heaven help us…) the third movie, the lasting effect of Fifty Shades remains to be seen. S&M popularity will come and go, but one thing is clear, Fifty Shades has certainly not done womankind, nor humankind any favours.

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PROUDLY ‘ANDALU’, so why are the Spanish laughing at us?

Andalucian winter landscape. Sierra de las Nieves. Photo © Rafael Flores

Andalucía is the southernmost and most populous of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. Bordering the Atlantic and the Mediterranean sea, it includes the provinces of Almería, Cádiz, Cordoba, Granada, Huelva, Jaén, Málaga and Sevilla. Though tourists flock to the Andalucian coasts for the stereotypical sun and Sangria, the region also offer a variety of cultural, historical and natural attractions for even the most discerning traveller, such as ancient Phoenician, Roman, Visigoth, and Moorish remains, medieval fortifications and its famous White Villages. Andalucia contains many of Spain’s most visited tourist sites, with Granada’s Alhambra taking the national lead last year with more than 2.4 million visitors per year. With such accolades, one would think that Andalucia would be on top of its game. Yet, the region is suffering from a poor public image. The Andalucians have become Spain’s laughing stock. However, it is time for change. The people of the south are tired of being laughed at!

The Andalucian writer Tomás Gutiérrez Forero whose latest book is titled ‘En defensa de la lengua andaluza’ (‘in the defence of the Andalucian language’), is an avid defender of the Andalucian language and identity. In a recent talk he did in Ronda he spoke of the marginazation of the Andalucian people and the need to defend the Andalucian nation. “We cannot permit that Andalucian is the language of humor”, says the writer. “It is an indignity, which we should not tolerate. We should not be embarrassed about how we speak. We ought to rediscover our own dignity so we can rid ourselves of the cultural stigma.”

Though the Andalucian language goes back thousands of years, the Spanish have come to ridicule the regions way of speaking, even claiming that their language does not exist. The general perception is that Andalucian is poorly spoken Spanish or Castellano.

Spanish media tend to promote the stereotype of the dumb or uneducated Andalucian, where the ‘village idiot’ speaks ‘Andalu’, while the clever one speaks Castellano, the lawyer speaks Castellano, while the delinquent speaks Andalu’, and the lord of the manor speaks Castellano, while the servants speak Andalu’. Local commerce is also affected by this poor image, as items produced in Andalucia will not receive the same prices as items produced further north. For this reason, cork grown in Andalucia will be sold to and re-labelled as product from northern Spain and Andalucian olive oil will be sold off to Italy and then resold as ‘genuine’ Tuscan olive oil. Coming from a northern country where hardly anything eatable grow the majority of the year, Andalucia has lots to celebrate in the fabulous local produce we can get here, fresh, basically all throughout the year.

Many cultural phenomena seen internationally as distinctively Spanish are largely or entirely Andalusian in origin and Andalucians will claim that many of its inventions have been ‘stolen’ by the Spain. Though Flamenco music and bull fighting were invented or originated here in Andalucia, Spain has adapted them as their own and ‘sold’ them as Spanish inventions. Though Picasso was born in Andalucía (Malaga to be precise) the artists have long been promoted and thus known to a Spanish artist. But whose fault is that? Clearly, everybody wants to take credit for their famous native brothers and sisters.

All in all, it seems we are dealing with a regional identity crisis, and when it comes to public image, be it others’ perception of one or ones own self image, nobody but we ourselves can change it. So, the only ones who can rid Andalucia of the laughing stock image are the Andalucians themselves.

Andalucia is of course not the only southern region to suffer a poor image. Think of Italy, where a successful businessperson from Milano is unlikely to admit that they are from the same country, let alone the same planet, as somebody from Napoli. Yet, some southern states have managed to get beyond the ‘lazy and dumb Southerner’ image. Take the United States, where the industries and economy of i.e. California and Texas have become their pride and ultimate ‘revenge’. Hence, one way out of a poor public image is to beat them with your own success.

Many regions, particularly those with powerful neighbours, suffer from a ‘little brother’ syndrome. Take Canada with its powerful neighbour in the south. Who used to know anything about Canada? How could ‘little Canada’ compete with the powerful USA? Canada realized that a public image lift was needed and started a movement called ‘Proudly Canadian’. The popular movement not only helped Canadians with their own poor self-image, but also gave a healthy boost to tourism and sales of Canadian goods nationally and internationally. People really were proud to be Canadians! Could Andalucia do something similar and promote ‘Proudly made in Andalucia’ autonomous goods? Clearly, Andalucian olive oil is every bit as good as Tuscan olive oil. (with my personal regrets to my olive oil-producing family in Chianti…) Andalucian oil, wine, cork, ham and cheese, to mention some, are not only world class, but also remarkably unique. Why does the Andalucian olive oil company ‘1881’ from the small and rather forgotten town of Osuna sell its product to five different world regions while most other regional producers sell their oil bulk and at bottom prices, because it is ‘merely’ Andalucian? There is no reason why Andalucia could not be able to promote and sell more successfully. It is largely a question of investing in proper marketing and branding.

If Spain has stolen our native brothers and autonomous inventions, it is time Andalucia reclaims them. Like the 1980’s movement ‘Take back the night’, where women and men walked out to reclaim the streets after too many women had been attacked at night. Adalucia can create a movement to take back what belongs to them. Clearly the region is part of Spain, so for instance an Andalucian dish like Gazpacho soup will also be a Spanish dish. But there is nothing standing in the way for Andalucia to reclaim its lost products and ancestors.

Why is it that all over the world one can buy dozens of annual calendars, almanacs and coffee table books with images of Tuscany and Province, while even here in Andalucía I cannot buy a single calendar of Andalucian nature? Our landscapes are certainly as lovely, sculptural and painteresque as those of France or Italy. The only thing we are lacking is the ability or will to market Andalucia to the world.

The Spanish may be laughing at Andalucia, but be assured, the rest of the world is not laughing at you! The world loves Andalucia, as witnessed by the millions of annual visitors and the thousands of foreigners who choose to leave their country and make the region their permanent home. My husband and I, who belong to this latter group, are nothing but in awe of our new home region. We have never experienced people of such kindness and generosity as the Andalucians. And though I may be pushing my luck in assuming I am already accepted as a native sister, I can certainly say that I am proudly ‘Andalu’!

Historical reenactment during Ronda Romántica. Photo © Ayuntamiento de Ronda

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The dubious past of the Vienna New Year’s Concert and WHEN did I start humming at the television???

The annual Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s über-traditional New Year’s Concert is more popular than ever. Televised in over 90 countries to an estimated audience of 50 million people, one admittedly is dealing with a universal ‘hit’. Yet, this greatly loved tradition hides a dubious past.

The orchestra, founded in 1842, is recognized as one of the finest in the world. Indeed, it was so fine that ‘mere’ popular music, such as the waltzes composed by the father son duo of the Strauss family, now considered synonymous with Vienna, were not included in the orchestra’s repertoire until the 1920s.

The orchestra’s first ever New Year’s Concert took place in 1939, organized as a fundraiser by the National Socialist Party to help the needy in the winter. The concert had exclusively Strauss (Jr.) on the program and when it emerged that the family had some Jewish ancestry, the Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels ensured the news was hushed up. Or so the story goes.

In spite of being an invention under Austria’s Nazi regime, the concert has prevailed, grown in popularity, and thankfully in acceptance. In 1980, Lorin Maazel was not only the first non-Austrian to conduct the orchestra, but also a Jewish-American of Russian decent. The orchestra is still a conservative lot, largely consisting of well-groomed Caucasian men, though in recent years one may note a slight increase in appearance diversity and a trickle of female players. For the 2015 concert, we counted all of six female musicians and one male player of possible Asian decent, in addition to the Philharmonic Orchestra’s honorary conductor, Zubin Mehta, who is a Zoroastrian Parsi. There is hope!

The demand for concert tickets is so high that one must register a year in advance to participate in a draw for tickets for the following year. (Some seats are held for certain Austrian families, passed down from generation to generation.) Should one be lucky enough to win, one will still have to purse out a small fortune, 1000-1500 euros, in addition to agents and brokers fees for the honor to attend. In addition, come the new outfits. I am happy to say that Loden- coloured military outfits are virtually gone and we even noted a row of Japanese in Kimonos this year. For those who neither win, nor can afford the going price, one can do like millions of people around the planet – from Japan to Swaziland – watch it on the telly.

In my family, the New Year’s concert was as holy as Christmas and something one simply could not miss. I recall my parents sitting in front of the TV, drink in hand to cheer on Herbert von Karajan or others of their favourite conductors. As every year, they would complain about the outfits of the dancers (my dad, bless his soul, did not like men in tights…) ohh and ahh at the flower arrangements and hum and clap along with the orchestra to the utter embarrassment of their offspring. And, as my husband and I crawled up on our couch to watch the 2015 concert, I noticed myself purring along with Strauss’ waltzes and clapping along with the Radetzky March, carefully following Mehta’s baton not to do a faux pas. Had the program been a thirty minutes longer, we would have nicknamed all the musicians. Heaven forbid, I am turning into my parents, lamenting about why the legendary Julie Andrews is no longer doing the BBC commentary and kvetching about not enough ballet inserts –  just like my old folks…

Happy New Year to all. May it be a year of Peace, Love, and Understanding.

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