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:

c/o Delegación Medio Ambiente de Ronda
Ayuntamiento de Ronda,
Plaza Duquesa de Parcent, 3
29400 Ronda,

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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Peace love and frozen fingers

Forget about presents, Santas and Michael Buble’s Christmas Special. My favourite things about Norwegian Christmas are the taste of roasted reindeer, the smell of myrrh incense and, most of all, the tradition of lighting candles on the family graves. There is nothing more peaceful than seeing a snow covered churchyard at night with hundreds of candles flickering by the gravestones. And as our minds tend to soften the edges of memories with time, I seem to have forgotten how freezing cold it can be.

Norwegians practically schedule their Christmas Eve around their grave visits. It needs to be carefully timed, as daylight is scarce. Even in the very south the dusk starts about 3 pm. You ideally want to come after early mass or in between the masses, to hear the church bells as you light the candles. My mother, husband, son and myself were ready with a basket of specially lidded grave candles and no less than three lighters to be sure that the procedure would go smoothly and that no fingers would be sacrificed. This year, the snow was not a problem, but rather a layer of hip-breaking ice, which neither gravel nor salt seemed to make any safer. Like my father before us, my mom and I insisted that we go to all the graves – in three different graveyards – including five generations on my father’s side all with the same name and distant great grand aunts, starting with my grandfather’s cook who became like a grandmother for us, and who nobody else light a candle for.

Things were going swift as snow and nobody had broken any limbs or split any nails, until we got to the third grave in the second graveyard, where all lighters refused to function. This is what happens when one is in double-digit sub-zero temperatures with additional North Sea wind factor. My son tried to use a nearby grave lantern to light a candle when a compassionate gentleman came by on his way from mass, offering us his left over matchboxes. (Two used boxes glued together, one for the new matches, one to put the used ones, bless the care and frugality of the old…) My son thanked him profusely. ‘Team Grave-candle’ was in the race again. Between gusts of wind my lad de-gloved to light the first match, which died immediately. Our little group squeezed closer together, one holding the candle, one the match box, one cupping the match and one ready to slam on the lid, while all tried to shade for the freezing wind. Almost success, though at the last moment, the candlewick got a gust of wind and died.

Suddenly, all my childhoods Christmases came back me. My sister and I in our choir uniforms (with awful synthetic blouses which were ice cold in the winter and didn’t breathe in the summer), stomping our patent leather shoes in the snow. My dad insisting we go to all the graves, never mind the cold. Him telling us that here lies so and so, your great grand so and so, married to so and so and son of so and so in that branch of the family. Then, after the candle was lit, we were supposed to stand in quiet respect while we remembered the ancestors we had never met or could not for the life of us recall, as all we could think of was how long it would be until the grave lighting torture was over.

Back in the last churchyard, by our family grave with all the Linaae’s in a row, we were running desperately low in matches. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s story, we saw the flame flicker and die in front of our very eyes. My son was at this point beyond saving the old matches in the lower matchbox compartment. There is only so much one can take before the fingers stop working.

With only a couple of matches left, we managed to complete our mission. The time of quiet reflection was admittedly less than brief before we all as one took off and let the candle flicker as they may. At least we had done our Norse family duty to our ancestors. May they rest in peace until next year.



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Farewell to Sevilla’s legendary Duchess

The Duchess of Alba back on the front page. Photo © snobb.net


When the Duchess of Alba, head of the 530-year-old House of Alba, passed away in her Sevilla palace last week at the age of 88, she truly marked the end of an area. Prior to her death, the duchess had more nobility titles than any living person (seven times Duchess, once Countess-Duchess, 19 times Marquesa, 22 times Countess and once Viscountess), making her outrank the King of Spain and her contemporary Queen Elizabeth. As a successor of the Stuart dynasty, a direct royal descendant of King James II of England, a descendant of Christopher Columbus, as well as granddaughter of Queen Victoria, la Duquesa would have been the rightful heiress to the throne of an independent Scotland, should the election results have turned out differently. Not that the duchess was looking for a job…

María del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Fitz-James Stuart, or Cayenana, as she preferred to be called, had all but a boring life. Born before the Spanish civil war, she outlived her first two husbands by several decades, had six children (eleven pregnancies) and married her last husband, a humble civil servant 25 years her junior, just before turning 85. Her middle-aged children were openly against the match and had the spouse-to-be sign a prenuptial agreement that neither her titles nor her alleged 3.5 billion euro fortune, larger than that of Spain’s Royal family, would go to him upon her death. But those who knew her saw her as happier than ever during the last 3 years of her life at the side of her beloved Alfonso. “Love is the same at forty, as at eighty”, she said.

Fame and fortune puts one under the scrutiny of the media and Cayetana certainly had her share of media scandals. Be it her plentiful and not all successful facial surgeries, her twenty-something palaces, her second marriage to an allegedly gay, ex-Jesuit priest or her last marriage to a man who was younger than her oldest son, Cayetana was a favoured topic of gossip magazines in Spain and abroad. However, in spite of her titles and her fortune, Cayatana did not care much for convention. She loved bullfights and flamenco, and even kicked of her shoes to dance at the doors of the Sevilla Cathedral after her 2011 wedding.

Though born in Madrid, la Duquesa de Alba was Andalcuian in spirit. She chose to live her last years and to die in Seville’s lovely Palacio de Duénos, a 15-century palace that had been in her family since the 17th century. She loved her hometown; saying in one of her last radio interviews that “Sevilla is the most magical place on earth.”

With more than 100,000 people filing by her coffin on regal display in Sevilla’s town hall, la Duquesa certainly made a grand exit. One of the last things she the duchess said, speaking to a hospital nurse, was “Please call me Cayetana”. One may think what one may about nobility, but La Duquesa de Alba was certainly no ordinary duchess.

Story Written for La Serranía Services

By her own requst, part of the ashes of the Duchess of Alba is buried in the Church of Christ of the Gypsies in Sevilla. The rest of her ashes are in the family crypt of the House of Alba in Madrid. Photo © Rafael Cabrera


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City of Dreams

 Roda sunset in November. Photo © Pilar Becerra

For centuries, Ronda has been hailed by artists and romantic travelers as a Ciudad Soñada or a city of dreams. No time is this more apparent than when walking across the bridge that gaps the 120-meter gorge, which forms the main traffic artery through this dramatic town.

“Nothing in all Spain is more surprising than this wild town”
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

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