From accused pet killer to pet lover – How Andalucía has changed me

After my son’s frog died, I promised myself that we would never have another pet. I was too afraid that they would die, as sadly even pets must do. You see, I was inadvertently the cause of his untimely passing.

Before you judge me as a heartless pet killer, I need to say a few words in my just defence. I never grew up with pets (my parents said we travelled too much), and I never intended to get my son Oskar a pet either (I worked too much). But when he was given a frog by one of my set decorators, we had no options but to adopt it. The Frog or Froggie, as Oskar called him, became part of our family and was loved as if he had been a proper pet, like a dog, and not just a small, mute amphibian the size of a thumbnail.

The Frog came from Cosco and had a life expectancy an thus an expiration date of 6-12 months, or so it said on the removable sticker on his plastic container world. In the early days I would panic when I came into Oskar’s room and saw the long legged creature floating lifeless on top of the water. The Frog is dead, I would gasp melodramatically. Oskar, then about 6 and wise as only 6-year-olds can be, would look at me in disdain. Mom, He is an aquatic nocturnal frog. That is why he is not moving!

Actually, The Frog surpassed all expectations and Cosco guarantees and lived for years, likely because of the freezing Scandinavian plunge baths I subjected him to every time we changed the Canadian Springs water in his container. As time went by, the plants that The Frog had come with died and we replaced them with Oskar’s favourite marbles and cool rocks that we found on the beach. When we went on holidays a member of my film crew would frog-sit, and as they always fed him too much, we had to put Froggie on a diet when we got back to Vancouver. It seemed that The Frog would live forever, that is until one fatal day when I decided to surprise Oskar with some new plants for his frog. Big mistake. I should have known it from the smell of the darn pet store, but hindsight is 20/20. Within a day of having his new fancy plants, The Frog was floating on top of the water, this time not to be woken again. You killed my Froggie, Oskar cried inconsolably. I could not even try to explain that I had not done so intentionally. The legendary Frog was buried with big pump and circumstances outside in our Arbutus street garden, and should still be there if you happen to pass by our old Kitsilano neighbourhood.

With this long preamble, you might easier understand why I did not want any other pets. It is just too painful when the family’s four legged, scaled, winged, or in our case swimming member would pass on.

We managed to keep my pet-free policy for years, but that was before my husband and I moved to Andalucía. Other expats had told us that whether one planned it or not, one would inherit a shelter dog or a homeless cat within a few weeks of ones arrival. Almost every expat we got to know in Ronda had done so, since the Spanish knew that foreigners were bleeding hearts for a sweet puppy face. We were basically the only family on our street not having at least a couple of canine or feline companions, though this did not mean that the owners either cared for them or had the appropriate space for their pets. Personally, I was utterly content with simply being a slightly hands-off play aunt to all our friends’ pooches.

You might of course find me completely callous, but I believe the reason for our pet-less lives was that we had just not met our kind of pet yet. Once we began the search for a house, we both fell in love with a teardown, whose main attraction, at least in my case, was the tailless lizard that scurried off into the dusty interior every time we kicked the front door open. The lizard became the token for our search and no other house stood up to its charm, so we bought the place, rumble and all. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, the poor lizard disappeared some time during the two years we had to wait for our building permit and the subsequent near complete teardown and rebuild. I prayed that the lizard had moved into Juan’s next door, still an original village construction like ours had been, instead of having been crushed by a falling beam.

When we finally could move into the completed house, we planted some rosemary bushes in the old terra cotta olive pots that we had found in the house. On a hot summer night we had a wonderful surprise. Some very distant relations of the tailless lizard had come to live with us. Actually these particular ones were not lizards, but geckos, with suction cups on their wide fingers, allowing them to climb walls like Spiderman, only without a net. Geckos, lizards, they were all welcome. We named the fat one Umberto Major and the smaller one Umberto Minor, though in retrospect I believe they were a couple, as later noticed some Umberto Juniors running about.

The Umbertos still have their home behind the old Arab doors that we hung as a decoration on the lower terrace. This real estate choice is not because they like my Cantabrian blue paint. From this optimal spot they can keep a 360• lookout for bugs, which seem to be abundant judging by their healthy girth. The family comes mostly out on hot nights and will play dead when disturbed, before pelting off behind a planter. Taking photos have therefore turned out to be a challenge, especially since they do not listen to my kettle calls.

Our reptile pet repertory is however not limited to geckos. We also have a lizard family living in our community garden for the third year in a row. There was a rumours amongst the other hortelanos, or community gardeners that we had a snake in our plot, but surely they just didn’t know their reptiles and had seen the long tail of our daddy lizard.

Andalucía offers an almost unlimited range of pet choices for the interested expat. There are the traditional donkeys, goats, hens, sheep and horses, though a little cerdito Ibérico (Iberian piglet) would also be a pleasant companion. And you could always eat it, should you get tired of its company… However, as for ourselves, we are happy with our reptiles.

The good thing with our Andalucian pets is that they take care of their own feeding, as long as we provide plans and shade. They will not die on us or need a sitter when we go traveling. Granted, they are not the petting kind, nor much for conversation, but neither was The (much missed) Frog. Every year, new generations of geckos come back in the spring, staying with us until late into the fall, at which point they hide for the winter. The Umbertos are the first thing I say good morning to when I come out to water the plants and though they don’t exactly run out to greet me, I can feel their eyes on me and know they like my calming voice and occasional humming.

The other day, when I watered the succulents in our front window, there was a tiny lizard, with a tail, staring at me, making sure I knew that this was his turf I was entering.

Oh, hello I said, you’re finally back!

Maybe it wasn’t the tailless lizard that used to live in the old ruin, though their tails grow out again, but I took it as a good sign anyhow. I mean, an Andalucian home is not a real home unless you have a resident lizard. At least until we decide to get a donkey…

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Why is our beautiful Andalucian town not as ‘green’ as it ought to be?

These days, with global media focused on the environment, I though it was fitting to make a few reflections on the medioambiente from the point of view of a foreigner living in rural Andalucía.

Just beside Ronda’s first organic community garden in our Barrio de San Francisco neighbourhood there is a paddock with two beautiful horses. I do not know if they are Arabic or Andalucian, but what I can tell you is that they are not a couple of old mules. The animals live behind one of the local gas stations, so that all the debris from the business above comes flying with the wind to their enclosure below. One would think that the owner of these fine animals would look around the property one day and decide to pick up the trash, but this has not happened yet and likely never will. Since the owner did not put the trash there, you can be quite sure that he or she will not clean it up either, even if it could cause their animals serious harm. And you cannot blame the horses. How can they know that garbage is not eatable, growing up in a sea of plastic?

British Columbia – Beautiful by Nature was the slogan of the Canadian province where we used to live. One could say the same thing about Andalucía. Nature here is nothing but stunning. However, one would be forced to add an addendum to such a slogan in the Spanish south, as though naturally beautiful, not everybody is doing all in their power to keep it that way. The environment, or medioambiente as it is called in Spanish, is not as high on the public or private agenda as it ought to, or need to be, certainly not here in our rural mountain town in the province of Málaga.

My husband and I moved to Ronda from Vancouver, BC, where environmental care is not only seen as a civic duty, but also part of people’s civic pride. Just like in my native Norway, the majority of Vancouverites are consciously trying to reduce their ecological footprint by biking, utilizing public transport, eating organic produce, composting and recycling, or a combination of all the above. They will try to avoid using environmental toxins and replace them with less harmful alternatives, be it for their lawns, their skin or the paper for their office printers. This is not considered a major hassle, but rather something people do gladly, as their small share in counteracting the vast problem at hand. Put against the giant corporate polluters, this individual effort might seem minute or even futile, but the general attitude is that if we want to see a cleaner planet, we have to begin by assessing our own backyard.

With our (positively-a-bit-too-politically-correct) West Coast cosmopolitan past, arriving in small town Andalucía was like taking a step back in time. This was of course also part of the charm of moving here. The narrow streets with the white houses looked as quaint and rustic as they had done for centuries. But the cars parked out front did not, nor did the fiber-optic cables they were starting to install or the slightly dated satellite dishes sitting on the perfectly patina-ed terra cotta roofs. We had moved to a place with more than two thousand years of history, which somehow had to find ways to merge its past with a modern day society. Though we soon realised that while the town was conservative, conservatism and conservationism do not always go hand in hand.

As new residents of Ronda, we were rather surprised to see how haphazardly many locals would deposit their refuse, leaving their garbage bags outside the containers, tossing cigarette butts and ice cream wrappers on the ground without a second thought and letting their dogs do their business in public parks or even right on the sidewalk. On local nature trails somebody would always have conveniently left their garbage or carelessly dumped a truckload of construction debris, even if there were containers nearby and the town had a very clean, hardly used, trash-sorting centre, appropriately called Punto Limpio. (The Clean Spot.) Some locals argue that because they pay their garbage taxes, it is their right to leave their trash outside the bins. What else will the street sweepers do, they will argue?

We were equally alarmed when we discovered that many of the local gardening companies sprayed pesticides in public parks and community gardens, where children and pets would play merely hours later. Worse still, nobody seemed to question or be bothered by this fact. Were perfect golf greens more important than their children’s health? Weren’t they a bit concerned about the environment, we wondered? Did they not know that there was a grave danger to our planet? Or did they not care? Was this attitude due to lack of education, arrogance, ignorance, laziness or some other factor that we had not yet discovered? Could it be that the abundant nature surrounding the town and the near pollution free air made people erroneously believe that their actions were not affecting the environment? Did they believe that somehow their green bubble could withstand the effects of contamination, from without and from within?

Why were ‘we’ rural Andalucians so far behind the eight ball on green policy and environmental consciousness, we wondered?

I belong to the early Gen X-ers, born when the Cold War rather than the environment was on top of the political agenda. Melting glaciers, rising sea levels and carbon monoxide was not the general concern. We worried about Russian nuclear-powered submarines. This is not to say that pollution wasn’t rampant in my youth, just that our communal responsibility in the matter was not as clearly defined as today. We had a vague excuse of lack of public knowledge, which not even the most ignorant of people can use to deny Global Warming today, especially not if they sit in an oval office. It was during my youth that Greenpeace and other environmental organizations started getting international support and were no longer seen as a communist ploy or a leftist hippy-dippy fabrication. Being communally minded, we were all part of this to a larger or smaller degree. It therefore surprised me to discover that the worst culprits when it came to eco-destructive behaviour here in our Andalucian town seemed to be the people of my generation, who also happened to be the ones that cared for the young and who would teach them to mind the planet – or not.

To our relief, at least the older Andalucians seemed to recognize the alarming signs of Global Warming. The near-centurians of our neighbourhood would tell us that they had never experienced such heat or lack of precipitation. Having suffered through the Civil War of the 1930’s, the Second World War and the many lean years thereafter, these people tended to be like old people elsewhere in Europe, fixing a broom twice before making it into a plant stand once its sweeping days were over. My Norwegian grandmother was the epitome of re-use. When she gave us a present, we were immediately told to return the wrapping. Her lovely Japanese paper was never to be creased and she used ribbon instead of tape, which she would iron after we reluctantly returned it, so she could use it again, and again.

Looking at the environment from an Andalucian outsider-inside point of view, the issue with the Spanish south seems to me to be the territory’s rapid growth from a relatively poor, low education agrarian society to the instant relative wealth created by the mad building boom in the 1980s. The people of Ronda, like on Costa del Sol experienced a colossal increase in expendable income. No longer needing to live with the hardship and frugality of their parents and grandparents, the nouveau riche embraced consumerism like never before. Even when the building boom slowed down and in time reversed, people’s habits had permanently changed. While past generations would have grown their food and made their own clothes and furniture, the new consumers would go to the supermarket and purchase stuff in bulk, usually wrapped in plastic, more often than not made in China.

With money comes stuff and with stuff generally comes more trash. While the Spanish economy still hasn’t recovered from the global financial crashes, Spain is one of the countries in Europe, and the world, that throws out the most edibles, with food waste comprising 46% of all rubbish. The average person in Spain generates almost half a ton of garbage per year, most of it ending in the general trash containers, which they misleadingly call Orgánicos, since anything from dirty diapers, household trash and a lot of recyclables end up in these containers. Spain is lagging far behind its European neighbours in terms of recycling. While for instance Germany recycles 62% of their municipal waste, Spain only recycles 33%, and I would guess that Andalucía is in the lower percentages of the national average.

Whereas past generations would walk (or as the stereotype goes, ride a donkey), these days Rondeños will invariably opt for their car. If at all possible, a parent will drive their child to school, even if it is just couple of blocks away. Walking could mean that somebody might believe that you do not own a car, our neighbours explained to us. Worse still, you might be accused of not loving your offspring enough to drive them. Therefore, most of our neighbours drive their kids the three blocks to school. The youngsters would inarguably have benefitted more from the walk and the fresh air, rather than being stuck in the daily pre- and post-school village bumper to bumper congestion. This behaviour is also solar opposite to the customs of the school children I have known in Canada. My son tried to persuade me to let him walk alone to school in a city of millions, even if he was only 8 at the time (he was not allowed, so we walked together). However, this urge to be independent doesn’t seem to be engraved the same way in the Spanish youth. In the meantime, while the rural Andalucians used to be relatively wiry from physical work, the younger generations of Spaniards seem intent on overtaking North Americans in junk food consumption and childhood obesity.

On the morning of the 2017 Earth Day, a Málaga radio personality spoke about how trash containers without garbage spread all around them are a sign of an educated and civil society. Sadly, he added, in Andalucía this is a rare sight. But environmental care is not only a question of education, but also of community, family and social habits. Younger generations presently attending Ronda’s primary and secondary school are taught about environmental care and most, if not all, educational institutions have recycling programs. However, this matters little if the children’s families do not practice the same green habits at home. If nobody teaches you the importance of caring of the environment, it is hard to foster new customs and change the behaviour of entire populations.

Of course, neither all the responsibility, nor the blame lies with the individual. Many impediments to a greener society are created at municipal, provincial or federal government level. Actually, some of the Spanish regulations seem anti-environmental, doing the exact opposite than combating climate change. Why in a country as sun-abundant as Spain are consumers penalized for caring for the environment by having to pay tax on solar systems? The ‘sun tax’ has increased the price of self-generated solar power to the point that there is little to gain from the investment. People are therefore discouraged from changing to cleaner energy, which has disastrous effect on Spain’s green economy. Another example of anti-environmental trends is something as obviously beneficial as bottle deposits. Why has the government not (re) introduced container deposits all over Spain, like in so many other industrial nations? The deposit discourage people from throwing out millions of plastic, metal, Tetrapac and glass receptacles (and hence cash), and even provides a livelihood for many dumpster divers. I actually knew of an art director in Vancouver who put his kids through college by collecting the recycled containers off the film sets he was working on. Valencia has introduced the deposit to counteract the five-million single-use beverage containers that daily ended up in their landfills or littering the territory’s nature. Container deposits make sense from a financial and an environmental point of view, but it seems that down here in the south, we are the last ones to change.

To give credit where credit is due, there are of course Rondeños who care for the environment, who recycle and do not spray pesticides on their olive trees. The municipal authorities of Ronda do provide garbage bins and recycling containers in every neighbourhood (in addition to an army of street sweepers). In fact, there are over half a million blue and yellow recycling bins available for public use in Spain. The country allegedly has about 165.000 green bins (for glass), which equals one container per every 284 residents. This makes Spain one of the countries with the highest glass-recycling bin–to-resident ratio. With recycling containers available on almost every second corner, there is virtually NO excuse not to recycle in Spain. So, why are the majority of people in our town not doing it? Some claim that that recycling ends up on the landfills so there is no point of recycling, which seem like an convenient excuse if you ask me.

What our town seem to be missing in my not very objective opinion, is a long-term policy on environmental care at a local level. This lack of long-term planning may partly be due to the local electoral process, since all positions in the town hall from the janitor and up seem to change every time there is an election. Furthermore, the positions appear to be filled more based on (party) connection than merit or actual knowledge of the specific area that the delegate is in charge. The head of department may therefore neither have the appropriate educational background, work experience, nor the passion for the cause they are representing. They were simply the party’s next in line.

After living in Ronda about a year, the at-the-time active and passionate environmental delegate came with me to propose a volunteer environmental organization to the mayor. All heads of local governments and local police attended the town hall meeting and agreed to support us. We spent two years doing environmental clean-ups, hosting recycled art competitions, giving workshops, presenting green establishment awards and producing informational videos to create public awareness. Finally, after yet another election, we were told by the new environmental delegate, who was more for photo-ops than getting his hands dirty, that he was simply ‘too busy’ to accept help from our 40-plus mostly local, keen and hard working environmental volunteers. So, sadly our group fell apart, not due to lack of public will, but due to the apathy of certain members of the municipal government.

A few months after we established our group and began environmental clean-ups here in Ronda, a woman started a similar environmental group in my birthplace in Norway. As an example of the difference when it comes to support and acknowledgement, the Norwegian volunteer group received ample municipal support, was presented with a national award and had the Norwegian queen and queen in waiting come and help doing a shore clean-up, plastic gloves and all! This was just about the time when the former Spanish king went hunting in Africa and was photographed with his lover, having shot an endangered elephant. Not that we whale-killing Norwegians have a right to point fingers, but there is still a vast difference when it comes to public involvement and the attitude towards public duty when one compares northern/central and southern Europe.

I do not believe our municipal government has ever taken a map of our town and looked at it from a post-consumer perspective, colour coding the areas with the highest population density, further segmenting were there are local businesses and restaurants, marking areas where environmental toxins are being used, particularly when coinciding with residential areas, schools and kindergartens, noting where illegal garbage deposits are being made, where littering is a widespread problem and where more containers are sorely needed. It seems evident that restaurants and other businesses producing more garbage than individual consumers should not be allowed to deposit their waste into the same containers as private households, but until there are policies and systems in place and somebody implementing these, there will be no change.

In Northern Europe like in North America, leaving your garbage behind is a major faux pas. We see it as our communal duty to keep our surroundings clean. Even when we know that nobody is watching us and we could in principle leave our trash, we generally will not do so. Our auto-policing will become activated, our public conscience will take over, and if that will not do it, our fear of public shaming will. This sense of communal duty or shame I find often sadly lacking in our town. Ronda displays the dichotomy of a rural village, where life must go on, yet wants to remain the same. There will always be things lagging behind in such development, and for Ronda, the most noticeable area I see is the environment.

If people had to pay 1000 € for not depositing a chewing gum in a proper manner like they do in Singapore, they would probably think twice about spitting it out on the street. Equally, if industries and businesses knew that their pollution issues could not be dealt with a quick phone call to a friend at the town hall, we might see a change. We do have laws against littering in Ronda, though to date I have never heard of anyone being fined. Maybe the town is too small, so the police constable who would be handing out the fine always ends up being a third cousin or a neighbour of the sinners, so the tickets might magically disappear into thin air? I am not saying it is what happens, it is just a theory. There is a 300 € penalty for leaving your dogs droppings, but this does not seem to concern most local dog owners. Actually, we have more dog-shit on the streets of Ronda than any other place I have lived, including Paris, and that is sayings something. I have heard many locals laughing it off, claiming that they are good luck to step in. However, there is nothing fortunate about breathing in faecal matters, particularly when one is talking about one of Spain’s most visited towns that is basically living of tourism, and still mostly unexplored, eco tourism.

Ronda is not the only place that is lagging behind on environmental matters. In fact, some of Andalucía’s famous white villages are even less green. At least Ronda has a sewer and wastewater treatment plant. Most towns around here still dump their sewer directly into nature, yes, in 2017! The town of Benoaján /Estación de Benoaján famous for their slaughtering and meat-processing plants send all their waste directly into the local river, which at times smell just foul. In Canada, local residents would probably have chained themselves to the factory doors, demanding the businesses to clean up their act. Understandably, people here are mostly concerned with keeping their jobs, and unfortunately secondly, possibly with having their chorizo on the table?

It seems that when it comes to pollution of their immediate surroundings, most Andalucians would rather not know about it. Though in our present climate, we can no longer afford to look the other way. To borrow a saying from Macron, there is no Planeta B…

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The reincarnation of Gonzales, the scarecrow

Living in Andalucía does not always mean sunny skies. Actually, this past winter was pretty tough, particularly on our scarecrow Gonzales. He was often left alone for weeks on end, standing up to rain, sleet, hailstorms, and even two weeks of snow and below freezing temperatures. By the time spring came, he was all skin and bones, his clothes were threadbare and his nose had gotten a nasty frostbite. Things were not looking good.

As if this wasn’t bad enough for poor old Gonzales, in early May we had five straight days of nearly hurricane force winds. By the time we managed to get down to our community garden to assess the damages, it looked like a tornado had passed through, flattening almost everything in it’s wake. And where was Gonzales, we wondered? Had he quit on us? Run for shelter never to return? We looked around our piece of land, though there was really nowhere he could have hidden there. Continuing the search into the neighbouring gardens, we found him in Salvador’s weed-filled plot, lying face down, immobile, and dare I say, nearly dead. I picked him up with outmost care, mumbling comforting words while I leaned him against our largest rosemary bush (the one where the lizard family lives), while we did some basic damage control. My husband suggested that we leave Gonzales in the garden for me to fix him at a later time. What!, I exclaimed. How could he be so insensitive? There was no way I would do such a thing. We could not abandon our poor, traumatized scarecrow now, having just experienced the biggest blow of his life to date. The wind had broken his leg straight off (he only ever had one…) and thrown him at least twenty meters. Gonzales was in a critical condition and would have to be tended to immediately or this would be the end of him. It was time for drastic measures.

Safely at home, I propped Gonzales up in a chair to let him come to in his own time. He sat there in shock for days on end, not uttering a single word. He had always been a quiet fellow, but nothing like this. I realized that life-altering surgery was the only thing that would revive him. Actually, he needed a complete face and body reconstruction, in other words we were speaking virtual reincarnation. Such a diagnosis is not easy to break to anybody, let alone to a severely distressed hurricane victim. He might have had complete confidence in my surgical abilities in the past, but the past days’ ordeal had made him lose faith in humanity, as well as his maker. In the end, I saw no other solution than to take out a large pair of scissors and some sharp wire cutters and go to work.

It was nearly four years since Gonzales came to life (One scarecrow year equals about a decade and a half in human years, depending on the climate). Now, there was nothing left of the rebellious youngster that he once had been. In fact, when I started to dismantle his body, piece by piece, it became clear that basically everything had to go. His head, once so full of visions and artistic temperament, had gone soggy. His green mop hairdo was bleached and lifeless. His once broad shoulders had gone limp and his chest was completely caved in, in spite of the fact that a swarm of wasps had created a rather sizable hive in his lung cavity. Even his heart was gone, I do not know where.

In the end, all I could save was his button eyes, his nose material (polishing cotton), his pale mouth with two front teeth (the teeth made from the same mop as his hair), as well as his old moustache. Everything else, including his spine, his broken arms, the shredded clothing, a selection of dead bugs suffocated in the plastic bags that contained his upper torso and his sad little brain, all went into two giant garbage bags and was dumped in the containers up the street.

I put his few facial remains loose on the table. Don’t worry. I can do this, I told him, silently hoping I wasn’t promising more than I could keep. I gladly admit that I am an awful seamstress, but I am an excellent mock artist, able to put things together creatively, shaping them into suitable forms. Just don’t look too closely at the stitching. In addition, I have many years of experience doing brain and body surgery on teddy bears and other stuffed toys. Indeed, one can almost call me an expert at soft tissue incisions. Therefore, I was fairly confident that I would be able to get Gonzales back to life again, albeit in a new incarnation.

The first thing to do in such a case is to get supplies. It felt only appropriate to me that Gonzales’ revival should be a communal process (Always the socialist…). It was far too easy to just go out and buy whatever I needed. That would be cheating, like purchasing an instant Halloween costume. The new Gonzales had to be born from transforming things I already had at hand, or by using what I could find and inherit from friends and neighbours. As the word went out, contributions came in. Juan Lu, the greengrocer in the square gave me hard packed shrink-wrapping, which became Gonzales new head and torso. Pedro the local ironsmith gave me a rusty long metal pole, cut to size right then and there, to become Gonzales’ new spine and uni-leg. The centre where I give a weekly English class to bratty 6 year olds donated a bright yellow T-shirt and our friend Rosa even came with wardrobe changes and clothing options for him. I particularly liked a pair of pants discarded by her police-constable husband, as I hoped those would give Gonzales back some of the confidence that he had lost during that fatal spring.

On a sunny day I took Gonzales’ spine and all the other scarecrow-making paraphernalia onto our lower terrace to put him together. I had already made his chinless head, covered in four layers of spice-coloured nylon stockings (there is a use for those dreaded things, after all). Without boasting, I would say that I had given him an excellent nose job, reviving his most recognizable facial feature. His mouth and eyes were also in place. He was starting to look rather dapper. I had also unearthed a pair of authentic 1960’s eye-glass frames from a collection I bought from a closing optometrist in Montreal almost 30 years prior. Who would have thought that those frames would end up in rural Andalucía?

I zap-strapped the head onto his spine, hoping it would remain in place for years to come. On the spot, I decided to give his greying moustache a trim to commemorate his survival with a fresh new look. The hair was the next item to deal with. I had already dyed a salt and pepper mop-head to be stitched on, but I rather liked his new bold look. There is something to the saying Bold is Beautiful, I suppose. In the end, I chose to forget the mop and just give him some dried esparto grass fuzz (matching his moustache) around his non-existing ears. I do not know why, but ears have never seemed necessary for our scarecrow. This could possibly be something to be added in his next reincarnation, though by that time, he might be stone deaf and not need them anyhow.

As I went on to build the body, I pinched our broomstick handle to use as his arms. (My husband doesn’t mop much, so he will be the last to notice.) A heavy plastic bag was a perfect receptacle to contain his new rather hefty beer belly. Sliding his stick arms back and forth, I was able to put on his XL T-shirt, which later was augmented by black mock suspenders. The last touch made him look a bit more like a farmer, so he will fit better in with his rural surroundings. After sewing on his pants with a hurricane-sized needle and thread, I fastened a wide strip of candy-caned kitchen towel around his neck as a scarf. The latter was to cover the plastic ties and stitching that held him together, as we certainly do not want anyone to suspect that he is not real!

All that remained was to add some headgear. I could of course have used one of our old straw hats, but since we were quickly approaching the zesty Andalucian summer, I decided to go with something a bit more gay and festive. I dug into our shed, that is whatever I could reach from the door, and found a disposable respirator. By cutting off the tell tale elastic straps and adding some bright paint, it became a rather groovy scull cap. After dousing it with a protective layer of varnish, I sewed it carefully onto the top of his head.

Thankfully, Gonzales came out of the surgery without any complications, though his rock and roll days were definitively over. He was still himself of course, only a more mature, refined version. He presented a bit of an intellectual professor air, like a distant relation to Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle or a brother of Groucho Marx. The next morning, he travelled in style back to the community garden. We gave him a spot at the lower part of our plot where he will be able to oversee our growing crop, while enjoying the sweeping vista of the old town of Ronda. Truth be known, in the world of scarecrows, Gonzales is pretty much living the dream.

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‘Los Olivos’ gets a makeover. An Andalucían renovation story

Lovely handmade ceramic sign outside Los Olivos. Photo © snobb.net

Last fall, I wrote about our from-the-bottom-and-up Andalucían home restoration project, describing it as a new edition of the Extreme Home Makeover TV programs. Though I am yet to take the show on the air, since our casita is completed, (though I am designing a glass and metal sofa table for it as we speak) I was ready for another design project. I would not call it extreme by any means. However, I have had the pleasure of giving an Andalucian holiday rental cottage a much welcome facelift.

So without further ado, here is my latest SNOBB décor challenge:

Morning mist. Photo © snobb.net

Located just outside Ronda in El Llano de la Cruz (or the Flats of the Cross), Estate Finca Maridadi consists of three neighbouring holiday rental homes: the stately five bedroom main house Finca Maridadi and two adjoining ranch style cottages, Los Olivos and La Cancela. All houses are surrounded by olive groves and flowering fields and have lovely views and green lawns contrasted by aqua marine pools that seem tempting even in the dead of winter. Other than a rare train zipping by, the only sound that possibly could disturb this rural heaven is twittering birds and buzzing bees. I can certainly second the accolades of a visiting Washington Post reporter and understand why guests come back to the premises year after year. So, why change anything, you might ask?

Kitchen counter. Before and after. Photos © snobb.net

While the main house is brimming with antiques and art, combining an English country home style with a touch of Andalucían Casa y Campo, the medium-sized cottage that I had been asked to revive was in need of some TLC (Tender Loving Care for those who aren’t familiar with the abbreviation). My first impression upon entering Los Olivos was that of a middle child (believe me, I am one…) who is left inheriting the garbs of an older sibling. Through the years the cottage seemed to have been filled with too many not-sure-what-to-do-with furniture and art pieces from other homes. This hectic eclectic-ness can be charming, but lacked an overall feel. There were lovely oil paintings hidden in the bedrooms and many furniture pieces that could be kept, just placed differently or covered with new cloth or a fresh coat of paint. These facts likely go unnoticed on visitors, who are too busy diving into the pool, mixing drinks and BBQing between walks about Ronda or day trips to Sevilla. But for a Scandinavian SNOBB and decorator like myself, my fingers were simply itching to begin the transformation.

Kitchen seen from window. Before and after. Photos © snobb

Starting with the kitchen, the original plan was to get new appliances and paint the old cupboards, while leaving the overall structure. As soon as I walked into the room, I knew that this would not only look piecemeal, but also be an unwise investment. Though built of solid wood, the old kitchen cabinets were tired at best. They were the old-school type where one literally had to crawl into the lower cupboards to get anything out, while most of the overhead cabinets were unreachable without a ladder. In my estimation therefore more than half the storage was inaccessible. In addition, the boxed-in fridge and other dividers took up unnecessary space. It was time to apply some tough love. The tiled wall with a protruding floral number midway up the backsplash had to go, I insisted, as did the ever so speckled brown countertop, the far too small kitchen sink, the greasy inefficient fan, and while we were at it, all the upper cabinetry. Or such were my rather blunt suggestions. Thankfully, Patti, the delightful UK owner was open to new ideas and not afraid of changes.

Wall of botanical prints. Photo © snobb.net

I suggested we paint ceiling and walls throughout the cottage white. The Terra Cotta floors were already a strong statement and needed a less busy surrounding to be appreciated. With white walls as a neutral slate, we kept the floors ‘as is’, just giving them an acid cleaning and a unifying treatment with matte aceite de mora oil.

The key objective was also to give the cottage more light and sunshine, which is after all why most of us love this part of the world. The white walls throughout helped, as did loosing the rather dated floral salon curtains and replacing them with white aluminium shutters. These would be kept open most of the time, but when closed they would offer better security and insolation to the elements, be it temperature, precipitation, light or sound. We also swapped the integrated ceiling lights throughout with new focusable units and LED bulbs that are use a fraction of the power and last for years.

Dividing wall with opening. Before and after. Photos © snobb

The diving wall between the kitchen and the salon had a small opening covered with an iron rail near the ceiling. I suggested we loose the bars and expand the opening horizontally to allow more light and air between the rooms. I would also have blown off the rather clunky, top-heavy built-in shelf on the dividing wall, but for now pots of ornamental grass and two original oils from Provence did the trick.

The kitchen cabinetry was replaced with modern IKEA cabinetry and topped with a subtle, yet rich piece of Brazilian granite from a local supplier. Instead of upper cabinets, we installed an open shelf above the counter and a glass cabinet opposite with integrated lighting, which give ample storage. In addition to the new ceiling lights, we added three glass pendent lamps both as direct work light and for mood lighting. Patti had brought some lovely botanical prints from the UK, which we framed in whitewashed oak. We kept the old kitchen table, to which I stained three stools to match, so the guests now have a lovely nook to enjoy their morning coffee while answering their emails or reading the paper.

Salon. Before and after. Photos © snobb

The salon with its yellowed walls and crimson coloured sofas also needed a complete revamp. White walls, recovered light grey sofas and new LED lighting helped give it a fresh new feel. As in the kitchen, framed botanical prints were grouped tightly on the fireplace wall, eight on either side.

Original Provence paintings were swapped from the bedrooms. I particularly like the lady in plum over the secretaire desk that we pillaged from another room. I found a matching taupe chair in the main house, and it worked so well that I will have to buy another one for the stately Finca. To distract from the old heater, we brought in a live palm in a white planter. The central kilim carpet was swapped with one in the main house to keep the overall cool tone, which surely will be most appreciated by guests in the heat of summer.

Looking out to the garden. Photo © snobb.net

The neutral palate also brings ones attention to the lovely garden and the pool outside. Talking of the outside, the bullfighting poster and a 3D plastic map, both of which I immediately felt would have to go, were given a new lease on life at the end of the pool. Now visitors interested in hiking the local mountains or watching corridas de toros can study the art while doing their late afternoon laps.

The bedrooms were recently painted and did not need much help, other than some swapping of art. There are still a few bits and bobs I need to whitewash or chalk paint and distress. A decorator’s work is never done, but I hope future guests of Los Olivos will enjoy lounging in their refreshed Andalucian country holiday home.

 

For more information on staying at Los Olivos: www.finca-maridadi.com

For help with design, décor or refinishing projects, go to www.snobb.net or contact me

 

Tempting pool on sunny winter day. Photo © snobb.net

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A slightly tipsy, but ever so tasty visit to the golden triangle of sherry making

When I was young, a glass of sherry was something my great aunts and other old ladies sipped from etched crystal glasses, accompanied by sweet biscuits and muted gossip. The names on the bottles were Bristol Cream and Dry Sac, which sounded much more English than Andalusian. Most of the old ladies have long since passed away and I have not had much expose to sherry since. But that was before we moved to Spain and went on a tour of one of the country’s oldest and most venerable sherry bodegas.

A sherry is a fortified wine usually made from the green grapes of the Palomino, Muscatel or Pedro Ximenez variety. To be legally classified as such, the sherry needs to originate from Andalucia’s so called sherry triangle formed by the three towns with the long and intricate names of Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. Only this area with its chalky white soil presents the right growing conditions for this special wine, which achieved Spain’s first Protected Designation of Origin status in 1933.

The name sherry is an anglicised version of Xeres or Jerez. There are a rich variety of sherry wines to satisfy any taste and accompany almost any dish. On the lighter side, there is the dry, straw coloured Manzanilla and Fino that locals enjoy as an aperitivo. Moving on, there are the darker and slightly heavier versions with musical names like Amontillado and Oloroso, and finally we end up with the sweet dessert wines called Pedro Ximenez, from a grape of the same name.

We made a visit to the Bodega Fundador, which we were told was Jerez’ oldest winery. The company began producing what we now know as sherry in a converted olive mill in 1730 and the building is still in use up to this day. In the 1840’s, the company began distilling their famous brandy, today not only universally known, but according to some the word’s biggest brandy producer with over 30 million cases sold last year. Initially owned and run by the famous Anglo-Spanish semi-aristocratic family of Domecq, the present owner is now from the Philippines. This new acquisition adds to the global brand, since former owners also have been English, Americans and Chinese.

The international connection is nothing new. Wine has been produced in Jerez since the times the Romans ruled these lands some 2000 years ago. Later, during the seven centuries that the Arabs ruled the Iberian continent, the Moors who were not being able to drink wine for religious reason, distilled the wine for medicinal and antiseptic use. After the Spanish expulsion of the Moors in the late 13th century, the wine spirit was again made for human consumption. The production was actually so considerable that it was subject to a Wine Spirit Tax by the 16th century. While the Netherlands imported most of the early Spanish brandy, the English favoured the softer cousin, the sherry. It is said that when Sir Francis Drake plundered the port of Cádiz in 1587, part of his loot was three thousand casks of sherry. While the English might not have come by their favourite dessert wine through legal means initially, it certainly began a gustatory love affair that is alive up to this day.

Our sherries are very spoilt, said Lourdes, our friendly guide before bringing us into El Molino, Fundador’s first and oldest bodega. It may seem odd to describe a wine as spoilt or ‘mimado’, but after learning about the long and labour intensive journey from grape to bottle, I would tend to agree.

What immediately hits you when entering the soon 300-year-old bodega is the smell, or should I say the attack on the olfactory senses. The scent is a mixture of rich wood, some type of sweet nectar, spilled wine turned into vinegar, old cellar mould and wet stone. The temperature of the enormous bodega is kept constant in the balmy mid teens, 18 degrees Celsius and 70% humidity being the ideal. This is achieved naturally through the building’s construction and its orientation. Windows at the far end of the halls facing towards the coast offer ventilation as they admit the cool sea breeze in the evenings and early mornings, while traditional woven straw blinds keep the hot midday sun out. Bodegas were normally built large and high with meter-thick white walls for thermos properties, tiled roofs that would breathe and floors covered with sand, which could be watered down to keep the humidity high.

The El Molino bodega itself is an endless warehouse of hall after hall of old wooden barrels, stacked on top of each other, three layers high. The bottom layer from which the final product is extracted is called solera (or on the ground). The layers of barrels cradled above these are called criadera (or nursery) 1 and 2. New wine is introduced into nursery 1, and gradually, usually annually, moved down to the older nursery and finally to the solera where the oldest, most mature wine is stored. Only after the fermentation is completed is the base wine fortified with grape spirit to reach the desired alcohol content. No cask is ever drained and never is more than one third of a barrel removed, allowing for the different generations of grapes to blend. This type of ageing (also used for a wide variety of other products, including port and balsamic vinegar) is called fractional blending. It assures that every bottle produced will have a mixture of ages of wine, which increases gradually as the process continues over the years. Some soleras therefore can date back hundreds of years.

The barrels that Fundador uses are made of American oak. All casks are impregnated with wine before use, since new barrels would give too strong a wooden taste for this type of product. The old sherry barrels are widely sought after by whisky makers, so some of the sherry producers in the Jerez area sell off the used barrels to Scotland. Fundador however, hangs on to every old barrel, rather mending them and using them for year after year. Nothing is wasted here, says Lourdes, explaining that even if a barrel of sherry goes spoilt, it will be made into Pedro Ximenez vinegar.

Prior to tasting the product, we were lead through Fundador’s collection of old bottles, bottling machines, distillery contraptions and an impressive collection of vintage sherries and brandies. Here, we got to smell the process through which their spirited wine will go to produce the different sherry types. Because the fortification takes place after the fermentation, a sherry is initially dry with any sweetness being added later. Fino and Manzanilla are fortified until they reach an alcohol content of 15.5 per cent by volume. As they age, they develop a layer of yeast-like growth that helps protect the wine from excessive oxidation and keeping its light colour. This dry aperitif wine, with a slight aroma of almonds, is perfect served on ice with our without a nibble of Payoyo goat cheese. The Oloroso sherry is allowed to oxidise in the barrel until it reaches an alcohol content of at least 17 per cent. It is rich amber in colour, has a slight hazelnut aroma and goes splendidly with Iberian ham. The Amontillado sherry is somewhere between a Fino and an Oloroso, while the exportation favourite Cream Sherry is an Oloroso into which the naturally sweet Pedro Ximenez wine is added. Jerez brandy is made by aging wine spirits in former sherry casks. Like we were told, nothing is wasted.

Of course, no sherry tour is complete without a tasting, of which we did ample. Though we seemed to go through them all, our favourite one was hard to point out, so we had to bring a few bottles back home for further investigation.

Needless to say, I am starting to realise that my great grand aunts were onto something. A glass of sherry, like a bit of history, is a most worthy cheer.

 

 

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Monastic stay with infinity pool in Andalucía’s city of dreams

Have you ever had an urge to stay in a monastery, yet not exactly wanted to join the order, sleep on a narrow cot or get up for 4 am prayers? Then Ronda’s newest hidden, yet ever so central boutique hotel might just be what you have been looking for.

My husband and I thought that our Ronda building permit saga was the ultimate test in patience, with months of waiting, refusals, reapplications and even an archaeological dig. But that was before we spoke to John and Carol Small. Our application was merely to restore a tiny village home, but they had a much more ambitious project in mind. The Small’s had bought the adjoining church to a former monastery and decided to convert it into a hotel. This may seem like a simple preposition to some, but for most of us who reside in Spain, or certainly in the southern part of the country, we know that this kinds of reformations may take years, indeed forever, especially if said property lays within the historical quarter of Ronda, otherwise called the ciudad soñada or the city of dreams.

Getting our building application took two years and that felt like an eternity. John and Carol’s permit application took six long years, with an added two years of construction on top of that. I can only imagine how many times they were near giving up! Finally, after digs and re-digs, inspections and re-inspections, miles of red tape, local, provincial and who knows what other authorities disapprovals and approvals, and probably ample amounts of hand wringing, they managed to open the doors of their charming Ronda boutique hotel in December. We were invited for a tour and hot drinks by the pool one cool Sunday afternoon, and were nothing short of in awe with what they had accomplished.

Hotel Monasterio del Carmen is located just a few minutes walk from Ronda’s world famous bridge, visited by literally hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Yet, once you pass into the historic centre and take off down the narrow side street to enter the hotel gates, you will find yourself in a hidden oasis – a private patio facing the old Arab defensive wall with the Serranía del Ronda mountain ranges at a distance. Just the view is worth the stay! The hotel itself is has only four guest rooms, which adds to the intimate atmosphere. Both the garden rooms and the inner monastic rooms are done in a modern, clean, yet comfortable style. The large terraced patio with an infinity pool (surely the only one you will find in the historic part of Ronda) tends to be the favourite place for visitors to have their breakfast, while the lofty church building itself, offers ample space for lounging, reading or catching up on emails while having a glass of wine. The décor reflects the many years that the owners lived in the Middle East, which somehow perfectly complements the buildings long and varied history.

This monastic hotel is not your state-of-the-mill lodging establishment. The original monastery construction was started some time in the late 15th or early 16th century, which brings us back to a period just after Ronda and the rest of Spain had abolished its Moorish population after seven centuries of Arab rule. This was when many of Ronda’s old churches and convents were established. Later additions to the church were made in the 18th century, such as the baroque rectangular nave and barrel vault ceiling. It was also then they added the Camarín, or the octagonal small chapel to the east, which can equally be admired from outside. The chapel is now wonderfully restored in its original deep terra cotta hues, with the painted date of its completion – 1738.

Through the centuries, the church was used for religious services, as a hospital and hostel, as stopping point for pilgrims, and as hideout for republicans and leftists during the Spanish civil war in the 1930’s. After the church was deconsecrated some decades back, it was used as a theatre and music hall with an adjoining bar, appropriately located in the upper gallery. By the time John and Cathy bought it, the monastery church had been abandoned for years and was classified as being in very poor condition and in desperate need of restoration.

With such a colourful history, it only seems appropriate that its next reincarnation would be as a resting place for wary travellers. So, next time you plan to visit our little town of dreams, you might want to consider spending a night or two in this hidden treasure. For more information on Hotel Monasterio del Carmen, please go to http://www.hotelmonasteriodelcarmen.com/

 

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Four years and I am still pinching my arm

The other day we quietly passed our four-year anniversary of living in Andalucía. We didn’t celebrate it, because every day of living here is still, and hopefully will always be a treat to us.

Our simple and happy life in Ronda, this mountain town near the Southern tip of Spain, is something we never in our wildest dreams could have imagined when we were back in Canada. How we ended up here in the first place is a bit of a coincidence. We left North America to take an open-ended Sabbatical, planning to travel around until we eventually would find our home, sometime in the unwritten future. It just so happened that we took our first pit stop and started our search here. Whenever we went on a trip to check out new place, trying to find that elusive paradise on earth, we kept coming back ‘home’ to Ronda, feeling that we pretty much had it right here.

Had we started out our search some place else, our life might had ended up quite differently, but I still believe that Andalucía would have become our home turf. The Spanish south is full of amazing towns and villages, so one is hard pressed not to fall in love with at least one. I believe we could have lived just as happily in the charming historic part of Cádiz or in the narrow hilly streets of the Albayzín in Granada. There are so many jewels here, towns for all tastes, those who like surfing and beach life, city and cultural living, valley homesteading or like us, climbing mountains. We have become very fond of the Andalucian landscape, the rich and diverse culture and it’s passionate and generous people. In these days of global turmoil, I feel it is a huge privilege to be able to hang our straw hats in a small place where life moves at a slightly slower, but not less lively pace. It is not that Andalucíans live in the past, but that they live with the past.

Clearly, there are things about living in a Latin country that can drive expats, or certainly us Nordic types to distraction, if not to sheer madness. Every place has its drawbacks, even our little paradise. After spending most of my life in North America, it is only natural that I wants to tar and feather, or certainly sue anyone who doesn’t do the work they were contracted to do. At these moments I try to bring out my inner Latina and remind myself that it isn’t the end of the world if we wont get that job done by Christmas. There is always next year….

Truly, we do not have a single regret in coming to Andalucía. We live in a place that millions of people dream of visiting, let alone living in. Every day when walking over our town’s world-famous bridge I want to pinch my arm. Is this really our home? I still snap a photo almost every time I cross it to go to work. The undulating Mediterranean landscape with olive trees and vineyards, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have to admit that we do have lots of tourists. If we didn’t, our type of town would not survive. Yet hardly any of these groups of visitors take the time to walk down to our little neighbourhood, which is still like a traditional country village.

Of course, I will always be a bit of an outsider. I am an expat or a guiri as they call us and therefore will never be embraced as a true local. I will never look like them, nor completely sound like them. After decades in Canada I still had a Scandinavian accent. If I couldn’t get rid off my accent on my English, I certainly won’t manage to do so on my Spanish now. Yet, for all the differences, I feel as though we belong here. After four year of living in Ronda, this is our home. We have no other. We know more people here than most natives: street sweepers and politicians, surgeons, flamenco dancers, donkey herders, smiths, poets, archaeologists, police constables and surely an occasional out-law. Not being a native means that we can avoid some of the family feuds and neighbourly intrigues which others are forced to take sides in. We are equal friends with the poor and illiterate, as those who ‘run’ the town. We do not discriminate and are equally friends with gypsies and non-gypsies, Catholics and Muslims or anyone in between. We have many friends and so far no foes.

Today I went by our local Franciscan convent, as I am helping the nuns translate correspondence from French to Spanish, arranging for two novices to come from Madagascar. As I buzzed the gate and was let into the cloistered convent, kissing the nuns as if they were my sisters, I had to shake my head. Me? Here? Who could have guessed even five years ago that we would have found our little paradise here in rural Andalucía? But here we are, and here we will stay.

I hope we will never take this privilege for granted.

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The ‘horrors’ of spending winter in Ronda

A North American woman read my blog and wrote to me because to the ‘horror’ of her friends and family, she will spend some time in Ronda this winter. Their reaction may have been a bit exaggerated, but I had to ask myself what potential horrors anyone would encounter here in in our little mountain town on a regular winter day?

There are many things that may evoke our horror these days: war, terror, pollution, racism, global warming and the presidential elections of the United States, to mention a few. I can imagine ones loved ones being horrified if one is going to take a world-tour of closed down, leaky nuclear plants, but the ‘horrors’ of a Spanish village visit? Apart from what happened here during the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish civil war, I cannot imagine many horrors a visitor may encounter in our town. Anyhow, let us take a look at the concerns of the women’s well-meaning family and friends. What possible ‘horrors’ could she experience during four winter weeks in Ronda?

First, there is the horror of bad weather. Relatively speaking, rain and thunderstorms do not qualify as horrors in my book, but depending on where one comes from, maybe to some they do? Almost all of Europe will have more precipitation and what we tend to call bad weather in the winter. But that is equally true for North America. Spain is generally a sunny place, but Ronda is not a beach town, and at approximately 850 meter over the sea level, we might even have frost or snow. Who knows, that might qualify as another ‘horror’? When one thinks about it, our winters are relatively balmy compared to the winters in in for instance Minnesota, Quebec and Alaska. On the contrary, the visitor may quite likely experience winter days with clear, blue skies.

Next there are the ‘horrors’ of rural living. If one comes from a big city and has a dread of green fields and bleating sheep, then Ronda would certainly be a risky place to visit. Indeed, you may spend a month with relatively clean air, surrounded by mountains and come back home with cleaner lunges. You may wake up to the brays of a donkey instead of sirens and rather than driving bumper to bumper, you may drive on scenic roads virtually void of cars. Such vistas can be horrific or beautiful, depending on the eye of the beholder. Rural living means that life moves at a slower pace, which may be irritating to some.

We are sort of a bit behind here in the very Southern tip of Europe. But lagging behind means that our town still has cobblers and seamstresses and ironsmiths and that you can get your toaster, boots, garden gate, watch or virtually anything repaired, usually for under 5 euros, which probably now equals the price of one fancy Starbucks beverage.

Coming to a Latin place, there is also the ‘horror’ of social contact. People may actually talk to you. Latin people are certainly more social and friendly than us Norwegians and talk more and louder than the Canadians I spent most of my adult life with. Rondeños may engage in conversation quite unprovoked. People will often smile when they pass you and wish you a good day, just like that. Furthermore, waiting in line or sitting in a cafe, people may compliment you and call you guapa or guapo, as in pretty or handsome depending on your gender. They will not mean this as a pickup line, so try not to take it as a personal attack and react in horror.

There is the potential ‘horror’ of experiencing trust and downright generosity. The first time you come into one of the small grocery stores in town, even if the shopkeeper does not know you from Adam, if you lack a few cents on your purchase he or she is likely to tell you to pay them next time. You will notice that they do not write down this debt, they will simply trust you to bring them the extra coins when you have them. Equally, they may throw in something for free: a bunch of parsley, a couple of sweet buns when you buy bread, a candy or a fruit. My husband always says “Just like in Canada” when this happens, as it never happened once in the decades we lived in Vancouver. This urge to be generous and trusting even to strangers may be something completely new and thus a bit unsettling for a traveller. But don’t be horrified. They will not come after you, expecting something in return.

There are the ‘horrors’ of style and taste, or more specifically of different style and taste. There is no limit to what you can wear here in Southern Spain. Nobody will think you are being too bling, too metrosexual, too feminine, to macho, too overdressed, too underdressed, too colourful, too 1980’s, too Chanel or too risqué. You can wear it all and not worry. As long as you are clean and care for your appearance, nobody cares if you wear the latest in fashion. Of course for a true fashonista, spending a month in our big village could be seen as, yes, a ‘horror’, but it could be fun as well. In fact, you can allow yourself to bring our your inner frills. Here is your chance to sport your über-bling jewellery that you never had a chance to wear. Oh, horrors!

Talking about taste, there are also the ‘horrors’ of the different food. Though Ronda has hundreds of eateries, the most common fare is comida casera or homemade meals. People generally make what grows around here and what is in season, so you may risk reducing your ecological footprint for the time being. Granted, this means than you wont find Bok Choi and French Roquefort in every corner store. On a personal note, I actually think the ‘horror’ will be when the traveller returns to North America and can no longer pay one euro for a café con leche or a couple of euros for a glass of locally grown organic red wine.

I should add that strict vegans might have difficulty finding restaurants that cater to their needs. If you are dead against consuming animal products, you may find the rural Spanish rather horrific. Then again, the North American fast-food chains certainly propagate daily meat consumption of over-processed, hormone-injected meat. On the contrary, the Andalucian favourite, Jamón Ibérico, or thinly sliced ham, comes from free-ranged mountain roaming Iberian pigs that are fully vegetarian, living on a naturally growing organic diet of acorns and possibly the occasional chestnut.

As we are on the topic of animals, I should mention for those that are horrified by bull fighting that there is a bullring in Ronda, like in most Spanish towns. However, you can rest assured that there are no fights during winter. In fact the ring is only used for Corridas one weekend per year, as the bullring earns more money as a museum.

Of course one must not forget the ‘horrors’ of the fiestas and the religious processions. Rondeños, like most Andalucíans love their parties. Every city, town and village celebrates their preferred virgins and saints and the various seasonal ferias, so maybe rethink your location if processions and street parties fill you with horror. In February there are carnivals all over the Hispanic world, as a traditional way of letting loose before the restraints of lent. Though Ronda’s carnival cannot compete with Río, it is a colourful fiesta. People dress up and parade around town, liquids flow, hair is let down or put up into amazing dos, nobody wants to work and the week’s celebration ends with the burning of a doll, symbolizing the end of the carnival until next year. Clearly public burnings aren’t exactly politically correct, but does not match the horrors of the Klu Klux Klan either. And if Catholic traditions aren’t your thing, you can always go to the old Arab baths or escape to the mountains, where peace and calm reins.

Finally, there is the ‘horror’ of experiencing something new. This is a big one for some, especially those who think that the best holiday is in ones own backyard or at an all-inclusive hotel where one doesn’t have to leave the fenced-in perimeters. Traveling allows us to see and experience different things. It opens our mind to other people, their lives, food, faith and customs. To me, new experiences are vital and something one should do whenever one has a chance, in spite of the possible horrors and concerns of ones friends and loved ones.

Bon voyage!

 

 

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Hasta luego

I am writing a book of my Andalucian tales and will put my weekly blogs on the back-burner in the meanwhile.

More to come soon.

Hasta Luego. 

 

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La Sierra – not for the faint-hearted, light-headed or high-heeled hikers

Last week we were asked to take a couple of foreign visitors for a hike, as the local guide didn’t speak English. We were told that they were avid walkers who wanted a solid 15 km route. As soon as we met them, we knew there would be trouble. The younger hiker was massively overweight and hadn’t actually done any exercise for years. He was huffing after a few steps and had to abort mission in the first downhill section. We arranged a ride for him with a delivery truck to our final destination, where he would wait some four hours for us at a bar. The older hiker had a lot more experience. He struggled somewhat in the inclines, but refused our offer of borrowing hiking poles and chose not to ingest anything but a beer at the lunch stop. (You can maybe guess where he was from?) As he was an elderly gentleman and a very pleasant one at that, we felt we could not insist. People choose their own poison. Climbing up the last couple of kilometres in the hot afternoon sun, he suddenly passed out. We had to revive him by pouring a bottle of water over his head. When he finally came to, he admitted that the southern Spanish climate was quite different from the Highlands…

The Andalucian landscape offers a plethora of stunning hikes and treks for those who like to spend time in nature. Some trails are well marked and frequented by hikers, while others might be more of an isolated expedition. However, whether one prefers to ascend peaks or to stroll on farm roads between traditional villages, there are certain things every walker ought to keep in mind before venturing on the trail.

Here are six tips on how to have a safe and enjoyable hike in the Spanish south.

1. Footwear

I don’t know how many times we have gone hiking with a group and someone has showed up with completely inappropriate footwear. Spanish women love their heels and many try to sneak in a bit of extra height even on the trail. The problem is that heels put you automatically off balance, especially when walking in steep inclines, and after a couple of hours the wearer probably would give their first born to get the darn things off. Younger hikers often show up in flat-soled city sneakers with absolutely no grip or support, which is rather important to have on mountain trails. A woman even showed up once in Doc Martens, which we had to Duct Tape together in mid-trail. So, fashionable or not, you need sturdy footwear.

Regardless of the difficulty of the trail, you are certain to run into rocks and dust. You may have to leap over boulders or cross a river. Guaranteed there will be prickly brambles and thorny bushes. And with a very high probability there will be hills, as in up and down. Therefore, the first thing one ought to have when hiking in Southern Spain is proper footwear, such as trail runners or light hiking boots. 

2. Liquids

This is Spain and it will be hot, even in late fall or early spring, as our fainted co-hiker last week can witness to. You will be surprised how many times we will go for a +20km +6 hour hike and someone will arrive with a measly 250 ml bottle of water, saying they will refill it on the way. For one, you can never count on the rivers or springs having water year around. Secondly, you cannot count on the water being drinkable, especially if you come from a different climate with different bacteria in the water. And, unfortunate or not, you cannot count on finding bars in the sierra. So you must carry your liquids with you.

Liquids are vital on hikes. If you can, you shouldn’t only bring liquids for yourself, but also enough to share in an emergency. We have had co-hikers keel over or get into a diabetic shock during a hike, at which point an extra tetra-pack of juice or a spare bottle of water has been of great importance. Since I will get low blood sugar, I not only bring my camel pack full of water (2.5 litres), but I have at least one extra bottle with an energy drink with sugars, salts and electrolytes. The minimum for a regular day hike is 2 litres, (more in the summer), though if you can carry more, do it. The good thing is that your pack will get lighter as you consume the liquids, and it will eventually end up behind a tree.

3. The backpack

All you have to do to know the importance of your backpack, and it’s content, is to be lost once. Just once. I got lost in the British Columbia coastal mountains one time and had to find my way back in the dark among the enormous trees without a flashlight, virtually carrying my 4-year-old son. I will never hike without a flashlight again, even if I am going for a quick mountain stroll. Equally, if you have gotten a nasty blister or a cut on a hike, you will likely never leave your first aid kit and Band Aids at home. Your guide should have an emergency kit, but what if you get lost from the group and have to spend the night alone in the mountains? Imagine how you will miss that extra sweater or that power bar that you chose to leave at home, just to make your pack lighter?

Even if you do only day hikes, your pack should be of good quality and decent size, have proper back support and ventilation, padded straps, a waist belt and ideally a whistle. Additional ‘secret’ zip pockets in the belt are very practical for mini-snacks for those of us who need to graze along the way. Meshed side pockets for bottles are very useful, as is a compartment for a camel pack. The main compartment of your backpack should be big enough to room extra clothing, sunscreen, hat, food, snacks and extra liquids. I am not mentioning specifics about food, as at least here in Spain people are much better at bringing eatables than liquids on hikes. Another vital item to bring, especially if you hike alone, is a GPS or cell phone with GPS installed. As a female hiker, I bring Kleenex and extra feminine hygiene products, as I assure you that any woman who is stranded with her period in the middle of the bush will be eternally grateful to you.

Finally, there should be seasonal changes to the content of your backpack. When fall and winter comes along, I always add a set of ear-protectors and an extra pair of thin gloves. I rather have two thin pairs than one thick unruly one. A wind- and waterproof shell is also a must, as is extra socks. For more remote hikers, I would also suggest having a reflective emergency blanket. A colourful vest, like the one road crews use, takes up no space and may help find one if one happens to be lost in the sierra. Not that you ever want to be, but it is better to be overly prepared than regret it later.

4. Hiking poles

Poles are a matter of taste and habit, though I feel almost naked without them, since I grew up x-country skiing in Norway. Here in Andalucía many hikers still favour a single wooden walking stick, which of course also have its benefits.

The best hiking poles are collapsible with a built-in spring systems and have comfortable wrist straps and handholds. Some also come with a built-in flashlight in the handle, which believe me, may come in very useful. Though poles are not always necessary, it is good to bring them along. Primarily, they can help support and stabilize you in steep slopes and pull you up hills. Secondly, they can take a load off your feet when you are dead tired or help compensate should you hurt a leg or a knee. They give you better all-around exercise, bringing more blood to the heart and giving you additional upper body strength. Finally, they are great to share when a fellow hiker needs a bit of help.

5. Learn your route

Knowing where you are going, from start to end, and what possible obstacles you may encounter along the trail will avoid unpleasant surprises during a hike. (Also telling somebody else where you are going, is a good rule of thumb) Make sure to read up about the planned trail before going, even if you are going with a guide. If the group is big, chances are that you will not catch everything the guide is saying, especially if your co-hikers are Spanish, who generally have a hard time being quiet while others are speaking… Knowledge about the route will help you decide what you will need to bring in your pack. Had our fellow hikers last weekend checked that the temperature were going to climb over 30 degrees or had they looked at the map describing the vertical climb, they might have requested an easier route and avoided a potentially dangerous situation.

The grading of Andalucian hikes is rather basic, as routes are divided into three levels, bajo (low), medio (medium) and alto (high), with an addition of medio-alto in some cases. With such limited groupings, there is of course a wide range of difficulty levels within each classification. In addition, different guides and hiking groups classify their walks differently, so a medium-level hike with one group is not the same in another group. The most certain way is therefore to read up on the hike, checking the total vertical ascent and descent etc. to be able to properly determine if one is realistically able to do the hike.

And finally…

6. Know your limits

This is really the most important tip for doing any hike or physical activity for that matter. You need to know yourself and accept your limitations. They say that the good tings in life can kill you, and that is indeed true about the mountains. The Andalucian sun that looks so lovely at sunrise can fry you to a crisp in the midday heat. The welcoming light breeze can become a freezing storm in mere minutes, and those gorgeous treeless vistas offer no protection or shade at all.

By all means, go hiking. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s healthy. It’s probably the best therapy you can give yourself. But know your limits and be honest with yourself. If you want to start exercising and haven’t done it forever, starting in la sierra is not the way to do it.

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