Pedro, El Herrero – our barrio’s last blacksmith

When I hear the word blacksmith, I immediately think of the remote smithy in Dickens Great Expectations. The name itself has a sound of yesteryear, when hammers echoed in every hamlet and when blacksmiths were the heart, or certainly the hearth of every community.

As unfortunate as it is, these days the smith-trade has been gradually replaced by superglue and landfills. Try finding someone who can make a one-of-a-kind door knocker or a custom-built iron gate from scratch and you will pay through the roof. That is, if you can find someone to do it. For this reason, we were very excited when we heard that there were still smiths working in Andalucía, even one in our very own barrio or neighbourhood. His name, they said, was Pedro, El Herrero.

It didn’t take long before we needed our local smith. Our first task for him was to make a custom firewood stand, based on our rough sketches. We went to his workshop several times, always coming to a locked door. Actually, the black metal garage doors of the smithy had no business sign, and not even a forged handle to somewhat indicate what trade was practised inside. Instead, there was a phone number scribbled in chalk on one of the flat door panels. Clearly, Pedro believed in the bare-bone rural Andalusian way of advertising.

Knowing there was a smith in town and actually locating the man seemed to be entirely different matters. Our neighbour Mo said that we might have better luck finding him at the stables half way down the hill towards Ronda’s tajo. If he wasn’t there, we might run into him riding up to the barrio. Failing this, we could ask for him at one of the local bodegas, which indeed is what we did. Wherever we went, everybody knew Pedro. In fact, if we were to believe them (and we did), the smith seemed to have been in every bar we dropped by. The man must get around, as we always seemed to have just missed him. A few days later we saw a man sitting on a horse outside one of the before-mentioned bodegas drinking a cerveza, while chatting with some of the other patrons. He had dust-covered clothes, worn leather boots, and just a hint of sooth on his handsomely rugged face – a perfect cast member for a Spanish Spaghetti Western. So, this was the legendary Pedro el herrero, or Peter the blacksmith.

Blacksmiths have a long history. Hammering metals has been done since the early Bronze Age, though classic smithing started in the Iron Age when it was discovered that certain rocks would let out liquid metal when exposed to heat. This iron would gradually solidify upon cooling, allowing it to be formed into tools and weapons. These were much sharper and tougher than their stone predecessors, while being more readily available and diverse in use than bronze tools. Evidence of smithing is found in Greek, Roman, Phoenician and Aztecs mythology, while the earliest archaeological discovery was a dagger dated to about 1350 BC. In other words, it is a very old craft.

Throughout the centuries, the role of the smithy grew. By the 1300s, iron horse shoes were in general use throughout Europe. In Medieval times, blacksmiths were not only making relatively advanced tools out of simple sheds, but they also performed certain community services, such as removing abscessed teeth and probably the odd amputation. The smith could therefore be seen as the equivalent of the town’s engineer, surgeon, dentist, horseman toolmaker and veterinarian. In many cases, he would be the most learned man around. It was a profession that commanded respect and one of the first trades to develop a system of apprenticeship and education of journeymen. Though now considered a blue-collar trade, being a blacksmith in the past was a sign that one had certain intellectual abilities and possibly even partial literacy, since shillings and coppers would have to be accounted for.

As demands for tools grew, the smith profession became more specialised. Traditional smiths were replaced by armourers, nail smiths and sword smiths. Whitesmiths worked with lead, while blacksmiths were the ironworkers. Smiths were still abundant, as witnessed by the frequency or the surname Smith or Herrero here in Spain. Yet, the days of the county forges were numbered. Their demise began with the decline in horse transport and animal labour and ended with the industrial revolution. Big machinery required large production facilities, while mechanised urban tool manufacturers replaced the village smiths. Though inferior in quality to the hand forged tools, these mass-produced generally mixed metal products were much cheaper to make. Such is the way of progress. Just take the good old horseshoe. Though iron horseshoes still exist, most horseshoes today are manufactured of a blend of materials, such as steel, aluminium, plastic, and even rubber. It is a long time since people went to the smithy for a change of horseshoes, so do blacksmiths still have a role to play in our society?

Back in Ronda, Pedro the blacksmith was sitting high on his horse, nursing his second beer. My husband and I went over to inquire if he was available to do a small job. He agreed and we made plans to visit his workshop the next afternoon. What does an ironsmith in the 21st century rural Andalucía do, we wondered? Judging by Pedro’s shop, he won’t be out of work soon. There were half made fences, gates, hand tools, lamps and hinges. There appeared to always be an old neighbour or two hanging around the shop, shooting the breeze and interrupting his hammering. Most, if not all, of his jobs appeared to come by word of mouth. Local farmers used his services, as did anyone with a horse cart or a campo finca. In addition, with Ronda’s historical town centre needing custom door hardware or classic window bars occasionally replaced, Pedro probably had his future set out for him.

Of course, things have changed a bit. A 21st century smithy doesn’t look completely like my movie set image of a classic forge. Pedro’s shop has a few florescent tubes dangling unceremoniously about and a dirty boom box playing a modern Andalusian beat, letting one know that the herrero is in the house long before one gets there. Yet, the basics are the same. The main tools are anvils, tongs and hammers. There is still sooth abound and a smell of seared metal. And there are still embers, even if they more frequently come from the end of Pedro’s cigarette.

Though he isn’t the only act in town, the other smith is getting too old and no longer wishes to work the forge. Pedro literally grew up in the smithy, learning the trade from his now retired father. At 35, our local smith has worked in this same workshop since he was about 12. When I ask him if there is a school for herreros, he laughs, his bright teeth contrasting his blackened face. This is a trade you learn on the job, he tells me. Though there are modern style metal workers in town, he is the only one in Ronda who still uses the classic forge and makes tools by hand. Regrettably, not a single young rondeño is looking to learn his trade. Nobody is interested in getting their hands dirty, I suppose. But Pedro loves his craft and couldn’t imagine doing any other job. His work is creative and innovative. There is always something new to learn and try out. He is his own boss and sets his own hours. He can smoke on the job and spontaneously set off on horseback, just locking the door behind him. The costumers know him and will understand.

The latest piece Pedro made for us was a custom-designed auxiliary table. He had a quick peak at my chicken scratches and understood exactly what we wanted. It would be ready in a couple of days, he said. Since we are used to the mañana culture of the southern Spanish, we didn’t expect to hear from him for a couple of weeks. Yet, the next afternoon he called and said that it was ready for pick up, primed and all. When we went to his shop, Pedro had the forge going, making arrow shaped attachments for an enormous gate. The sound of his hammering followed a certain musical rhythm, the same that in the past have inspired chain-gang songs and Andalusian flamenco music.

Pedro was puffing as usual and wore a leather apron and a single glove as his sole protection from the flames. On a dust filled tables we discovered half a dozen beautiful axe heads. Pedro explained that he makes these from scrap metal, shaping the part to go around the handle with hammer and tongs and doubling the metal over and over again to create the crescent shaped cutting edge.

How much would one cost, my husband inquires and was told 40 euros. Granted, this was a bit steeper than the price of a factory-made axe, but there was no comparing store bought types with this beauty – a cross between a medieval battle-axe and a Viking storm trooper cleaver. The very same tool had been used for the cork harvest as long as anyone could remember, Pedro told us. The metal had to be heated in the forge and hammered, in between being immersed in what looked like black crude oil to acquire the right hardness. Pedro hit a crucifixion-sized nail to the edge of the axe head in his hand. It gave a pure bell-like sound. Cork harvesters know exactly what axe head they prefer from the feel and the sound of the metal, Pedro told us. Then, like a musician testing an instrument, he tried another one with a slightly lower pitch.

The axe head came home with us, of course. Pedro even thrown in a handle made from lemon wood, apparently one of the hardest there is. Our new tool would be more than sufficient for our modest use of splitting kindling for the fireplace, we thought, coveting our priceless piece of Andalusian history.

…..

Interested in getting an original axe head or custom hand forged hardware? You can try to find Pedro at his shop at the end of barrio San Francisco in Ronda, around the corner from the granary, across from the large horse paddock, just before you take off on the old road to Cartajima. Or you can try to reach him (in Spanish) at the number below:  Pedro Flores Rodriguez +34 652 71 56 51

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Hooch making in the Spanish south – How I became the creator of fine-ish Andalusian liqueurs

Due to my lack of skills in the cooking department, I had serious intensions of making up for this unfortunate deficiency by expanding my baking repertoire once we moved to Andalucía. Yet as time went by, even this has petered down to rare, bi-annual attempts. It is not that I am lazy – it is just that my interests lay elsewhere. And when it comes to making concoctions of the consumable kind, I am much more inclined to play with liquids.

Our ever-changing Andalusian landscape is a celebration of nature’s bounty, with each season bringing new buds. Early spring, as we now have entered, is the period for almond blossoms. Later, bitter oranges will fill the air with their hypnotic azar fragrance, and so the year goes by. Every month is crop season for one thing or another. Many of these yields of the land lend themselves perfectly to the making of liqueurs, allowing one to enjoy the fruits at their peak in small sips throughout the year. Before arriving here, I had never even made wine from a kit, let alone producing a liqueur, but this changed when we got to Andalucía.

It all started with a nut…

 

LICOR DE NUECES (Walnut liqueur)

One late June afternoon, I was driving with our friend Vicente on the windy old road between Ronda and the village of Arriate. Passing by his family’s casa de campo, he asked me if I had seen nueces before. Though nuez means nut in Spanish, it also means a walnut, which is generally what locals refer to when using the term. As I was not acquainted with such trees, Vicente backed the car up and brought me into his parents’ garden. After greeting his ancient mother who sat on the porch, we walked over to a rather nondescript tree, called a nogal. Hidden among its long pointed leaves were pods of round greenish nuts about the size of golf balls. These make a wonderful Licor de Nueces, Vicente told me, wondering if I wanted to try to make some? Always interested in learning the customs of the locals, I immediately said “Yes, of course!”

This is Vicente’s recipe (with a few of my own additions):

- Pick 12 walnuts, ideally on summer solstice (June 21)

- Dig out a 20+ litre old hand-blown wine jug from your shed or buy one in an antiguedades store. If the latter cannot be found, a much less romantic food-grade plastic olive oil jar can be used. Either way, make sure that the mouth of the receptacle is big enough to swallow the nuts.

- Poor in 6 litres of cheap white wine.

- Add 6 kilos (!) of plain white sugar and let it dissolve.

- Plop in the twelve nuts. (I threw in thirteen for good luck)

- Cover the jug with a blanket to keep out the sunlight. Forget about the inebriant and do not move the bottle for 6 (yes, six) months.

- On la nochebuena (Dec 24.), undress the glass jug, discard the nuts and decanter liqueur into bottles for many a Christmas cheer. Your finished liqueur will have a dark mahogany colour, as the nogal is also traditionally used as a tint for staining furniture etc.

After storing away the Licor de Nueces in late June, I was encouraged to expand production to other liqueurs, as well. When later that summer the cherries were in season, my husband and I decided it was time for number two in our new line of quaffable creations.

LICOR DE CEREZA (Cherry liqueur)

Unlike the first product, we never had a recipe for our cherry liqueur. My father, rest his soul, used to make a very decent cherry liqueur in his day back in Norway, but his required a lot of sugar. Feeling we had gone overboard on sweetness with our first decoction, we decided to let the fruit do the job sin azucar this time around and see what came of it.

Here is the process:

- Buy a 750 ml bottle of plain vodka at your corner store or fuel station of choice. To begin with a neutral, flavourless spirit, spring for something not completely dirt cheap.

- Wait until the biggest blackest juiciest cherries are in season and buy a small flat (a generous kilo) from the neighbour at the top off the street.

- Poor vodka into a wide-mouthed bottle (minimum 1.5 litres). Should you desire a smoother flavour, a cooled down sugar-syrup can be added (two parts sugar to one part water).

- Add as many cherries as you can fit, still allowing a bit of ‘breathing room’.

- Let liqueur steep for about 3 months. In contrast to the walnut liqueur, the liquid can be moved, looked at and even tested periodically.

- Filter, decanter and put drunken cherries aside for next day’s baking project (for instance a spiked black forest cake)

- Though post-steep ageing of the liqueur is recommended, we just did this in the final bottle, while gradually consuming it.

 

 

ORUJO AND OTHER LOCAL HOOCH 

As the summer comes to an end and the fall announces its arrival, the rondeños start making their annual batch of mosto. This is a fermented grape juice, tasting a bit like mixing tepid leftovers of beer and white wine the day after a party. You can see I am not a fan, though we certainly have enjoyed helping neighbours with their annual mosto pressing.

Once the juice is extracted from the grapes, the remaining skins, seeds and solids are traditionally used to make a moonshine type of liquor called orujo. This drink can be flavoured with anything from coffee beans to lemon peels to peppers and herbs. In contrast to my liqueurs, which are pure mixology, this involves distilling and might therefore not be completely legal. I have never asked…

Following the local lead, we came to realize that almost anything could be steeped into alcohol and made into a flavoured liqueur. I had an utterly failed attempt at making Poire Williams, probably because I tried to force pears down the far too narrow throat of an antique apothecary glass jar. Clearly such rough handling will not reap good results. Anyhow, I was looking for new things to steep. As the almond trees near our barrio were about to being picked, I decided to take advantage of this fall crop.

 

 

AMARETTO ANDALU’ (Andalusian amaretto)

There are all kinds of instant amaretto receipts on the net, but I had set my mind on making an almond liqueur from scratch. Speaking to local almendra growers and merging their advise with online information, I came up with an Andalucian version of the loved and much copied Italian liqueur.

Here is how it goes:

- Pick a few dozen apricots, eat them and leave the pits to dry in the sun for a good week.

- In the meantime, check which of your neighbours has home grown unshelled almonds to spare. Ideally sweet, though one bitter one won’t hurt.

- Split the shells of the nuts and the apricot pits with a hammer. Separate the shelled almonds and apricot kerns.

- Go shopping for booze (vodka and brandy) and frutos secos.

- Chop ¼ cup dried unsweetened cherries and ½ cup dried apricots. Let the apricots rehydrate in ¾ cup of water for 30 minutes or so.

- Chop about two cups worth of your shelled skin-on almonds and ¼ cup apricot kerns

- Add 1.5 cups of vodka and 1.5 cups of brandy.

- Poor the mixture into a glass-jar with an airtight lid. Let it sit in dark place for a month or two to macerate.

- Strain the nuts and dried fruits through cheesecloth to separate the liquid, twice if required. Save the chopped nuts and spiked dried fruit for your second annual baking project.

- Make a sugar syrup out of ½ cup brown sugar, ½ cup white sugar + ½ cup purified water, heating it up gradually.

- Add ½ cup brandy, ½ cup vodka, 2 teaspoons natural almond extract (I get mine from Norway) and 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract to the strained liquid. Poor in desired amount of the cooled down sugar syrup.

- Strain again through coffee filter to get out last sediments. Decanter into bottles, and start enjoying by Christmas. 

LICOR DE MEMBRILLO

One of the last fruits of the year to ripen in Andalucía is the richly yellow quince, or membrillo, which the locals make into a wonderful liqueur. This is one of my favourites, because of the rich orangey colour and the fresh citrusy taste. Like any good recipe, there are countless versions, all claiming to be the very best.

Here is how it is made:

- In late November, go to the campo and pick some ripe membrillos. In years when the crop is plentiful you might skip this step, as the fruit will likely be brought to your door by generous friends and neighbours. Leave one membrillo in your car as a deodorizer for the winter.

- Clean, peel and crop the fruit meat into pieces. This is a laborious process, at least here in the rural south where fruit aren’t sprayed so virtually every quince has at least one worm. Save everything except the pieces with bug canals.

- In a large pot, add membrillo peels and fruit cores, as well as a couple of pieces of cinnamon bark and a few whole cloves.  Cover with water (one finger above fruit) and let it cook on low flame for about 30 minutes. Your kitchen should now smell heavenly! Let it cool.

- Strain liquid into another pot, add a few handfuls (ca ½ kg) of sugar. Bring to a boil, and let it simmer until it thickens. You will end up with a deep orange quince-flavoured sugar syrup.

- Discard the cooked peels and quince cores, but save any salvageable cooked fruit pieces for future baking projects or to enjoy as quince compote.

- While many recipes ask for Cognac (they actually mean cheap Brandy…), rondeños usually prefer Anís as the base spirit for their licor de membrillo.

- Poor in the content of the 750 ml bottle with the cooled down quince flavoured sugar syrup. Next, stuff in as many pieces of raw membrillo as your bottle will take. To get a warm sunset look, some locals add a splash of red wine, though the purists do without. A licor de membrillo made only from the flavoured syrup can be enjoyed right away, though I prefer to leave my concoction for a month or two to soak up more fruit flavour from the raw quince fruit pieces. In the meantime, your licor de cereza or licor de nueces should be ready.

- Bottle and dispense.

Through my handful of years as a liqueur maker, I have strived to perfect my process, yet each year, each crop and each batch is different. Every liqueur has its own personality, so to speak.

Two summers ago I had another go at the licor de nueces with a Canadian friend who has a lovely rambling orchard adjacent to their casa de campo. We made a double batch, with 12 litres of wine, far to much sugar to say out loud and 24 nuts from her nogal trees, plus a couple more for good measure, since we both think 13 is a lucky number. Later that year, she took a job in another part of the country, forgetting all about our little production. One nochebuena passed and then a second one. A year and a half later our jug still sits unmoved in her garage, cosily covered with a blanket. It is waiting for us to reveal the liqueur of the century – unless, of course, the whole thing blows up when we finally open it…

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The bridge that divides us – Ronda at war over crumbling patrimony

If there is one thing that Ronda is known for, it is its emblematic bridge, El Puente Nuevo. Literally millions of tourists from all around the world come to our small town in southern Spain to photograph the lofty construction that gaps the deep El Tajo gorge. However, these days the residents of Ronda are up in arms due to new bridge traffic regulations, forced on by cracks in the century-old construction.

El Puente Nuevo, literally meaning ‘the new bridge’, is not a new structure by any means, though it is the most recent of the three bridges that span the chasm where the Guadalevin River splits the town in two. The older still-existing bridges include the 11th century Puente Árabe or Arab bridge (sometimes called the Roman bridge), and the Puente Viejo or Old Bridge, which present incarnation is dated back to 1616. When it comes to Ronda, everything is old…

The idea of a new bridge was proposed as early as in 1542, but construction didn’t start until 1735. Unfortunately, the rapidly built, single-arched bridge collapsed. The construction of the present Puente Nuevo started in 1759 and was completed more than 30 years later, in 1793. Gapping a 100-plus meter deep gorge, it finally gave the citizens of Ronda a direct route between the Casco Histórico, or old town and the area called El Mercadillo, the present day downtown core. The triple arched bridge measured 98 meters tall by 70 meters long and was the work of the renowned Aragon architect José Martín de Aldehuel, who was also responsible for Ronda’s bullring, as well as the reconstruction of Malaga’s cathedral. The material he used for the construction was extracted from the riverbed below, so the design would fit harmoniously the warm colours of the cliffs that surrounded it. His beautiful bridge still stands until this day, but the question is, for how much longer?

Through the years, Puente Nuevo has been subject to many uses and popular legends. When Ronda’s police station was located at the market end of the bridge, the hidden chamber above the central arch was used as a prison. It is also said to have been a torture chamber during the Spanish Civil War. However, what is most unique about the bridge today is that more than two centuries after it was opened, it is still the major thoroughfare to get from one part of town to another. Unfortunately, the ever-increasing burden of urban development, namely vehicle use, has become a major risk factor for the bridge itself and therefore for Ronda’s patrimony.

Constructed in a time of horse and carriage-use, the Puente Nuevo was never intended to withstand the ceaseless strain of modern day bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the last few years we have witnessed how passing vehicles have gradually degraded the road surface. The endpoint of the bridge meeting the historic quarter of town started sinking, creating a large indentation in the road surface. Bumpy roads aren’t uncommon for any of us living in rural Andalucia, but it ought to be a cause for concern when the depression is located at the joining point where a bridge meets land, particularly when the embankment is a 100 meter free fall, should said structure fail. Furthermore, it is worrisome when the same bridge is one of the town’s most important historical monuments, the emblematic symbol of Ronda, and the key tourist attraction of which the town lives.

Though smaller repairs have been made in the past years, it wasn’t until this winter that the municipal authorities took the bulls by the horns and dealt with the impending crisis. And this is when the ‘war’ of Ronda started. Many, or dear I say most of its residents, accustomed to be able to speed across the bridge at all hours, were furious when the town hall first closed the bridge for essential structural repairs, and then proceeded to regulating the hours of vehicle traffic on the bridge. In a small town like ours, global disasters rarely seem to affect people, but when their ability to drive their car across a National monument is regulated, watch out. That is when the people of Ronda start to protest. Our peaceful and somewhat sleepy streets became a placard-filled zone over night. Neighbours and friends spoke in loud voices or became enemies due to disagreement about the new rules. Anyone in public office had to be prepared to answer screaming citizens who wondered what the politicians had done to ‘their’ bridge, seeing the partial closure as an act of treason. Their concern was not for the bridge, but for their God-given right to motor across it.

“NO to closing the bridge without alternatives”, protest banners in our barrio say.

And I agree with them. The bridge should not be closed without alternatives, but what many people fail to recognise is that for one, the bridge has not been closed. Its hours of use have merely been regulated. The bridge is still open for traffic most of the day and the night. Only 6.5 hours of 24 have been regulated, with reduced traffic between 10.00 am and 13.30 and again between 17.00 and 20.00. The driving restrictions generally go into effect once people already are at work or at school, based on local statistics. The second regulation, long time overdue, sets the speed limit on the bridge itself and throughout the historic quarter of town to 20 km/h, with vehicle size at max 3.5 tons. This is welcome news for both the bridge and the ancient buildings in the historic centre, which before had to withstand speeding vehicles fuming past on the narrow cobbled streets. In the past, if one stood at the bridge when one of the huge recycling trucks passed over it, one could literally feel it shaking. It is actually a miracle that Puente Nuevo is still standing!

As far as the protesters second concern, people do have alternatives. One can drive across the bridge for the 17.5 out of 24 hours daily when bridge traffic isn’t regulated. Furthermore, anyone is allowed to walk, bike, or drive two wheeled vehicles across the bridge at all hours of day and night. Emergency vehicles and community services such as buses and taxis can also pass at any hour, in addition to residents of the historic quarter and hotel guests/staff in the same area. Otherwise, commercial deliveries, people conducting business at the town hall and parents with children in school in the regulated zone are given expanded hours of use to facilitate their needs. Besides, residents have the option of driving around the Circunvalación or ring road, something that might take them another 20 minutes. The alternatives seem quite reasonable and well thought out. Granted that this detour may seem like a tremendous inconvenience to some locals, but compared to the hours of commute that many people in other parts of Spain and the rest of the world have to do, it is a mere trifle. While an alternative road closer to the centre would be beneficial, this will take time to decide on and to build. This is precious time that the ancient bridge doesn’t have, certainly not unless we ease its traffic burden, ideally for good.

We live in the Barrio San Francisco, right outside of the town defensive wall, just beyond the Casco Histórico. To get from our home to the downtown area takes a brisk 12-minute walk or a sauntering 22-minute stroll. The bus, which now passes more frequently, costs 1 euro or 50 cents for pensioners and students, and brings you downtown in a couple of minutes. Angry neighbours have told us that the people of our barrio have been discriminated against. The poor people of our neighbourhood cannot afford the extra expense of driving around the ring road, they say. (If you are that poor, can you even afford a car?) Others complain that the bus is too costly, though many of these same people can be seen daily at the local bodegas consuming the equivalent of at least half a dozen bus trips. Just an observation…

The other comment we often hear in our barrio is “The bridge won’t fall down! And, if it does, we’ll just build a new one.”

The first claim is an erroneous notion, as bridges do fall down. We do not have to go any further than to Ronda itself, where the bridge constructed prior to the Puente Nuevo collapsed after less than 6 years of use, resulting in the death of 50 people. Every bridge construction represents structural challenges that must be taken into consideration before starting a build, such as the geology of the area, intended use, environmental factors, and the material to be utilised. In the case of Puente Nuevo these factors might have been perfectly calculated at the time of the construction, but now 225 years later many of these factors will have been altered.

Historically speaking, bride collapses are usually the result of multiple factors. Design flaws, weather changes, increased usage and poor maintenance might all be a contributing factor to an eventual collapse. As additional weight is placed on a bridge, the structural elements might end up supporting more weight than the bridge is capable of carrying, or certainly more than the architect intended it to do. In Ronda’s case, the materials used, a porous combination of limestone and sandstone, might one day render the bridge too weak to withstand the weight of any vehicles. There is a minimum amount of maintenance necessary for a bridge to remain upright for its intended lifespan, and the key point to this is that every bridge has a life span.

A far more insidious danger to bridge structures is water damage, which can gradually and invisibly wear away at the surrounding rock and surface material where the bridge stands. Though the piers of Puente Nuevo seem solid enough and stand on relatively dry land as we speak, they are placed on either side of a river whose level were higher than the bridge foundation just a few decades ago. Today the water level in the river is regulated, but if a base of a bridge sat inside the river in the past, the moving water would have caused additional erosion. In addition, there might be other unknown weaknesses in the current bridge’s foundation, since another architect who abandoned the project with the foundation piers partly made started the initial bridge construction.

Lack of maintenance is often a contributing factor to bridge collapses. When visual cracks appear, the concerned ought to be the damage that isn’t seen. We have witnessed previous attempts to fix Ronda’s monumental giant, as local construction crews tried to stop cracks and leaks by pouring bags of quick-dry cement into a manhole at the historic end of the bridge. But as Ronda’s gorge itself is a proof of, water will always find a way, and no Band Aid solution will ever be enough.

Maintaining a century old bridge that ends in an historic town, dating back to before the Romans were here, cannot be easy, as was discovered when the most recent repairs were done. Wastewater and sewers from parts of the historic centre were found to be flowing directly underground and filtering through the bridge, causing rapid deterioration to the structure. After the latest repair, the wastewater is now led away by huge pipes. We can only hope that these continue beyond the bridge and into a water treatment plant.

As for the second option of the protesting locals, that we can “just build a new bridge”, this is a very shortsighted solution, which would be devastating for Ronda. First of all, keeping a bridge open until it falls down puts citizens and visitors at risk. Secondly, a collapsed bridge would ruin Ronda’s patrimony and historical significance, and would forever destroy the town’s chances of becoming a UNESCO world Heritage site, as it supposedly hopes to become. A collapse would give the town a tragic image, instead of a mind-blowing one.

Visitors come to Ronda to see the bridge, not any bridge. Nobody would come and see a new bridge, unless it was a hyper modern structure and the world’s longest pedestrian glass bridge, designed by Calatrava, and that would not solve the town’s traffic problems. Even if it is free for tourists to walk across the Puente Nuevo, Ronda thrives because of these very visitors. Tourism is not only the largest, but also the only significant industry in town, other than a handful smaller vineyards and olive oil producers. In other words, Ronda without a bridge would starve. So, when local restaurants complain that their visitor numbers have gone down due to the ‘closed’ bridge, imagine how these businesses would suffer if Ronda’s tourism industry no longer existed. Reduced vehicle traffic on the bridge will not affect tourism negatively, rather the opposite, as visitors generally choose to walk. And with the majority of the town’s businesses and therefore residents indirectly living from these tourists who primarily come to see the bridge, this should be the town’s main priority to protect, even if it will inconvenience us in the short run.

Take any great construction in the world, the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel tower or Andalucía’s own Alhambra, all these have to be protected for the sake of humanity. We do not take shortcuts through any of these historical monuments, nor should we be allowed to drive freely over Ronda’s most important patrimony, certainly not if this can cause its collapse.

I can see the frustration of parents who are used to popping their kids up to town for their karate classes, but at one point things have to change, even in our town. Whether we like it or not, the bridge cannot take it’s current load. It is cracking. All around the world children walk to school and to violin lessons, alone, with classmates or with adults following them, so why not here in our safe little town? If I were the mayor of Ronda, I would take the present opportunity to start ‘walk to school’ and ‘bike to work’ campaigns, myself being the first one to do so. I would change my own and the town halls habits for greener options and try to bring the residents with me. Walk the walk, as it were.

The last judgement on Ronda’s bridge issue has not yet been pronounced. There is an election coming up this summer. Any candidate who wants to win the popular vote just has to promise to open the bridge for 24 hours a-day traffic again. And this would pretty much be a death warrant for our bridge. Yet, there is still a glimmer of hope. Every day as we walk across the Puente Nuevo we notice more and more locals doing the same. We can only pray that as time goes by, they will get used to this new way of rondeño living and even learn to appreciate the extra bit of fresh air and exercise, while pondering the stunning views from our magnificent bridge.

 

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The school that never was – The silent victims of political party bickering

 

Soon after having moved to Ronda in southern Spain, my husband and I discovered a recent construction that was different from any other building in town. As Ronda is known for it’s protect-worthy edifices, it felt refreshing to discover that it had at least one modern-style building. Even historical towns needs to adjust with the changing times and embrace a bit of newness.

The building in question was located at the outskirts of town heading towards the industrial suburbs, and as it were, on the ‘wrong’ side of the tracks. Therefore, it in no way interfered with Ronda’s patrimony, rather bringing some style and visual interest to an otherwise drab part of town. The construction was slightly Asian inspired and had aesthetically pleasing landscaping outside, including multiple covered walkways over shallow ponds edged with Japanese maples and decorative foliage. The building itself was made of solid natural wood, featuring an open glass front and a semi-curved roof. It appeared to us that the construction had been paused for now, yet the occupation of it should have been rather imminent. It looked ready to go, even with fish in the ponds, and a dozen professional stainless cooking stations installed in one of the main floor areas. Not knowing it’s final purpose, we thought that this would be an awesome place to work, study or simply to be.

After doing some inquiries, we were told that the building had been intended as a learning centre for rondeño woodcarving and furniture making. This might later have been altered to include a cooking school, judging by above-mentioned equipment, though nobody could confirm as much. What the locals could tell us was the reason why the construction was put on hold – temporary, and we were to discover, possibly permanently. And here we come to the unfortunate part of this story, where political party bickering can be counterproductive at best.

The construction of the ‘water building’ as I call it was proposed and initiated by a certain political party in town. When said party lost the next election and another unnamed party took control of the municipal government, the construction was immediately stopped. There might have been many valid reasons for this decision, but lack of money which always is the excuse here in Andalucía, could not have been it, since the building was literally ready to open it’s doors. The word on the street was that the new town hall rulers didn’t want to complete a project that their political opponents had put into action. That would make them officially admit that the other side had had at least one good idea, and this could of course never happen. The beautiful water building was therefore fenced in and locked up indefinitely.

Leaping forward a couple of years, Ronda finally had found money to build a new library. The design competition had claimed a winner and a brand new modern structure was to be raised. In fact the library was to be located right beside the unused, unwanted water building, constructed merely a few years prior. The irony to us was that the already existing building had ample light, lots of room, and would have been a perfectly lovely place to borrow a book, sit and read, do research, write an essay or introduce ones kids into the world of literature. But the new library was the idea of a different political party and thus had to be housed in their very own proposed facility.

Giving credit where credit is due, the new library, now completed, is a cool piece of architecture as far as buildings are concerned. However, in contrast to the unwanted neighbouring building, the new library is plopped onto a barren piece of soil, without any adjacent landscaping or surrounding design. It seems that there has been no overall urban planning. Maybe the outside area of the library, which should include modernistic walkways and sculpture parks with places to sit and read, is in next year’s budget? For now, it still looks like a construction site, surrounded by wire mesh fences and a dirt parking lot.

Five years after we first came upon it, the beautiful Asian style water building is still standing there, sadly abandoned. With the passing of time it has started showing signs of ageing. The water garden feature has become unkempt and the untreated wood is discolouring and cracking. This decay, due to lack of use, will of course increase the cost of getting the building refinished, while it day by day diminishes the possibility of it being salvaged. The longer the politicians can hold off, the worse it will look and the more reason they will appear to have for bulldozing the entire structure. As a last assault, a few months ago someone came in with cube vans and removed all the cooking stations, as well as doors and anything else that they probably could find of value. To prevent squatters from entering and scavengers from ripping out the copper wires from the walls, the police recently wrapped police tape around the entire building. It was as if the town wanted to make it clear that the construction had been a bad accident.

Tourist-towns like Ronda need to do more than conservation to survive. We also need forward thinking people and urban innovation, which should include possibilities for higher education for the young. We cannot live exclusively from busloads of tourists quickly streaming though town buying a postcard and an ice cream in their wake. Ronda only offers a single university-level course in nursing. All other university studies have to be done elsewhere. Therefore our town would have benefitted greatly from the addition of one or several institutions of higher learning. Be it training furniture designers and wood carvers, chefs, neurobiologists or history professors, Ronda needs to offer hope and a future for their young. By having sabotaged the construction of a much-needed school because another political party initiated it, the town hall leaders have proved that they put their careers and egos above the development and the good of the town and its residents.

You haven’t heard of Universidad de Ronda? Of course you haven’t. It doesn’t exist. The town has a perfectly suited abandoned building for it – a former religious school sitting on the edge of Ronda’s mighty cliff. It has been proposed as a potential location for a university by a certain segment of the political leadership, though the powers that be might not be in agreement. Besides, of course there is no money, but that never seems to stop them from organizing férias. A university could be a vital addition to Ronda, giving the town influx of the intellectual kind, as opposed to its present fame for bullfights and bandoleros. Such an investment would bring vibrant young minds from Spain and beyond and make Ronda into a centre of innovation, in addition to bringing new commerce to town. Yet, like the water building and other projects that have stranded by politicians’ unwillingness to see beyond their own desks, this might never happen. For now, the future university building is rapidly falling apart, while the grounds are being used as a municipal parking lot.

We hope to see the day when these projects will be completed, giving employment, investments and new visions to Ronda. In the meantime, I keep popping by the water building, checking if the police tape still is marking the site of this municipal ‘accident’.

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‘Well-Matured Horse Manure For Sale’ and other WhatsApps you might only receive in rural Andalucía

Our community garden is showing clear signs that the end is near. The tomatoes are gone, save a few rouge cherries. The abundant production of eggplants and peppers has ground to a halt and the rambling zucchini and cucumber plants lay wilted on the ground. The measly melons we have left can fit in our closed hand, while the same specimens at their optimal growth nearly required a wheelbarrow to be moved. We haven’t yet had below-freezing temperatures, which instantly close our gardening season, but autumn has definitely arrived. All that is left to do now is to pull out any remaining greenery and mulch in some manure.

Talking of manure, we bought ours last week after having received a WhatsApp message from someone in our gardening midst who was selling ‘Abono ecológico de estiércol de caballo’ or organic horse manure. The message continued saying that the product was very well matured. It was also extremely reasonable at three euros per bag. We promptly ordered half a dozen, as how often do you get an offer of ‘good shit’ that doesn’t go in a pipe? Moving the sacks onto our little plot we could attest to that the content was perfectly aged, mellow and ripened to perfection, in contrast to the generally foul-smelling fresh manure. A few days later we received another message from the supplier urging us to return the empty bags so he could refill them or we would have to pay a whooping 25 cents per sack to keep them. We chose to do the latter.

When looking for the finest local produce, the most well bred livestock, the highest quality hired help or the gayest social happenings in rural Andalucía the best or often the only way to do so is always through word of mouth. If you cannot find what you are looking for the traditional way, by speaking to people at the local bar or the line up at your corner store, there is always your smart phone. And these days, even in small town Spain, this means using WhatsApp.

We were surprised to discover the widespread use of WhatsApp (or guassa as they pronounce it) when we moved to Ronda, probably having expected a less techno-savvy society. Of course mobile phones are everywhere these days, but we weren’t exactly living in the Spanish Silicone Valley. A lot of local families, even with young school children still don’t have a computer at home. They might invest in an X-Box for their offspring, but will tend to not see the big need for the latest program of Microsoft Office. Many local businesses have a Facebook page instead of a web site. And even though we now have fiber-optic Internet in most parts of our town, we are still shall we say a bit off the grid.

WhatsApp appears to be the exception. It is the way that the locals seem to prefer to communicate. It appears to be the equivalent of their phone, walkie-talkie, entertainment unit, social calendar, family photo album, fashion magazine and their pursuit of trivial knowledge, all into one gadget. Everybody seems to send audio guassas when they stand in the line-up at Mercadona, regardless of age and background. Most people are in at least a dozen groups and good and bad jokes gets circulated faster than wildfire through their amigos de guassa. Wedding invitations, party photos with the following dozens of ‘que guapo/a’ (how handsome/beautiful!) comments and political propaganda are spread through their WhatsApp groups. I would not be surprised if the recent less than lawful Cataluña election was also planned through guassa.

This summer, Ronda finally opened their new hospital with the typical hick-ups of any new construction. Though located in in our town, the hospital is also the medical facility for about seventy surrounding communities, villages and rural municipalities. The building is what one can describe as stylishly modern, yet the clientele isn’t always matching the premises. Just like in the old hospital, the new one is already short of parking spaces. This probably stem from the fact that Andalucians are a social lot. Even if they are just going to the hospital for a check-up, they will bring at least their partner, their parents and likely also a couple of siblings, most of which arrive in separate cars ready to spend the entire day in this peculiar kind of family outing. Therefore, in spite of the ample seating in the new buildings, there is often standing room only.

But the reason why I was taking a detour by the Ronda hospital was neither because of parking or seating limitations, but because of the waiting patent’s and their family’s frequent and overt use of WhatsApp. Waiting in line there the other day we had no choice but to listen in on the many incoming guassa messages received by an old farmer type sitting three rows away from us. The man who was nearly deaf and clearly not the sharpest knife in the drawer listened to his guassa jokes at full volume, laughing out just as loud. He then proceeded to listen to several pirate recordings of a concert someone had shared with him, also through guassa. The flamenco singer’s nasal voice was reverberating through the halls, but as we had come to expect, nobody complained or lamented this fact, even if they might have serious medical matters to worry about, that possibly would have benefitted from some peace and quiet. Why didn’t they say anything then? They were likely all too busy sending guassa voice messages themselves, sharing the most intimate details about their own or their spouse’s medical problems for their friends and the world to hear.

Through guassa messages we have been invited to crush grapes by hand-crank to produce a (to me) foul-tasting homemade alcoholic beverage called Mosto. We were also told through WhatsApp that we won a bucket of worms  (a story for another day…) and have been offered a crate of figs in the same manner. Yet my favourite of all our guassa messages came the other day during our traditional neighbourhood or barrio party. We, the neighbours, were all invited to come to the field beyond the square to be the judges of who had the best-decorated burro (donkey). Prizes would be given according to popular vote.

I bet the makers of WhatsApp never could have foreseen that invention would announce donkey beauty contests, but then they might not have lived in rural Andalucía either…

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How I against my better judgement became ‘La Teacher’ to a mob of Andalucian toddlers

 

Can you teach English?

Carlos the city electrician was on the phone.

Me…, I asked

Yes. You do speak English, don’t you, he continued, in Spanish of course.

Yes, that was the case. But… I was not able to complete my argument before he rambled on. The centre where his daughter took classes was looking for an English teacher for their infantile group. They were desperate for help.

Before I knew it I had agreed to see them and the following day I walked into their teaching centre, dressed for a proper work interview. This was actually something I had never done before, as in my former or actual profession, the film industry, you get jobs based on your last shoot and whether producers or directors like your work. It kind of happens by osmosis, but this is not how things happen in the real world. So there I was with my resume of double masters, decades of design experience, film awards and half a dozen languages hoping to get a job teaching ABC to toddlers. Anyhow, I reminded myself. We all have to start somewhere and this, should all go well, would be my first official job in Spain.

The friendly staff didn’t seem too concerned with my diplomas or my past (Not even a criminal check? I could have been a paedophile freak). They were content knowing that I spoke English, and since nobody else spoke it, nobody could verify my skills. I made it perfectly clear that I had never taught anything before, short of teaching my son how to ride a bike a decade ago. No worries, they said. I would do fine. There surely would be many expats here in Ronda who would be much more qualified to teach English than I, I said, really trying to not get the job, but there seemed to be no way of persuading them of my inadequacy to the task. Since I was able to communicate with them in Spanish and furthermore had been recommended by Carlos the electrician, the staff felt that I was just the person for the job.

How are the students, I inquired, imagining a group of wide eyes little angels. They could be a little bit difficult, they admitted. In fact, it came out in our talk that the last teacher had lasted a mere two hours and the one before… How much trouble can a group of kids be, I thought. OK, I’ll do it, I said, always one to face a challenge straight on. I was given my timetable and shown the room with cute baby sized tables, mini stools, toys, alphabet blocks and a small squeaky clean white board. When they finally told me about the remuneration, I calculated that it would come out to a few cents above minimum wage. But who cared, I would be working teaching young Andalucians the language of Shakespeare.

At this point it would be appropriate for me to make an aside on Spanish ESL education. Why, you may wonder, would parents in rural Andalucía bring their beloved offspring to private English classes, especially at such an early age? There might be several reasons for this. First and foremost most adults in Ronda, or certainly the ones we know, say that they have forgotten what little English they once learned, so helping their kids with homework becomes difficult and often requires outside help. Secondly, as our town and Spain in general live largely of tourism the need for speaking foreign languages have become more widely accepted. Though this might have been viewed as unnecessary in the past, even the most rustic Andalu’ farmer might today recognize the need for his children to speak English simply to get a job. Both university degrees and professional training courses have begun to demand what they call level B2 in English, which also is required to enter almost any profession, such as the police force. Thirdly, though most schools teach English from preschool age on, many local primary-school teachers speak poor English and do not know how to pronounce even basic words, like bag or leg. The teaching-staff is lagging behind, as many primary and secondary schools has been required to become bilingual from one year to the next. This has created great difficulties for both the students and teachers, and indirectly therefore for the parents. English is everywhere, on TV, in advertising, in gaming and all over social media, so even here in our small town the kids will need the language, whether they like it or not.

How did one teach kids in a foreign language when they could neither read, nor write, I wondered. Since I hadn’t done this type of job before, I spent the next couple of days glued to my computer doing Internet searches, bookmarking online songs and games, printing out fun worksheets, investing in class supplies and generally getting ready to impersonate a teacher. I planned my first class down to the last minute, with ample spare activities in case of possible meltdowns. Including my hours of research and supply purchases, my salary would average about two euros per hour, but who was counting? I dressed what I considered teacher-like (whatever that meant) and packed up my bag of newfound and newly purchased tricks. Like a kid off to first day at school I arrived at the centre early. Of course none of my little angels or angelitos were there yet, so I had time to plug my laptop and sort work sheets, feeling ready to face the music.

A few minutes before the class officially began my first students arrived. Holding the hands of their devoted parents, they looked cute, momentary shy and most of all, tiny. I had forgotten how small 3-year-olds could be. The moms and dads took the jackets off these miniature humans and sat down chatting with other parents. Meanwhile their little angels proceeded to run up and down the hall screaming at the top of their lunges. None of the parents even noticed the ruckus, which didn’t actually surprise me. The children on our street yell at top volume all evening long and often past our bedtime, and nobody tells them to keep it down, other than us, who are probably seen as the old ogres of the neighbourhood. Actually, I am yet to discover if Andalucían kids have a volume dial. I can assure you that they do not have a ‘mute’ button.

The receptionist eventually came out from behind her desk asking the kids to calm down. She had promised to help me bring my class into the room (no biggie, I had thought, but that was before I met my creatures). One by one we got them shuffled inside, some fighting, some painfully shy and some girls like Siamese twins, desperate not to be separated from their sworn best girlfriends. I told the kids my name, which of course nobody heard above the deafening noise. Sit down please, I urged to no effect. I repeated the instruction with visual aid of my hands. No luck. Finally I proceeded to lift and plop each child down on a mini seat. Nobody approved of their placement and all immediately got up and changed spots, elbowing anyone who came in their way in the process. After a flurry of activity, almost all were seated. Still, all were talking at the same time, none seemingly listening to the others, certainly not to me. In that way these three and four-year-olds were rather like adult Andalucians, often preferring to talk than to listen.

There was a knock on the door. A far to sweetly smiling mother peaked in, pushing her mini-me daughter into the classroom. The latter was crying so loud that even some of the screaming kids stopped their ruckus for a blessed moment. Silvia as the girl was called grasped after her mama, who kept smiling as if to distract from the fact that she had disrupted my already easily disrupt-able bunch. I said that the daughter would be fine, but the mother insisted that she had to remain inside in the classroom or her daughter would not agree to stay. Parents were supposed to leave their children outside the room, though of course they were also supposed to bring their kids on time. But then again, what could I say? This was my first fifteen minutes of teaching, ever.

At regular intervals the mom got up to leave and Silvia would start howling as though the world was about to end. I promised in English/Spanish that she would be my helper for today’s class if she stopped crying and finally managed to trick her into sitting between two surprisingly well-behaved students. Suddenly her mom was forgotten and Silvia was all smiles. However, unbeknown to me I had said the magic word and as if on cue all the little kids swarmed around me also wanting to be my helper. It will be your turn next class, I said, attempting a multi-armed crowd control. This would of course have been the perfect time for the overprotective mom to get lost, but she was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so instead of sneaking out the door at this most opportune moment, she ruined it all by coming up and giving her princess a good-bye kiss. The desperate crying stated all over again. Rule number one I decided would be NO parents allowed inside the classroom, without exceptions.

While the latecomer drama had been going on, three of my young lads had climbed up onto one of the mini tables and were now throwing their stools with the aim of their mates’ still unformed sculls. I got there in time to pull them off the table without anyone loosing an eye, though by then little Paco was weeping and pointing to his invisible battle wounds, while Tony and Sergio (all, by the way, made-up names to protect the innocent) had their hands firmly around each others throats, their little angry faces blood read. I separated the miniature gladiators and forced them with much protest to sit on different tables, making sure there were girls in between the unruly boys. No dead bodies yet, thankfully. But when would I have time to start my teaching? Half the class was gone and I had not started a single one of my carefully researched infantile ESL exercises.

Lets sing a song, I roared, seeming like the students having lost my ability to speak at a normal volume. I sprang up to the teacher’s desk and pushed the first link on my laptop, barely managing to rescue it from the mob of children who followed me. All seemed to know more about computers than I and wanted to choose the song. Back to your seats, I insisted, wondering when I had become such a militant bitch. Old Mac Donald had a farm blasted through the speakers of my poor old Macbook. Some of the girls even sang along, though the future hackers were getting dangerously close to my computer again. Sit down!  I yelled. The kids mocked me calling out the same words. Sit down! In a flash of brilliance I fell down onto one of the spare small stools and repeated Sit down! The kids thought this was funny and snickered. They coped me, falling to their seats while mimicking my words. I stood up again, calling Stand up. They kids miraculously did the same. We did this game for about half a dozen times or 25 seconds of the 60 long minute class before half the boys were on the ground trashing stools about. The pandemonium reigned again among my young troops. Well, at least they will come home having learned a few English words, I thought.

At this point even the little girls were starting to show their naughty sides. Two pretty little things in bubble gum pink outfits, including runners that lit up, were refusing to sit beside a certain girl who was not as pinkly and costly outfitted, saying she was not their friend. (What? Did they think we were in kindergarten?) Trying to physically force the students back in their assigned seats (Next class, that is IF I survived the hour, I would label their desks to prevent me dislocating my back), I noticed another girl with snot hanging down in two rows from her nose. Where was that Kleenex box they had shown me, and would I be able to reach it before someone else would try a Kamakaze dive off the table and split the head of their buddy with their stool? I found the box at the same time a boy named Diego came running up to me, holding the front of his trousers, feet stepping quickly up and down like drumsticks. Pipi, he squeaked. Oh god, not here!, I begged. I stuffed him under one arm, grabbed some Kleenex for the girl’s nose, wiped her in passing as I rushed to the door, quickly blocking it for others who tried to escape and called out to the front desk. Baño! All that in one breath, I must be getting pro. Talk about baptism by fire. Thankfully the helpful staff had promised to take the kids to the bathroom, so I would not have to wipe any tiny bums, nor leave the classroom for more than a split second, to avoid a total disaster.

As soon as Diego had gone and the door was safely shut, I had five other boys also tripping about holding their fronts. Pipi. Seño. Pipi. (I later realized Seño was a shortened version or Señora/Señorita) It was only the boys who seemed to have this communal weak bladder syndrome, for some reason. Do you really all have to pee at the same time, I asked, and was met with blank stares. Of course they did not understand, though they knew perfectly well how to manipulate teachers and any adults, like children usually do from about the age of nine days old… I lined the allegedly pee-needy boys up by the door, hoping no puddle would appear before it would be their turn. Rule number two I decided would be to always have the students visit the washroom before class, whether they needed it or not.

And a hee haa here and a ghee haa there I heard as I ran back to my desk and grabbed the clammy hand of a girl whom I seemed to recall was called Alicia (names on the desks and tags on the children next class!) seconds before my computer was floor-bound. When would the class end, I wondered. having never in my long life experienced such an endless hour.

I am bored! said an angry little boy, and more followed suit. Before yet another mutiny broke up, I reached for backup activity number seven. Who can help me, I asked? Wrong question. A mob of a dozen little demons clawed at my legs, yelling Seño, Seño wanting my attention. Silvia, whose mother finally had left, squeaked the loudest, so remembering my promise to her, I let her be the chosen one. While the boys one by one were brought to and retuned from the bathroom, (Remember to wash your hands after, I futilely called after the kids) Silvia and I and a few more helping and disturbing hands tried to put down a straight line of cheap, red imitation duct tape on the floor. Please, line up, I said. Nobody listened. Line up, I called louder and a couple of the kids looked up at me in surprise. The rest were wrestling on the ground, climbing the walls, or dismantling the toy shelf. Finally I grabbed the students and slammed them down one behind the other in a perfect line, sort of. Everybody wanted to be first, of course, so the orderly line instantly disintegrated. Before I knew it I had a fistfight at my hands. Locking the contestants down to the floor, I held Pedro (or was his name Paco?) with one hand and Sergio with the other. Both were frothing at the mouth, hurling course Andalu’ insults at each other, which boys their age only could have learned at home. Either was accusing the other of having taken his place at the front of the line-up. There was a knock on the door and the receptionist peaked in. The kids magically silenced. Everything OK here, she asked, seeing me spread eagle on the floor with one monster in each hand. Oh, yes, all under control, I answered sheepishly.

In all honesty, I was dead beat, my back hurting from lifting kicking boys and my throat feeling worse than after a three-day rave. How in heavens name did I end up here, I wondered, looking down at the struggling boys trapped under my firm grip. I used to be a professional. I coordinated paint and construction department, oversaw the preparation of sets in multiple locations while organizing teams of buyers, drivers and set dressers, and raising thousands of dollars to deserving charities in my spare time. believe it or not, I actually used to be good at my job. And here I was in rural Spain pinning snotty kids to the floor…

Alone again with my class, I placed the fighting boys at the very end of the line up as they surely deserved and showed the kids the game of how to balance on the line. This, according to some wise ESL Internet site, was supposed to be good for teaching group play, early childhood concentration and collaboration. Collaboration, my ass… I would be grateful if they learned important expressions such as Don’t step on Lucia’s foot! and No hair pulling! Why did boys enjoy pulling girls braids so much?

By a miracle, all the kids walked the line, most laughing hysterically as if it was the most hilarious game they had ever played. Just as I was about to do a retake, the class was suddenly over. I had forgotten to check the clock on the wall, which miraculously was still hanging in place, not having fallen down by any of the projectile missiles launched its way. With my very last bit of raunchy voice I told the kids to line up (none did…) and opened the door. Loving parents scooped their suddenly angelic children into their arms, asking if they had had a good time, and all said yes. I mean, what would be more fun than abusing a completely green, utterly untrained teacher. The kids and parents left, all except poor Silvia, whose mother after coming late and barely being able to leave her little darling, now had abandoned her offspring for a late afternoon shopping spree. So Silvia, my selected helper and myself cleaned up the carnage and tried to peel the red tape off the floor, though in the end it didn’t come off and became a permanent installation in our classroom.

How did it go, the receptionist asked, and I could barely whisper that I suppose it had gone Ok, seeing that no arms or legs were missing and only one child was left unclaimed. I wasn’t sure what English they had learned, other than imperatives such as NO, Stop That and Sit down, but I supposed that was a good start. It will get easier, the receptionist promised me. I strongly doubted it, though I felt I could not give up after a single class. After all, the last teacher survived two, so I have to do better than that.

See you on Thursday, I said, having no idea that a couple of years later I would still be wrangling those same kids, having become their very own crazy ‘la teacher’.

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Really? There are still people out there making brooms by hand?

Ever since our first day of living in Ronda, Andalucía I was in awe of the street sweeper’s brooms. I would follow the cleaning crews around with my camera surreptitiously behind my back, trying to snatch photos of their perfectly setup: A couple of sturdy hand-made long shafted brooms standing upside down in plastic garbage bins placed in a two wheeled metal cart. The brooms were fabricated with a straight de-branched stick, a handful of thin reeds and a string to tie it all together. It could not be any simpler, yet to me it was a piece of art. Not since the elegant grass skirted street brooms in Mexico had I had such a case of broom envy.

Realizing that this would not be a passing obsession of mine, my husband asked one of the local sweepers where we could buy one of their most-coveted articles. Surprised that anybody would be remotely interested in her most humble work tool, she told him that the brooms were not for sale. Apparently she got hers from their depot, where probably some handy fellow were sitting producing them by the truckload.

Since I am not one to give up easily, I continued the broom sale inquiries, first asking the women in my furniture restoration group. Everybody knew exactly which brooms I was taking about. They told me that either their fathers or their grandfathers used to make them, with the emphasis on used to. Our friends also said the same thing. Homemade brooms were quite passé. The popular argument was why make a wood and grass broom when one could buy a perfectly fine Made in China plastic broom for a couple of euros in every other store in our barrio. Of course they had a point. Even at a minimum wage a handmade broom would easily cost ten times that amount. To me however there was no competition. Handmade brooms, even the basic ones used on our streets were light-years apart from the mass-produced goods. The stick might not be able to telescope in and out like the factory-made ones did, but neither did they rust or break as easily as the new wonders. They did not become useless once the bristles started falling out. You just tied on a few more reeds. Besides, the old brooms made a lovely natural swishing sound as they flew over the cobbled pavement. And as far as looks, they would make any witch proud.

I had basically given up on my homemade broom search by the time we purchased the last original house on our street. One day as I was sweeping up peeling paint and crumbling wall pieces with a nearly destroyed plastic broom that I had found in a cupboard under the stairs of our ramshackle ruin, there was a knock on the door. Manolo, the old gentleman who lived a few houses down the street was standing outside with a handmade broom and a big smile. For you, he said and handed it to me. I was completely dumb struck by his utterly unexpected kindness. He had gone to the fields, cut and collected sticks and reeds and spent hours making a broom for us, a pair of new neighbours that he hardly knew. Where we had come from you would be lucky if anyone lent you a broom…

Being in his mid eighties, Manolo belonged to the old school of Andalucian rural town-folks. He would have survived the war years and the thin calves thereafter. For his generation, knowing how to make and repair things would have been a means of survival. Actually, in our ruin, we had found coils of braided Esparto grass, which the late husband of the former owner had made into rope, baskets and floor mats. All the farm chairs in our fixer-upper where chiselled by hand, while the seat part was made from the same braided grass. Since the former owner was long gone, we were witnessing the slowly dying crafts of Andalucía.

Just last Saturday Manolo came on our door again. We had for the longest time been telling him that we would love to see how he made his beautiful baskets, but as happens in life, the months flew by and actually almost two years had past. I was secretly starting to worry that we would be to late. But here was our sturdy little neighbour, his strong working hands clasping around two bunches of wooden reeds. You wanted to learn, he said. This was our chance to see basket weaving done right in front of our eyes and we were not about to miss it. Manolo brought out three of the same low farm chairs as we had found in our house, placing them outside his basement door, a place where he otherwise hid his many craft projects and other curiosities. Serenaded by a couple of caged birds and a very fat partridge, he started selecting sticks, measuring lengths, clipping ends and placing double sets of branches in a star-like constellation, preparing to begin his weaving with thinner more willingly bendable reeds.

All along while our old neighbour worked, his hands, lap, feet and even kneecaps partaking in the process, he would tell us how basket weaving was done. The reeds ought to be picked recently, yet not be too fresh, he said. The rule of thumb was that they needed to sit for at least a couple of days, but no more than a week. The branches he used where the suckers that grew up at the bottom of or from the root system of the olive trees, thus not the fruit producing branches. Early fall was the optimal time, as this was when these branches had grown long enough to be useful. He had cleared them of foliage, though I liked the fact that a few shimmering olive-green leaves remained, making the final product look even more rustic. Manolo also had collected a second type of wooden reeds in a different colour. These were used for contrast and to create patterns, should the artist feel so inclined.

I am not even going to try attempting to explain how the process of basket weaving goes. It suffices to say that it requires the patience of a saint, steel fingers, a willingness to draw blood, an organized mind when it comes to keeping track of moving parts and generally octopus-like abilities to hold onto the two dozen or so multidirectional reeds, while simultaneously whipping the thinner weaving reeds around said sticks and adding new every few turns. All this had to be done while making sure the weaving was tight, so the basket would not become loop sided. It came as no surprise to us that when Manolo had been asked by a local school to show his craft, the students found it too boing to watch and the teacher had complained that her hands hurt. Unfortunately no new basket-weaving students had been borne out of the experiment. Likewise, Manolo’s young grandson Salvador, who had come to spend the afternoon at his grandparents’ house, was not interested in learning from his grandfather either. Therefore, even though my husband and I could hardly be grouped in with the younger generations, we felt it was all the more important to try to learn and document Manolo’s craft, before he too would be gone.

We might have thought that men like Manolo had learned the skills of basket weaving and other crafts from early childhood or that it was just something everybody around here knew in the past, but this was not so. Most discoveries are done by experimentation and this was the case for our neighbour’s basket weaving. It was something he had figured out by himself when a basket had started to unravel and he needed to fix it a few decades back. Likewise, when the grass seat of one of the chairs we sat on had begun to rot, he had pulled the whole matting apart while noticing how it was done, thus being able to reproduce it himself. One could truly say that Manolo was self-taught. He told us that many people in our town used to make their living out of weaving baskets, making brooms, chairs and even creating paint brushes, the latter a very time-consuming work.

While Manolo weaved and my husband watched, I peaked into his basement, finding other treasures he had made, including the traditional straw sandals that people used to wear in Andalucía summer as winter until a generation or two ago. I imagined that such traditional crafts had lots of similarities around the globe, so that for instance African, Native Indian, Aboriginal and Sami basket weaving techniques and material use would have had a lot in common. But those were indigenous cultures and not a reasonably modern society on the European continent today. What surprised me was seeing that some traditional crafts, though undeniably out of fashion were still in practical use here in Southern Spain. I was fairly certain that the street cleaning crews in Málaga and other larger cities in Andalucía had begun using mass-produced plastic brooms. This made it more important than ever that Ronda still managed to keep onto the tradition of broom making, not to peddle to tourists, but as a practical item in daily life on our very streets.

Walking back home from the shops this afternoon, I meet Manolo dressed in a handsome suit, holding his black umbrella and his newly weaved basket. He told me that he was off to pick up fresh farm eggs from Juan Lu’s, the tiny supermarket in the barrio square. Had I not known better or seen the cars parked around him, I would have thought it was a vision from 1917, not 2017…

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Oh No, not another sunny day… Living with Global Warming in the Spanish south

I don’t care what El Traam, as they call the American president here in Andalucía, says. Global Warming is a scary fact. Anyone who isn’t living inside an air-conditioned bubble of denial knows so. And this is just the beginning.

When I was a child, I used to love the sun. We all did. Having survived the long Scandinavia winter, we could not wait to peel off our layers of clothing to expose our pale skin to the warming rays. At the time, and I am only talking forty years back, you could stay outside all day without getting burned, without sunscreen, recently arrived on the market. We had never experienced what we today call a heat wave, a phenomenon that has become common even in the northern hemisphere. The rising temperatures means that people in my native Norway can now grow lavender and other Mediterranean plants in their gardens and have olive trees on their terraces. If predictions are right, ‘thanks’ to Global Warming, they will soon be able to produce fine wine, allegedly of the Champagne variety on the British Isles.

People in the north might welcome shorter and milder winters, but what about life here in the south? Living on the southernmost tip of Europe, Global Warming is certainly no joke. This summer alone, red heat-wave alerts have been noted throughout Andalucía, with Jaén reaching a record high 46.9 °C – in the shade! The Mediterranean waters off the Spanish coast has been registered as the hottest ever, at 27 °C, a two and a half degree increase in water temperature in a mere decade. This might be good news to temperate bathers, but it will have catastrophic effects on marine life. Let alone if it escalates, but If this trend continues, imagine when the Mediterranean reaches 37 °C just four decades into the future.

As Andalucía is separated from Africa by a mere narrow straight of water, it is probably only a question of time before the Spanish south will be an extension of the Sahara desert. This year, our tomatoes in our community garden have gotten sunburned on the vine! People who have lived for almost a century in our town will tell you that they have never experienced such heat. Ronda used to be a cold and relatively rainy place. Now we often won’t see precipitation from April to mid November. Not a single drop of rain, other than a few measly dribbles mixed with thick red Sahara sand. Last year, the winter rain did not start until January. The old farmers up our street told us that they had never seen such dry spells. The forest fire crews have never been busier, sharing helicopters between the various Andalucian provinces that are ravaged by almost uncontrollable bush-fires.

The other day my husband and I had to leave our car in an open car park in Jerez de la Frontera. When we came back a couple of hours later, the inside temperature of our car was 47.5°C. After airing the vehicle, we managed to get it down to an almost liveable 41 °C before driving off with the air conditioner blasting. Such temperatures cannot be healthy for anyone. In this type of heat seasoned athletes keel over and die from kidney failure and you get dizzy merely moving your head. We were told that a friend got second degree burns on his legs merely from wearing shorts while working on tarmac, as the reflected heat from the asphalt was even hotter than that coming from above.

Though sun-hungry visitors will lie down to fry at high noon in the Spanish summer heat, most locals will wisely avoid the damaging rays. The best policy for surviving in this climate is to do any physical activity before breakfast or after sunset and complete errands as soon as the stores open, ideally to be back inside by 11 am. From late morning until late evening it is advisable to stay inside, closing windows and doors, stripping off all clothing and placing oneself in front of a fan. As heat goes up, the cellar is the most comfortable place to be, which is why many locals have a second summer bedroom in their basement. I carry a spritzer bottle with me at all times, having one on each floor of our house, while keeping an abanico, or Spanish fan in my handbag like any self respecting Andaluza, using it with abandon. Thankfully, living in the mountains, our nightly temperatures in Ronda are about ten degrees lower than those in Andalucia’s cauldrons, including Sevilla and Cordoba. Yet, you may burn your feet on a stone terrace even several hours after the sun has gone down.

Though sceptics will say that temperatures go up and down and that there has been warming periods in the past as well, the planet has never had more people living on it, nor as much pollution to deal with, so one cannot say that this is something that has happened before. There is no precedent for our present situation. Heat records are broken every year, not only here in Spain, but all over the globe. The standard conditions for measuring temperatures are a meter and a half above the ground in the air, shielded from direct sunlight. The highest confirmed temperature recorded according to these measures was 54 °C, as recorded broken in Kuwait in 2016. The hottest single month ever (based on average monthly temperature) as reliably measured anywhere on Earth since records began in 1911, was 41.80 °C. This record was broken just last month. The location is appropriately called Furnace Creek in the Death Valley, in the United States of America. (They might need more than God Bless America to help them out of this one…)

Finally having fallen asleep last night, in spite of barking dogs, a revolving door of hot flashes and not a whisper of breeze, I was woken abruptly by a screeching mini-chainsaw right in my left ear. Though we rarely have mosquitos in Ronda, one had managed to Houdini her way through an invisible gap in our mosquito netting. It was impossible to fall asleep again, the hot night feeling like a sauna without an exit. I told my husband that come hell or high water, next July and August I will volunteer us some place above the Arctic Circle, polishing icicles, herding reindeer or simply holding back the polar ice. So, if you happen to know someone up north who needs a mitten-ed hand in the summer of 2018, please keep us in mind.

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When tragedy strikes our Andalucian town. Moving beyond the pain

At noon on Monday Ronda went into three days of official mourning. A deafening silence descended upon the town hall square where friends and family of the diseased gathered to show their respect while listening to the toll of the church bells – a deep goooong expiring into silence, followed by a slightly more baritone bell, quivering a tad out of tune, as if it too could not believe the tragedy that had struck our town. A dozen cameras from local and national media were directed towards the sombre faces of the large crowd. Like a funeral march, the bells rang at a disturbingly unhurried pace. The affected families embraced, crying inconsolably on each other’s shoulders, as happens when somebody passes on. But this was no normal passing.

A group of thirteen people had left Ronda a week earlier to visit the sites of an NGO they supported in southern India. Instead of a trip of a lifetime, the journey ended abruptly as an oncoming truck hit their minibus, killing the Indian driver and four of the passengers, injuring another nine, and forever affecting the lives of all involved, including those who know and love them.

A tragedy like this does not make sense. It feels utterly unjust that people who chose to go and help others could be so cruelly taken away. Why them? Why now?, we ask ourselves.

Our friend Vicente was one of the Rondeños who died in the crash. A couple of years back him and I went to give a yoga class to a group of LA movie people, him as the yogi, myself as the translator. On the way there, he told me how he had studied graphic design, but how everything had changed when he first time visited India. He became a life long student, a teacher of yoga, Chi Gong, Pilates, and Thai Chi. Fifteen years ago he opened Centro Baba. In our town where most people measure success in whether one owns a bar or has a dozen flamenco dresses, Vicente was truly different, and very much needed. He taught us about mindfulness and gave us lessons of love. Not only did he bring scholars from all over the world to our small Andalucian town, but he also became a catalyst for change for many of its residents.

Vicente had wisdom far beyond his years, and in retrospect, far beyond this life. Most of his holidays were spent bringing groups of likeminded to India, this last trip to visit the hospitals and women’s centres that Centro Baba was supporting there. Though we are relatively recent Ronda residents, he had become a close friend. We had volunteered with him on several occasions and my husband had been giving classes in meditation at Buddhist philosophy in his yoga studio. Actually, the chair I am sitting on writing this was a gift from him. We were at his wedding just a couple of years before we found ourselves back in the very same room commemorating his death. He was one of the kindest, most mindful people Ronda has known and he will be sorely missed.

As our town mourn these tragic and untimely deaths, I ask myself how we can try to make sense of their passing and somehow move beyond the pain of loosing someone near and dear? Is there a reason why they are no longer with us?

The frequency and severity of traffic accidents in India is a well-known fact. My first white-knuckle drive in India, from Delhi to the Himalayas, included two side-swipes with oncoming cars, a lost side mirror, a snowstorm and nearly ploughing into a wedding party. And that was with an allegedly professional driver in a hired car from a company of some repute. Anyone who has ever been to the country knows that it comes with a certain risk. But aside from the dismal accident statistics, are there reasons and workings beyond our empirical knowledge and understanding to explain such tragedies?

One day while biking to work to a film studio in North Vancouver, I was hit by a 10 ton truck. At the time there was neither bike lanes nor sidewalks on the ramp of the bridge crossing to the North Shore. Regardless how tight I tried to stay to the edge, the vehicles blasted by merely inches away. That particular day, a truck came too close and hooked onto my left bike handle. The bike flipped under the endless wall of the vehicle and was instantly pulverized into hundreds of pieces of scrap metal. The same would have happened to me, had my shoulder not hit the side of the truck and shot me some thirty feet away. I remember the utter silence as I sailed through the air. Everything happened very slowly. I was not afraid. I was just surprised.

Imagine ending like this, I thought. I never thought I would die this way…

I landed on my head, without helmet, as I foolishly rode in those days. The truck driver went on without stopping. Who knew if he had even noticed the thud when his 18 or so wheels crushed my bike. Maybe he thought it was just a bump in the road? Miraculously, the bus that came behind him didn’t drive over me either.

I suppose my time hasn’t come yet, I thought.

For Vicente and the others who died in India, I choose to believe believe that their last minutes were equally calm, void of fear, and that everything somehow made sense to them in the last minute of this life. That they simply thought to themselves: Oh, here I go. I suppose my time has come.

But what does it mean, that our time has come? Is it a random lottery or a planned path? I suppose it depends on ones believes and how one sees the so-called after life. Is our life predestined, our cast pre-set, as is our path of reincarnations? Are off to heaven, hell or purgatory? Can we change our karma and create a better birth? Are some of us predestined to great things? Or are we going into a big void of eternal silence and non-being. Regardless of our faith, the knowledge will come to us at the end. And in my humble opinion, we are better off treating our fellow beings kindly while on this earthly path, as after all we are all in this together.

Coming out alive, albeit injured and profoundly affected, from such an accident is bound to leave one with questions. Why did I survive? Why was I given a second chance? If there is a moment when one is fluttering in a state between life and death, one might consciously or not try to plead with some higher force, promising to become a better human should one survive the ordeal. If one comes back to life, it is difficult not to wander what one is supposed to do with the remainder of ones life.

An accident like this will make us intensely aware that we can go at any moment. The couple of times in my life when I have come, shall we call it, back to life, I have promised myself to cherish every breath and every second of every day. Though sad as it is, we humans generally have a very short memory span when it comes to such important promises. I never became a saint, but quickly went back to the old me. I can only hope that the nine survivors of the terrible tragedy in India will do better than myself in this regard, as there is so much they can do and so much they can teach us.

One Christmas, I went to a mass in Vancouver’s Lower East Side. The hall was full of junkies, homeless people and others without much hope. In other words, not an easy crowd to cheer up at the best of times. Yet, the priest said something that day which I will always remember.

We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey.

I am pretty sure it wasn’t his original thought. It might have been one of those saying that have been quoted and misquoted time and time again. However, to me that was irrelevant. Suddenly, as if a bulb lit up in my head, everything made sense. With all the joys and pains we have in this life, the body and mind of ours, our vessel for this particular human journey, will age, deteriorate and cease. Yet, there is something that will remain, something that we can sense, but cannot sense. That something which people might become aware of just before they die., that we are not merely human beings, here for the ride, but spiritual beings who have taken up a human journey. There might be other human journeys for us, who knows? But something remains beyond this life. Name it whatever you want.

Vicente, Nieves, Pepa and Paco have ended this particular human journey of theirs. They have gone to another realm, a realm that we will know one day, sooner than we might like. For these four people, their time had come. They have begun a new journey. The accident is a tragedy and a great loss for our little town. We will still cry when we remember them, but we must try to find comfort in that they died in a place where they were doing good. They died helping others, and what better way is there to go, seeing that we all have to go there.

They departed were too young to die, statistically speaking. But as they say, it is not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years. As far as our friend Vicente was concerned, he had filled an incredible amount of life into his half a century. He might have lived past ninety like his parents, both of whom passed on in the last year. But maybe there was another plan for him. Hurtful as it might be to us who remain, maybe his work here was done. Maybe he had taught us what he could, wanted, or saw necessary, knowing we were ready to go on without him? Maybe he was more needed in another place, in another dimension, in another human journey? Vicente dedicated his life to create peace, harmony and love. This is how he spoke about life:

Obviously, we are not going to be here forever, but with the time we have, we can be the best possible. We have been given this marvellous opportunity that we call life, so that we can experiment, so we can experience and so we can enjoy. So we must enjoy. Enjoy with conscience…

So, Vicente, our dear friend, we are grateful to have had the privilege of knowing you. May you not rest in peace, but live on in peace, wherever you are, and may Ronda grow kinder and wiser for having known you.

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Bringing Spain to the far north – a fjord-swim adventure

“Are you going into that? Now?”

My Mexican-born husband looked at me in disbelief as I headed for the fjord on the very first morning of our holiday.  To him, swimming in the North Sea, a slightly southern neighbour to the Arctic Ocean, certainly when one like me went straight from bed to the water, was nothing but pure lunacy.

“Absolutely!”, I said.

Looking for an opening between a couple of jellyfish, I plunged in Norwegian style without checking the thermometer. At these latitudes some things are better left unseen, certainly until after one has safely exited the water. At nearly 14 degrees, summer had certainly arrived in southern Norway.  I reasoned that my difficulties in breathing while swimming was due to the fact that we now live in Andalucía on Europe’s southernmost tip, so I was out of practice when it came to ice bathing.

A morning dip or a morgenbad as we call it in Norway is a time-honoured tradition, probably practiced as long as people have lived on our rocky shores. One does not have to go far back in history to find a time when washing one’s body was a seasonal or biannual event, certainly for the masses. Therefore, seawater, like snow, must have been the common man and woman’s alternative, free and abundant for all to partake in. When it came to delousing and ridding oneself of other bodily pests, a fresh swim in near sub zero water would have killed nearly everything as a further bonus. (Actually, some men claim it even kills their reproductive capabilities.)

But why swim in the morning, you may ask? Would it not be better to do it later in the day when one has woken up properly, when the weather is a bit more temperate and when one have had time to psyche oneself up for the daring act? Are we a nation of masochists?

Though the Scandinavians also indulge in ritualistic night swims (nattbad in Norwegian) and other unnamed swims in between dawn and dusk, the morning dip is the most commonly practiced and the most widely cherished.

Take my own family for instance, where my paternal grandfather took to the sea at the family summer residence every morning rain or shine, allegedly even after having his leg amputated. He also started his day with a big slug of seawater, not gurgled down unintentionally while crawling back ashore, but ingested intentionally as his sworn cure-all health remedy. Since he had an abundance of ailments in his latter years, I am not sure how efficient this particular resolve was. However, the tradition of morning dip in the sea was brought down the family line, so that when I now come to Norway I feel that I simply have to jump in the waters first thing or I would let down a veritable mob of sea loving ancestors. Particularly in honour of my aunt Else and uncle Hasse who now have passed on, I feel I must swim out to the weather-beaten pole, cemented into the ocean floor about three-dozen strokes out from the pier. To me, as to most of my ancestors, a Norwegian summer without swimming around the old pole is simply unfathomable.

Generally, the slightly pagan ritual of the morning swim is something we like to do alone, preferably naked and with the sea as our sole companion. From an early age, we the late spawns of the Vikings are trained to brave the Nordic waters, and like any early childhood indoctrination, it often becomes a life-long obsession. There are groups of morning swimmers, such as the unofficial sea dunking society called the Bathing Boys of Oslo (Badeguttene), which name sounds more like a band or a sauna of questionable repute if you ask me. Anyhow, the group, including my 22 year-old son, dive into the Oslo fjord all year around, ice flakes notwithstanding. But the morning dip does not end with the young. Just beneath my mother’s fjord-side flat in the coastal town of Sandefjord, at least half a dozen merry widows also meet every day for a morning swim.

We Scandinavians know that this straight out of bed cold-water immersion is not everyone’s cup of tea. We do not expect foreigner visitors to understand, nor to partake in this rather barbaric tradition. Therefore, when we went to the airport to pick up a couple of Spanish friends who had come for their first Scandinavian holiday, I never in my wildest dream thought I would see them in the water.

Our friend Antonio, a tall and lanky surgeon originally from Madrid, had just celebrated his 66th birthday and kept saying

In all my 66 years and 3 days I have never eaten shrimps like these”, or “In all my 66 years and 4 days, never have I used a two-seater outhouse before.”

His wife Juncal, a spa owner originally from Lerida also had many first time experiences, such as stepping into a perfect replica of a Viking ship, which to their surprise sat moored and completely unguarded on a pier in the town of Tønsberg. In spite of what many Spaniards think, Norway in the summer is not freezing, nor covered in snow. In fact with global warming, it is rather temperate. Yet, our friends enjoyed the repose from the near 40-degree high heat in Ronda where we all reside. They admired the pristinely clear coastal water and were genuinely surprised at seeing streets and parks without garbage thrown everywhere. They were amused by the fact that almost everybody seemed to follow the traffic rules and stay under the speed limit. Their jaws dropped at the sight of the fresh seafood in the local fish store, and they concurred that the taste of the local fruit and vegetables were second to none, especially the Norwegian strawberries, which the locals of course claim are the best in the world. As expected, they were shocked at the prices, having to pay 5 euros for a coffee or a greasy spoon hotdog. Another first for our Spanish friends happened when we as responsible more-than-mature adults were refused to buy a couple of beers at a supermarket on a Sunday and then the following day were refused to buy the same beverages because it was 5 minutes past 8 pm, which we were told was the deadline for alcohol sales on Mondays. Even this clean law abiding north had its drawbacks, but it was one more item for Antonio’s “Never in my 66 years…” list.

After an excursion to yet another picturesque little fjord town, Juncal said that she would join me for a swim. I would not have believed her, were it not for the fact that her mother was Catalan and her father was Basque, thus she has fiercely independent thinking genes on both sides, in addition to a pinch of feisty Gypsy blood from her great grandma. So, on day three of the Spanish visit my Catalana friend came into the North Sea with me, while the husbands claimed to be on the lookout for jellyfish.

On the very last day of their holiday Juncal told Antonio that if he wanted to swim in Norway, it was now or never. Being late July, the water had now reached a balmy 18 degrees. The Madrilleño could not ignore such a challenge and though he has less body fat than any of us and other things to loose, he came down to the water, embalmed in my mom’s spare bathrobe that we all used on rotation.

“Is it cold?”, he asked me, as I already had done my compulsory tack out to the pole.

“Cold? Heaven’s no!”, I said, “It is lovely!”

At this point it is only fair to come with a small admission. You see, if you ask any bathing Norwegian how the water is, regardless of the temperature we will never, ever say that it is cold. We will use expressions such as refreshing, invigorating, fresh, or maravilloso if you happen to speak to a Spaniard. And temperature notwithstanding, it does feel all the above, particularly after you have gotten out of the water so you can feel your fingers and toes again. It is at this post-bath moment when the real magic begins, as silvery drops of seawater run down your skin, making every cell tingle, saying Yes, I am alive!

Barefoot and disrobed, Antonio drifted carefully out onto the pier and started inching himself down the wooden ladder. Ignoring Juncal’s calls or trusting my long time proven advice to just jump in to save himself a lot of agony, he entered painfully slow. Finally, with a few soundless gasps Antonio was under the water. And as us sea-bathers know, once you are in, it gets better and better. The Madrilleno even joined Juncal and myself in rounding the pole, which for a Spaniard must be the equivalent of swimming across the North West Passage.

With the biggest grin ever, Antonio gave us a new version of his holiday refrain:

En todo mis 66 años …

In all my 66 years and 9 days, I have never before swum in the North Sea!

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