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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Last days – An expat’s reflections on ageing and dying in Andalucía

A couple of weeks back, a foreign resident in Ronda was found dead in his flat. Rather like a TV thriller plot, his body had been lying undiscovered for over two weeks in the Andalucian pre-summer heat before the police finally was alerted, probably by a neighbour who had noticed the smell.

Dying is a topic that few of us like to think about, even if we all have to face it sooner or later. Be it our own last days or those of somebody near and dear to us, getting old is never easy and rarely painless. We often hear that living in a sunnier climate, such as Spain, makes for a longer, healthier and happier life, but is this entirely true? In our ultimate hours it is likely not sun we will yearn for, but rather the presence of our loved ones.

How will our final chapters unfold for those of us who will spend our final years in Andalucía? Though I have not planned to end this human journey of mine just yet, the recent death in our barrio made me reflect on how it might be to age and pass on in our very neighbourhood and what thoughts I might share in this regard.

The recently diseased expat lived three blocks from our house, yet we did not know him. Actually, few did. He was friendly enough and greeted people when passing, but kept mostly to himself. He lived alone and had no near relations that any of our neighbours were aware of. Yoli, the greengrocer told me that he used to come to her store every other day to buy bread. Even if he went away for just a weekend, he would inform her in advance not to keep his bread in vain. Therefore, when he didn’t come by her store for more than a week, she knew that something was amiss and worried that he had fallen sick. Not wanting to pry and expecting that the man’s landlady might object if she would go knocking on his door, she stayed away. So, the unfortunate expat had a heart attack and died alone in his flat without anybody being aware of his trouble.

Sad as it is, a local nurse told me that this type of scenario is quite common among foreigners living in Spain, especially on the coast where the expats communities are more transient. Here in Ronda, the foreign residents are somewhat more entrenched in the local society. However, knowing the locals at the bar or in your panadería (bakery) does not mean that they will be watching over you when you are on your last leg.

Many Spanish will frown upon the way we North Americans and Northern Europeans institutionalize our old relatives. The rural Spanish are very family oriented. Every rondeño we know who has an ageing and ailing relative take active part in their care, spending entire weekends at the elder’s bedside, paying for a private caregiver during the week when they work or having their old aunt staying with them. A neighbour had her mother, who was suffering from advanced Alzheimer, live with her husband and herself. For several years they had the immobile mother’s bed right in their living room until she passed away last winter, of course surrounded by family and loved ones.

It is not that caring for their elders comes easier to the Spanish. Caring for their old relatives is often a great sacrifice and a big strain on the entire family, though certainly here in our town it is considered the right and truly the only thing to do. We do have retirement homes, though these are usually considered as a last resort. The newest addition to ‘Senior Living’ options in our town looks more like a hotel, though in the end it is still an institution. A gentleman we know who recently moved in there, calls himself and his fellow residents for inmates. Lucky for him, he still has his grace and sense of humour intact.

Many expats living in Spain today arrived in droves in the 1970s and 80’s, when they were relatively young. Now, with the uncertain political future, rapidly changing climate, increasing heat, diminishing pensions, advancing age, unwanted health problems or untimely widowhood, many are copying the Brexit and trying to make their own late exit plan from Spain, hoping to end their days on their native soil. Yet for some, moving back ‘home’ is simply not financially possible. While other expats like my husband and I are in peace with the notion that this is where we will remain. We know that one day in the unforeseeable future we will turn into Andalucian dust.

For all the pros and cons of living here, how can we as expats plan for our latter days in southern Spain? In my view, the first thing to do about ageing in general is to accept oneself. We are all getting older, however much some of us strive to look like the world’s oldest teenager. If we are lucky to live into old age, we must acknowledge the special care and needs this golden époque will require.

Since part of our ageing might come as a bonus from our gene pool, one way of looking into our retired future is to observe our senior relatives. Both my parents started getting longer and longer arms, in other words becoming farsighted, in their late 40’s. Therefore I knew that I would have to get reading glasses at about the same age. Since they both got hearing aids before they turned 80 and my maternal grandfather was stone deaf in the end, I can pretty much guarantee that I will be (more…) hard of hearing still, particularly since these relatives didn’t abuse their tympanic membranes like I did during the disco era. Not all that happened to our parents need to happen to us, but knowing that both my parents had cancer, I can certainly do my darndest to turn the trend by avoiding carcinogens and generally keeping a positive attitude. Living amongst all those olive trees should help, as should the Andalucian climate.

Other than recognizing our possible generic predispositions, there are other things we can do to promote longevity, the well supported findings of eating healthy, getting enough sleep, fresh air, exercise, and not stuffing ourselves full of toxins. Eating all the great local produce that is available here in Spain might help our golden days, but not if we consider deep fried croquettes and unlimited wads of thirst-quenching beer to be the fundamentals of what they call the Mediterranean diet.

Given that however much we take care of our selves, we are all going towards our unknown expiration date, it might be an idea to insure ourselves. There are all kinds of life insurances in Andalucía, which in spite of its name will not insure our life at all, but rather those who we might leave behind. Further, there is something call death insurance (Seguro de Defuncion), which for a few euros a month will assure that the cost of our funeral, transport home and even a mass is covered. This way our living relatives won’t be slammed with a big bill as our final good bye, nor will we ruin our surviving spouse. Talking of said spouse, we might neither wish to be the one to go first, nor the one to be left behind, but life is such that usually one partner will die before the other. Like death, widowhood is something we avoid thinking about, yet one day the home you created with your spouse in Spain might seem awfully empty for just one. Therefore, if you have a chance to downsize while you both are still mobile and ‘with it’, it is advisable to do so.

As far as testaments, Spain is not like other places where we can leave all our assets to our favourite cat or charity of choice. The laws here will always give the living children of the diseased most of the assets. In fact, it is almost impossible to disinherit ones offspring in Spain, unless one can prove that they have threatened ones life. To assure that the surviving spouse can live in the couple’s home for the remainder of their days, it is therefore prudent to have a notary draw up a will for both partners. Apparently one can use the inheritance laws of ones country of origin as well, but since I am not a lawyer and cannot speak with any kind of legal authority, I will not get into that.

On more practical matters, remember that diminishing site? It is always easier to clean up ones mess now than later in life, when we are blinder, stiffer and less prone to crawling into dark closets. Having helped clear out my parents’ house after my dad’s passing, I promised myself to live more streamline and not to gather too much crap. This is easier said than done, but there is no reason not to be bit pre-emptive. Our end is usually closer than we expect it to be. Likewise, though we might not need stair railings and raised toilet seats at this very moment, it is good to have a plan as to how we can age proof our home for the future. Unfortunately for a designer like myself, the aesthetical aspect of age-proofing paraphernalia is not always to my liking, but when it comes to ageing, safety should always come first. And maybe by the time we need it, Philippe Starck will be one of us and will have come out with a cool line of magnifying glasses, cell phones for the nearly blind and jet age adult diapers. I will welcome it!

In all seriousness, what about the day we can no longer live alone? We are always keen to get our children on the waiting lists for the best day care facilities and schools, but we are generally not as eager to go out and scout for potential old age residences for ourselves. Truth be known, I have actually never met an older person who has gladly and willingly moved into this type of facility. Like it or not, it is always better to inform ourselves of what is out there, in case we should need it one day. Just like day cares and schools, there will be better and not so good old age residences and I rather know before I am forced to move one day. Talking of elder care, there are also usually costs involved. We tend to think that old people don’t spend money and when it comes to clothes and the latest technology, this is likely true. But even in a country with free or subsidized medical care, as we grow older we tend to require additional aid and care, some of which might be outside of the realm and budget of the healthcare system. So it is always good to put aside a few shillings for such possible future needs.

As far as living as an expat in a foreign land, the best way to assure that one will have a happier, safer and more social old age is to become part of ones community. Forget about your concern with perfect grammar, the main door- opener when living in a foreign country is to speak the language of the locals, however faulty and accented. In my experience, this is the only way to gradually become accepted into their community. If you want to be included, you must embrace your new hometown and your neighbourhood. The general rule that we follow is to take part. If there is a charity drive, buy a ticket or reserve a table. Join in that cancer walk. If a neighbour has passed on or a child on the street has a first communion, go to the mass or at least express your sympathies or congratulations. Whether there is a concert, a play, a community clean up or a neighbourhood meeting, even if you only understand a fraction of what is said, do attend. I assure you, it won’t go unnoticed. Speak to your neighbours, get to know them and always when possible offer to help them. It is harder to be accepted as a foreigner, so we might have to work twice as hard at it. It is a worthwhile investment of your time and energy, particularly for the times ahead when we might need a helping hand. Do not rush out of the local store unless you have to. Hang around for a while like the other locals to chat and hear the latest gossip. Help your old neighbour with her grocery bags if you have a spare hand. Ask their advice on how to grow flowers on your terrace or when to repaint your façade, even if you think you know the answer. You might learn something, and eventually you will earn their friendship. Participate, help, share, give, and always try to be open. If you care for your neighbours, you will eventually feel their concern for you in return.

We might happen to be alone when we draw our last breath, but by opening up to our Spanish neighbours and becoming part of the Andalucian society, there is more of a chance that somebody will knock on our door and inquire as to our well being should we fail to pick up our bread at the corner store.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The reincarnation of Gonzales, the scarecrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning mist. Photo © snobb.net

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

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

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

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

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

Wall of botanical prints. Photo © snobb.net

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

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

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

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

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

Salon. Before and after. Photos © snobb

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

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

Looking out to the garden. Photo © snobb.net

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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