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


Can you teach English?

Carlos the city electrician was on the phone.

Me…, I asked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When tragedy strikes our Andalucian town. Moving beyond the pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you going into that? Now?”

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

“Absolutely!”, I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

En todo mis 66 años …

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

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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 ©

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 ©

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 ©

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 ©

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 ©

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.


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Tempting pool on sunny winter day. Photo ©

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