Spanish political graffiti

Graffiti sprayed on a wall near to the car park of the ruins of the Moorish castillo in the nearby town of Lanjarón welcomes refugees (refugiados bienvenidos). We stop to contemplate its significance.

There’s little far right activity in Spain. That’s not to say that racist attacks don’t happen. The Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), which records hate crimes reported by participating states (the majority of European countries), describes 1,285 such incidents in Spain in 2014. There were 52,853 in the UK that year (and a record increase in the weeks immediately before and after the EU referendum).

Clearly there are differences in reporting criteria between countries, which make such comparisons unreliable. And Spain is not without anti-immigrant and anti-refugee groups. But their visibility is limited and they have no electoral influence.

Acting prime minister Rajoy’s right-wing Partido Popular has always been supported by the country’s elite class, known for its anti-foreigner attitudes. But while a new, more populist politics has emerged in the shape of Podemos and Ciudadanos [Earthquakes shake Spanish land and politics] to challenge the traditional left-right consensus (and as I write, Spain still has no government, as the parties continue to negotiate their positions, months after a second general election and a third – at Christmas – looks increasingly likely), no far right organisation has emerged to seek representation nationally or locally.

Órgiva is an example of the tolerance the Spanish have for immigrants. One of the most diverse towns in the country, at least 68 different nationalities were registered at the town hall on the last count. People of many colours and races mingle in the cafes and bars, particularly on market day. As I so often explain to people who ask why I moved here, it reminds me of my beloved Camden Town.

There is also a certain irony to that pro-refugee message near the castillo. The Moors were brutally driven out of Spain by Christians. The parish church of Órgiva was built on the site of the mesquita (mosque) at the beginning of the 16th century. And yet the Spanish are immensely proud of their Moorish history. Indeed, that Moorish bloodline is still evident in the faces of many locals.

I’ve blogged before about how, when someone daubed the anti-communist Good Night Left Side graffiti around the streets, it was quickly reduced with white paint to “good night” [Nationalistic referendums here and there]. No one has tried to cover up “Mi sangre es rojo, mi corazon es izquierda” – my blood is red, my heart is left – sprayed on the side of the butchers. This is a town that has many residents who are proudly working class and socialist, for whom the memory of being the frontline against Franco’s rebels as they came over the Lujar mountain to slaughter entire Alpujarrean villages that stood against them is still raw [Unsettled election, unsettled history].

For us, the most offensive words we see here are the anti-immigrant and refugee headlines of the Daily Mail, Sun and Express. Ironic that newsagents, in displaying these tabloids at their doors because some in the British community here buy them are, in effect, pandering to the reactionary attitudes of another type of immigrant. We hope that hate and division does not follow.

Advertisements

Like a bullitt in the Sierra Nevada

In the famous car chase scene of the 1968 classic movie Bullitt, Steve McQueen’s Mustang passes the same green VW Beetle at least four times while he chases the black Dodge. This was of course a continuity error, with the chase scenes being intercut and reused. But on a recent trip to enjoy the Sierra Nevada en verano (in summer), just 1.5 hours drive from Órgiva, we became increasingly convinced that the footage of our own trip was somehow being replayed.

I first noticed the 4×4 as I stood on the balcony of our hotel room shortly after checking in. Glancing up the road to where our car was parked, I saw the smart white vehicle with an unusual red number plate pulling in behind it. But then the driver seemed to change their mind, swinging out suddenly and racing down the road into town.

It should be said that Europe’s most southerly ski resort village of Pradollano, high above Granada, does not have a problem with heavy traffic or a lack of parking at this time of year. Our decision to spend a couple of nights at well over 2,000 metres above sea level was down to cheap deals at one of the few hotels open while the ski station markets itself as a mountain biking and hiking centre, along with a need for cooler temperatures. The advertising is working to an extent, but staff working at restaurants dotted around the almost deserted plaza were clearly relieved to have our business.

Moments after seeing the white car, it returns and repeats its actions, almost parking up before quickly gliding away. Pradollano’s main road comes in from the mountain, goes through the town, out again onto the mountain road and circles back in. Even a formula 1 Ferrari at top speed on the streets of Monaco could not complete a lap that fast.

Puzzled, I stay on the balcony. I call my daughter over, and wait. And there it is again, the shiny 4×4 with the red plates, moving in behind our car, then off again. I share my bewilderment, but somehow she hasn’t seen the vehicle, and I begin to doubt my eyes. Am I being bugged by a metaphorical green Beetle?

Next morning, same story. While I stay on the balcony I spot the car several times. It dawns on me that there must be more than one. It stops briefly directly across the road and I note a number on its rear flank. Does it have a driver? Are they watching me?

Finally, sitting at a restaurant as the sun begins to set, we all see the car. In fact we see two together, and the nagging fear that I’ve somehow become the Prisoner’s Number Six, imprisoned in a mysterious village, trapped by balloon-like “rovers” that prevent escape, dissipates.

Quite why there should be two, or maybe more, Pradollanoidentical cars continually driving around this empty pueblo remained a puzzle. We think we spotted a Lexus logo, but the red plates, the numbers on the sides and the lack of anything indicating a model were odd.

As we headed home down the mountain we passed a convoy of UK-plated “camouflaged” cars and lorries, the black and white funky swirls disguising shapes and brands. The trucks were huge, and each carried or towed enclosed steel containers. And finally it dawns on us. The Sierra Nevada in summer, when roads are empty and tourists are few, provides the perfect base for automakers to carry out secretive prototype high altitude testing. Several unidentifiable, future models would have been under wraps in those lorry containers.

Or perwhite carhaps they were on their way to pick up a fleet of enigmatic white 4x4s, whose activities, it turned out, were rather more spied upon (by us) than spying.

 

 

Shellibrating local wildlife

Dog walking is increasingly a struggle. One of our dogs, a neurotic, part podenco (Spanish greyhound-type sighthound), part mastin (calm, giant Spanish agricultural beast), has developed a thing about stagnant ponds. While we’ve had a good amount of rain here in recent weeks, isolated pools of water in the Alpujarras are not a common sight. But for a mutt that got the sighthound, but not the sensible livestock defender bit of the genes, oh, they are everywhere.

The dog emerges from her long sojourns covered in stinking black slime. We try alternative walks, but murky waters are still found. We’re puzzled by the attraction. Perhaps it is ducks, or frogs.

And then the begrimed, evil-smelling creature appears from across an apparently dry, grassy field. It’s agitated: white-tipped tail thrashing, long legs digging, and something in its mouth. Lizards? Grasshoppers? It is the season for all sorts of critters to be lurking in clumps of grass and small bushes. The other dog joins it, doesn’t understand the urgency, runs back to me, and stares, vacantly.

And then the hunting-one decides to run with her find. It’s a stone, perhaps. I demand she drops it and, fearfully (for there are some fairly weirdy creatures here), approach it.

It’s a turtle. A European pond turtle to be exact. On its back. And now a long way from water.

While I’ve had contact with many scoundrels over the years, I so wished that my daughter, a lover of all things reptilian, was with me to touch this one. Tentatively I turned the shell over and waited to discover if the creature was still alive.

It was. And, standing alone in that field, I was extremely reticent about picking it up. Spanish tortugas might be poison spitting, disease carrying, and reportable vermin. But then it looked at me.

So I embarked on the trek back across the field, turtle in hand, throwing stones at the canines and sliding into the side of the standing, muddy mess of a terrapin environment. Not so much a good deed, but an action to try to make better the damaging impact of domestic animals on these fragile ecosystems.

You say peseta…

When our elderly Spanish neighbour who, like many native Órgivians, lives in town but keeps land and animals in the campo (and thinks foreigners are loco for wanting to live in old stone animal barns) presented himself at the house of friends with a message for us – that a goatherd with a couple of hundred beasts had offered 12.5 million pesetas for his property, but we could have it if we paid more, we initially fell about laughing, speculating about how many pesetas could be scraped out of the ancient nooks and crannies of our old cortijo.

Spain joined the eurozone in 1999 – one of the first-wave of countries to do so – fourteen years after it joined the European Union. The euro became the official currency on 1 January 2002 and the transitional dual circulation period, when both currencies had legal tender status but the peseta only as “book money” that had to be converted to euros, ended three months later.

It’s not surprising that for our neighbour’s generation, or even the goatherd’s, the euro has never become the acceptable currency. Indeed the Spanish central bank revealed a couple of years ago that some €1.7bn worth of pesetas was still held by Spaniards. Perhaps those brought up in rural communities such as ours are, even now, using them to make black economy transactions. Though if they are they can’t exchange them for euros except with the central bank.

And of course many Spanish blame “el crisis” – Spain’s economic “great recession” – on joining the euro because of the housing bubble that followed and which burst so spectacularly. The collapse of the Spanish banks revealed irresponsible and predatory subprime mortgage lending – still a major cause of misery and suicide as people lose their homes but, unlike in the UK, continue to have to pay off the debt.

Those who still think in pesetas are also pretty canny with their mental currency converters. They know what the conversion rate was fixed at in 1999. The rest of us are grateful that online versions still exist that don’t simply declare the peseta to be obsolete. For when we considered the implications of living next door to 200 smelly cabras, along with their dogs, our neighbour’s offer suddenly became a lot less funny.

Cabras No

Our sentiment exactly

 

Our water-man confirmed the story. The goatherd intended to build a nave (a warehouse, in the industrial sense of the Spanish word) to house his livestock. The animals would also have the run of the land. “Muy mal” he said, holding his nose and suggesting that we might want to pay the money.

We suddenly felt as though we had woken in a gigantic pool of blood, 200 goat heads placed in our bed as we slept. Our neighbour may not look much like a mafia boss, but it increasingly looked like an offer we could not refuse.

Rapid consultation with other near residents, some of whom have goats overnighting close to them, though not as close as this would be, further convinced us to scupper the goatherd’s plans. Cute as they are, the smell of goats is a taste few people acquire, and what with the horse flies, noise and other delights that would accompany a large herd in small confinement, we might as well abandon our home.

Within hours we learn that our neighbour has rejected the goatherd’s initial offer, it’s been upped by another million pesetas and is about to be accepted. Another consultation with the currency converter reveals he’s pushing close to the official asking price (in euros), albeit a substantially reduced one since the property went on the market two years ago.

We wondered, cynically, having converted pesetas into pounds and it sounding much better, if we might try it in another long-redundant, more over-valued currency to get an even better result. You say peseta, we say Italian lira, perhaps.

And so we find ourselves about to be the owners of nearly 1500 m2 of land with two huge avocado trees, olives, oranges, nisperos (medlar fruit), three chickens, some scabby cats, a trailer (oh what luck, we were planning to buy one of them), a three-roomed casita with no bathroom or kitchen, and an out-building. But even the wise heads of Orgiva’s legal advice and translation service, who helped us in dealing with our neighbour’s determined daughters and the legal paperwork, agreed we had no option.

There are of course bright sides to this predicament. We have learned from this whirlwind process that in Spain, vendors who receive an offer for a rural property which they are inclined to accept are obliged to offer it to their immediate neighbour, especially if the land was once part of the same catastral (piece of land), as ours was. So at the very least, we know our rights have been respected.

And then there’s the strategic benefit of owning land adjacent to ours, given the options it opens up (and closes down), increased water rights at a more sensible time of day than we currently enjoy (see Zeds (or lack of them) and the art of pool maintenance), and finally being shot of a not so easy vecino.

Our daughter, who plays the video strategy game Civilisation, commented that it was a bit like a move where a city state is invaded for tactical reasons to stop someone else having it, and by doing so yet another piece of land is blocked off which could have value to opponents.

And judging from a call we received from the owners of a holiday home the other side of the would-be goat ranch, we might yet be considered local heroes.

Earthquakes shake Spanish land and politics

A series of earthquakes measuring up to 6.3 on the Richter Scale rocked our coastline in the early hours of Monday morning and was heard and felt up in our mountains. Beds shook and the remaining olives on our ancient tree rained down on the roof above our heads.

The quakes’ centre was in the Alboran Sea, between the Spanish mainland near Malaga and the Spanish enclave of Melilla in north Africa and came just days after a series of tremors were felt along the Costa Tropical. It’s a reminder of our proximity to the colliding Eurasian and African plates and that hundreds of people were killed in Granada and Motril in the 1880s during the deadliest earthquakes – a tragedy still “celebrated” in Motril during its annual Día de los Terremotos (Day of the Earthquakes) fiesta.

It’s unlikely that seismic activity here would cause such devastation again. But the predicted political earthquake as a result of December’s general election has certainly put an end to traditional two-party, rotational Spanish politics.

Over a month since the election, Spain is still without a government. PSOE and PP lost significant ground to the anti-austerity Podemos and neo-liberal Ciudadanos – indeed it was one of PSOE’s worst results since democracy returned to Spain in 1977. Manoeuvres to try to form a coalition government continue, while acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has refused the king’s investiture invitation. A PP-Ciudadanos coalition is alternately on and off the table, and even if it does happen it won’t deliver Rajoy an overall majority. Not that Rajoy has stood aside – he hasn’t ruled out accepting another offer from the king.

Meanwhile, PSOE’s efforts to form an allegiance with Podemos, and possibly the United Left or regional Catalan and Basque parties, remain stuck on Pablo Iglesias’ party’s support for a Catalan independence referendum, along with his determination that his MPs take many of the top government posts, including deputy PM.

How either Podemos or Ciudadanos, which both stood on anti-corruption platforms, can contemplate coalitions with the parties most associated with the defrauding of public money and remain credible new political forces remains to be seen. (I am reminded of the newspaper cartoon depicting a conversation between two children: “Vamos a jugar politicos (let’s play politicians)”. “No sin mi abogado (not without my lawyer)”.)

Still, Iglesias and PSOE’s Pedro Sanchez did manage to speak for 20 minutes recently, with the former tweeting that Podemos has an “historic opportunity to be the change”, though his public statements following an earlier meeting with the king, including that the PSOE leader would have him to thank if he became PM, are unlikely to assuage Sanchez’s suspicion.

Whatever the outcome of negotiations – and it may yet be another election after several more months of a government-free Spain – the country’s traditional parties are being forced to face the reality that the Spanish people voted for change (except the trusty Andalucians, who remained as loyal to PSOE as ever) and though they may not achieve it in seismic proportions, they have a right to demand, as IU said, a progressive government “that meets the demands of the social majority and finishes with the disastrous policies imposed by the government of Mariano Rajoy”.

Órgiva’s seedy side

How many of the (mainly) men, showing off their chilli eating prowess at Órgiva’s first chilli festival were able to reflect on the significance of what was behind the event, as the heat engulfed them, was doubtful.

But it’s possible that those who were egged-on by onlookers engulfed by a delightful sense of schadenfreude as they witnessed the discomfort of competitors consuming chillis high on the Scoville scale – the measurement of the pungency of chilli peppers – had time to contemplate the following day, as the side effects stayed with them.

For this was about far more than a crowd-pleasing spectacle, a spectacle that prompted mischievous compere Barney to declare that he was ashamed of his gender.

Rare and beautiful

Rare and beautiful

The displays of some of the rarest and beautiful chillis in the world, tenderly nurtured and labelled with love, the chilli sauce contest – judged by a man with a self-confessed “problem with hot sauce”, having become so inured to it over the years – the delightful chilli-laden tapas created by Fran of Bar Venta el Puente, the scene of the day’s debauchery, and music from El Club Del Aguante, JD Meatyard and Absolut Pantz, were intended to raise much needed funds for an Órgiva based seed bank.

Run by a small group of people who are passionate about seed saving in order to build a deposit to help preserve biodiversity and to make seeds accessible to everyone, Semillas Españolas Ecológicas en Depósito (SEEeD) is a non-profit initiative.

SEEeD guardians have so far produced over 200 seed varieties for the vault (well, a fridge). When the guardians submit them, they choose and grow new seeds and so the cycle is self-sustaining – vital in the face of big agri businesses such as Monsanto, which dominates the US food chain with its genetically modified seeds and is ruthless towards farmers and seed dealers suspected of infringing its patents.

The Indian academic and environmental activist Vandana Shiva said of seed freedom and diversity that controlling seed and food “is more powerful than bombs and guns” because it is the best way to control the populations of the world.

SEEeD is one cog in the resistance movement to stop species becoming extinct and “normal” seeds being put out of reach by agrochemical giants. But Rosie, without whom it would not happen, says plans for a second Órgiva chilli festival are already in the works. And I hear that some of the chilli pod munchers are in training, in order to avoid the tears next year. Not a good look.

Check out the pictures and videos from the Órgiva chilli festival

On facebook
On youtube

Two votes, two countries, one month

One of the more endearing aspects of the recent municipal elections was the battered red coches (cars) belonging to the PSOE, PP and Ganemos (the Podemos group) gathered together in the main square as their casually dressed campaigners (including at least one prospective Mayor) struggled up ladders to place banners and party-coloured balloons on the top of lampposts.

Every square metre of some of the town’s walls, bridges and bus stops were plastered with posters from which local candidates and their party leaders beamed. Not for Órgiva the discreet posters in domestic windows and the suited and booted political hacks knocking politely on doors. The first foreign election that we were able to take part in meant we’d had the benefit of two votes, in two countries, in one month. But it felt very different to the many we’ve been active in, in London.

While the austerity policies and corruption scandals engulfing the main parties nationally have had a significant impact on the vote in many of Spain’s cities and large towns – most dramatically in Barcelona where the Podemos-type party Barcelona en Comú won control of the city hall and in Madrid where an Ahora Madrid and PSOE coalition could yet end 24-years of PP control – pavement politics dominated the political debate here.

Literally. Weeks before the election the street and pavement cleaners were out in force, even on Sundays. I saw one woman in an Ayuntamiento Órgiva (Órgiva council) florescent vest chasing a single leaf up the road with her rubbish picking tool. Signs went up in shop windows warning dog owners of fines for not clearing up their caca de perro, road markings were whitened and a pedestrian walkway appeared across the narrow bridge in the centre of town.

Because we had a vote, we talked to people. We talked to English residents and we were introduced to both PSOE and PP politicians. We listened to the views of the Spanish community, and we looked closely at what Ganemos was offering.

And our conclusion, and even that of friends who would have voted Tory if they had been in the UK, was that PSOE has done a good job in Órgiva. A lot of money has been spent, and spent well. Its achievements include the polideportivo (sports centre) that many UK towns of a similar size would envy. There’s been social housing construction in recent years, including for the traveller population, and a language skills project for young African migrant workers.

And while the way money goes around here can sometimes have an air of mystery about it, corruption doesn’t appear to be an allegation any opposition party has made. It’s a socialist town, history dictates that. But that’s not to say that there should not be room for smaller, anti-corruption and anti-austerity parties in this political system.

In the UK, David Cameron’s government was elected by 37 per cent of voters, just 24 per cent of those eligible to vote. There’s a serious debate to be had there about reform of the electoral system and the introduction of a system of proportional representation similar to the one used in many European countries, and which in Spain allowed our local Ganemos to win two seats on the council. We didn’t vote Ganemos, but it’s important that they are there too – not least to keep the caca off the streets.