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”.

Unsettled election, unsettled history

Andalucian president Susana Diaz continues to try to govern alone after failing to secure a majority in last month’s regional election, in spite of winning the same number of seats as in 2012. Her Socialist party (PSOE) is eight seats short of what it needs to avoid having to negotiate with other parties to pass every piece of legislation.

Anti-austerity, anti-corruption party Podemos, which secured 15 seats, is hardly coalition material for a ruling party that is following an austerity agenda and has three former ministers suspected of involvement in a billion euro fraud case. And the other newcomer to Spanish politics – the right wing Ciudadanos (Citizens), which won nine seats – has also ruled out a formal alliance, even with the conservative Popular Party (PP), which came second but lost 17 seats.

The Spanish media continues to predict that Podemos could hold the balance of power after the general election in November. But given that the Andalucian vote, especially the collapse in the vote of PP (the party of national government), is seen as a strong gauge of the outcome, it is difficult to envisage what sort of coalition Podemos might be a part of.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of voting in Granada province, and particularly in Las Alpujarras, shines a light on the sides taken in our villages and towns during the Spanish civil war.

The people who work the land here do not consider themselves to be anything other than working class – it is uniquely Spanish anarchism. But the terrible experiences of the civil war are, for many people of the Alpujarras, still painfully recent. Here there are estimated to be as many as 25 mass graves containing the remains of Republican or anarchist villagers who tried to resist Franco’s armed rebels who came up to these mountains from the coast. Towns such as Torvizcon were repeatedly attacked and their inhabitants “disappeared”. Órgiva marked a frontline throughout the war and remains proudly anti-Franco.

With a few exceptions, such as the pristine spa town of Lanjarón which narrowly voted PP – perhaps as much because of the relative wealth of its inhabitants through tourism as that it was Nationalist during the war – this remains a staunchly socialist region. PSOE won the majority of Alpujarran municipalities, with Podemos coming second or third in many. And it is unsurprising that while the United Left (IU), which includes the Communist Party of Spain, lost seven seats in the Andalucian parliament, it had a relatively strong showing in many places here.

Take the tiny pueblo of Cañar, from where our internet signal is beamed. IU achieved 6.8 per cent of the vote – that’s eight people in a village with a population of just a couple of hundred. If only those eight could get their hands on that broadband transmitter…

Voting for hope in Greece and Spain

Now that the people of Greece have rejected austerity and voted for a party that wants to renegotiate the country’s debt, Podemos (We Can) – Spain’s anti-austerity party founded last year in the wake of the mass “Indignados” or 15-M movement against inequality and corruption – has been bolstered in its belief that the general election here will go the same way.

Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias tweeted after the Greek election that the result represented hope and finally the Greeks had a Greek government and “not an Angela Merkel delegate”. He said his party would be celebrating the change in Europe, in Spain and in Greece.

His conviction that Spaniards will choose a similarly new path as the people of Greece have done will be tested in Andalucia earlier than expected. Andalucian president Susana Diaz has brought forward the region’s elections to 22 March after the collapse of her Socialist Party (PSOE) alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), which she accuses of moving to the left in response to the growing popularity of Podemos.

IU’s national leader Alberto Garzón has been trying to distance the party from the Socialists and its Andalucian coordinator general Antonio Maíllo has pushed for a referendum among its members on whether to leave the coalition should the PSOE refuse to push through social reforms to try to tackle growing inequality and poverty in Spain’s poorest region. Andalucia has been governed by the Socialists for more than 25 years, but the party’s rightward shift, along with fraud charges brought against two of its previous regional leaders, have damaged it.

Nationally, Podemos’ showing in the polls is strong. A recent voter intention survey carried out for newspaper El Pais showed it to be ahead of the PSOE, with 28.2 per cent support. While the PSOE may well hang on in Andalucia, the democratizing movement that is sweeping Spain looks set to bring an end to the two-party system at the national elections later this year.

Here in Órgiva, campaigning for May’s municipal elections is underway and reflects the same mood which has fuelled the rise of Podemos. A new platform has been launched which is open to anyone interested in strengthening democratic decision-making processes in the Alpujarras.

Ganemos La Alpujarra (Win the Alpujarra) describes its aims (and apologies for the rough translation), as enabling anyone who believes in “political ecology, social equity and democratic regeneration” a chance to participate in the elections and local institutions.

It calls for the disappearance of “clans, cronyism, patronage and other political ills” and the giving way to a “more honest, more just and more effective management” deserved by the people of La Alpujarra.

My continued engagement with British politics has emails from the Labour Party dropping into my inbox on an almost daily basis. I’ll do my best to return to London to pound the streets in Hampstead and Kilburn before the UK’s general election, but Labour, as well as Spain’s PSOE, needs to heed the lessons that the Greek vote and the mood in Spain, including in our beautiful mountains, offer –  not only are there alternatives to austerity and to two-party systems but that if they’re not given, the electorate will find or create them.

Olives, pickers and rowers

Stuck at Granada airport before boarding a three-hour delayed British Airways flight to what was originally London City Airport, but became the somewhat less glamorous “London” Southend (as owned by Eddie Stobart), I reflected that the presence of the Great Britain men’s rowing team among the gloomy passengers provided at least better company than the drunken hen party I had endured on my previous Easyjet trip back to the UK.

Nice lads. Very tall. Very strong. They’d been training at the high altitude pre-performance centre in the Sierra Nevada. I eavesdropped on their stories about Olympic medals won and lost and exchanged brief small talk with the ones who sat around me on the plane. We arrived in the early hours in the wretched Rochford, endured a miserable coach trip back to a freezing cold London City Airport, and I thought little more of the rowers.

Until now. As I make up a pitifully small olive picking team, I so wish I’d got the GB rowers’ numbers.

The annual olive harvest has been going on for a few weeks, but we’ve worked on it with a neighbour for the last three years between Christmas and the New Year. It’s when the olives are at their best and, in theory, when there are people with a bit of time on their hands.

This year, both olives and people are thin on the proverbial ground. It’s biennial, but the additional impact of drought and higher than average Spring temperatures has resulted in a much depleted crop. A grove we worked on last year has nothing at all to offer. Our own tree, which produced 60 kilos of olives last year, struggled to give us one. The price of Spanish extra virgin olive oil has been going up year on year due to shortages, but is predicted to rocket now (how will my north London friends cope?).

Yet there are some trees still dripping with fruit. And so I stand, head, neck and arms painfully straining upwards to reach the precious purple and green treasure, watching others precariously perched on top of ladders, chain saws cutting the highest branches, and I yearn for those men of oars.

Tangerine dreams

During a recent trip back to London for work, I became trapped in a wine bar with a friend by an army of yummy mummies. It was mid afternoon and perhaps we should have anticipated that a roomy, women-friendly venue in an affluent part of Clapham would be a favourite for green tea and cake-fuelled debates about the relative merits of different brands of organic baby foods. But as increasing numbers of well-dressed young women manouvered their designer baby tanks through the double doors and assembled next to and around our comfy sofa, we began to share a mild sense of discomfort, soon to be displaced by incredulity.

Having failed to suppress our giggles over “she’s a little bit special about yogurt”, we lost it when one yummy asked another: “have you tried George with tangerines and if so, do you peel the skin off every segment for him?”. Yes, and yes.

We received benign, no, patronising smiles in response to our sniggers. Time for us to clamber over the all-terrain baby mobility systems and return to our cynical sanity.

It’s not that I’ve been away long enough to forget about the posh buggy clubs that operate in certain parts of the Capital (in our little bit of north London, baby jogging and “walkie talkie” groups on Hampstead Heath are what the new, or not so new, mothers who don’t need to work do to pass the time). But it’s so far removed, and offensively so in these straitened times, from the day-to-day reality of parenting small children here in Òrgiva, or indeed in any working class community, anywhere.

I was reminded of gorgeous George and his perfectly peeled tangerines as I sat with my daughter on our decking a few days later. Off sick from school, she had decided that sitting in the sun and attempting to relieve our loaded trees of their burden of fruit might help clear her aching head. “Vitamin C mum, vitamin C.”

tangerines

I sampled one, winced at the hit of acidity and nearly choked on the pips. I don’t have the knack of spitting out the stones that my daughter acquired as a baby and has finely honed over the years. Not for her the peeled segment. Call social services.