Yes, I have been remiss in writing. It hasn’t been that nothing has occurred here…I have just been busy doing what it is I do in the village. So to bring everyone up to speed since the last letter, here are some updates for you.
My brother came to visit last month. I had been trying to get Jack to visit since I moved to Mallorca, and after some starts and stops, he finally was able to make the trip. Jack and several friends of his flew in from Berlin for several days, and it was great to see him and catch up in person. We do talk on the phone, and both of us correspond with email, but there is nothing better than being together.
A couple of weeks ago, I was doing my almost daily delivery to Parc Verd (the village recycling centre) and whilst I am becoming used to the fact that Parc Verd is full of surprises at times, this visit was especially revealing. Recycling in Puigpunyent is pretty important. We have set the standard apparently for all of Spain, as, according to the village website, we have the best record of recycling for the entire country. The centre is divided into sections, so that residents can help the recycling efforts of the village by separating bottles (vidres), plastics, electrical items (electro domesticos), paper (carton y papel), ropa (clothing), and about another seventeen categories of recycleables. And then there is a section for big items (residu volumosos). This day, after depositing my various contributions to the system, I looked over at the residu volumosos section, and there was a 7 metre-long boat. Yes, a fibreglass run-about, semi-buried under piles of discarded tables and chairs…only in Puigpunyent.
It has been warm lately here on the island. Okay, so ‘warm’ may not be the best description of the weather. We haven’t seen rain for several months and the temperatures have been in the high 30’s, which if you convert centigrade to fahrenheit, is bloody hot. And although La Antigua has exceptionally thick stone walls, which does keep the interior cool, I have actually thought about turning on the central air. Note the word, ‘thinking.’ Haven’t done it yet, as when the temperature soars outside, I simply retreat inside the house. Actually, I haven’t used the central air system since I bought La Antigua. When I looked at the property, I had been told that the house did have central air and central heat, but that the actual heat exchanger compressor thingy was out for servicing, but would be back by the time I moved in. Well, it wasn’t. After a couple of weeks, the unit was back and fully charged. I had no idea how to work it, so I asked the installation man and after several starts and stops due to mis-communications, the system was pumping cold air into the house. And then I turned it off. I really don’t like forced air conditioning and would rather just enjoy a cool house, so for the past year-plus, I haven’t needed to turn it on. But as summer wraps the village in heat, my thoughts began to think about how warm it actually could be. Last year, it touched forty degrees more than once, and with all the talk of changing weather patterns, it could be warmer here than before. So I rang an air conditioning service company in Palma to come out to check out my system…just in case.
As I have said many times, living in the village can be a test. For many years, I became accustomed to what most service companies call customer service. You ring them, they set an appointment to come out, and in most cases, they show up. For some foolish reason, I fell into the ex-pat trap of thinking that would apply here. I say ‘the trap’ because I have come to learn that on the island (actually in most of Spain), setting an appointment is only a relative term. Sr. Pontes told me he would come to La Antigua, but missed the date. So I rang him again, and again, set an appointment date. Again, he missed it; so I rang him again. Guess what? Right. He didn’t come. So today I rang him again – I think we are becoming very close phone friends by now. With any luck, he will actually come out this week. And if he doesn’t, I will just ring him again. Or perhaps I will just settle in and play dominoes with the men in the village.
The whole cultural aspect of living here can be a bit disconcerting sometimes. Not in a bad way; things are just different. A couple of years ago, I was walking down a street in Palma with a friend, and we had to walk around an excavated area of the walkway. There was one of those orange rubber safety cones near the hole – by hole I mean something that a small car could fit in – but otherwise, it was unmarked. As we walked past, I said that this was so different than where I am from. In both the US and the UK, the excavation would be surrounded by safety cones, flashing lights, and substantial barriers designed to prevent anything on two legs from falling in. Biel asked why. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘due to the massive amounts of money that could be won in a law-suit if someone were to fall in, the companies that dig the holes have had to protect themselves to avoid problems.’ Biel just laughed and told me that if I were to fall into the excavation we just walked past, and decided to go to court to sue someone, the judge would look at me in amazement and ask me why I walked into the hole. After all, it is a hole in the walkway, and if I fell in, I could be hurt. If I would reply that I didn’t see the hole, the judge would probably tell me I should have been paying more attention to where I was walking. And then the judge would dismiss the case. Biel said that he thought it was ‘what you Brits call common sense.’ And of course, he would be right, and common sense does seem like a breath of fresh air, especially for someone who was raised in a country where you can successfully sue a restaurant-chain whose coffee was hot.
If you are a regular reader of the “Letters from the Village,” you will know by now that I really do like living here. Yes, my closest village friends and I do rabbit on in English when we are together, but I do get to speak Spanish to all the other villagers. Well, I suppose that the reality is that I do not ‘get’ to speak Spanish; I am (willingly) forced to speak Spanish if I want to be understood at all. The good news is that this was one of the prime reasons to move here from Palma – I live in Spain and I think that it is important to demonstrate my desire to become part of the culture. To paraphrase some sage, ‘When in Puigpunyent, do as the villagers do;’ which means speak their language and participate in local village events.
Two weeks ago was the beginning of the annual summer series of festivals throughout the island. Apparently, one of the measures of a successful village festival is how many events can be packed into the nine or ten days the festival covers. And in the case of Puigpunyent, the answer this year is twenty-nine. Twenty-nine separate events in just over a week….geeeez.
So you might be thinking, ‘how many events did I participate in?’ Well, not all that many admittedly. Some of them just didn’t hold a lot of interest to me. Typical highlights included; Day one: the semi-finals of local football - not a big item for me. Day two: finals of children’s ping-pong – hmmm, not a strong draw, nor was the Mozart concert in the main plaza. Day three: the finals of children’s tennis – hell, if I don’t even like to watch Wimbledon, I am probably not too excited about the future Federer’s and Nadal’s whapping a tennis ball back and forth. I probably should have gone to this though, as the number two tennis player in the world, Rafael Nadal, is actually from Mallorca, and his visibility has increased interest in the game here on the island. Also on day three was the (I will tell you what the fiesta brochure called it) V Gran Nit de Playback. Yes, this was a full-fledged, costume-adorned, seriously presented, village version of karaoke. I did go to this, and it was pretty spectacular.
Held in the Placa Son Bru (the plaza about 50 metres from La Antigua which meant that I could see it from my roof terrace if I was too lazy to actually leave the house), the Nit de Playback was unbelievable. The plaza had been kited out with a stage that was something that the Rolling Stones could have been comfortable on; there were crepe-paper streamers that had been strung over the several hundred plastic chairs; there were the typically mandatory stand selling drinks and cotton candy for the children; towers of speakers that would enable everyone to hear clearly (everyone between the plaza and London probably) and – get this – there was even a huge projection screen for those close-ups of the people who were doing their best to emulate Milli-Vanilli. It was in every sense, a rock concert here in my plaza. Well, a rock concert where the performers lip-synced to the music.
Because the various acts that were doing their karaoke thing were all keen to be the best, crowd recognition is very important. Last year as I recall, the people in attendance voted with their applause. A tried and true way of signalling your enjoyment. But this year, hi-tech had come to Puigpunyent. The various people who had decided to stand in front of the throngs and try to replicate an actual performance had been divided into groups – don’t ask me how the groups were determined, I haven’t a clue. At the beginning of each segment of the programme, two local village girls, both dressed as if they were going to a Hollywood premier, stood on stage and announced which acts would be next. The acts were, at the same time, listed on the large projection screen along with – get this – a phone number and name you could send a text message to. Yes, this year, you would be able to vote which act was the best via text messaging. Sort of a quantum leap of culture in a village in which not that many years ago was the sleepiest place on the planet. Progress I guess.
It was a fun night – I say night, as it didn’t even begin until 2230. I have no idea what time it ended, as the songs were pouring through my bedroom windows long after I fell asleep after returning home at midnight.
Day four brought, among other things, a boot-sale in the village centre, with local residents having set up tables and trying to sell most of the same stuff they bought at the boot-sale of last year’s festival probably. I didn’t buy anything, but did see and talk to some of the local villagers who I have come to know. Whilst my conversations with local life-long villagers are not exactly laden with in-depth discussions about massively important issues, I do think it is important for me to say hello and talk about whatever I am capable of saying. They are all very nice and courteous to me, but I am pretty sure that after I walk on, they are having a real giggle about my verb conjugations.
At just after 1900 on day four, ‘Cupido’s Restaurant,’ a children’s play was staged at Plaza Son Bru. It was adorable with three actors in clown-like costumes running about trying to entice the mass of youngsters that had come with their parents to interact with them. Then in the evening – this event didn’t begin until 2300 – was the ‘Gran Nit de Rock.’ Oh my God…four rock bands playing in the town square. I didn’t manage to get to this event, but fully expected to hear the music at home. The plaza had massive speaker towers that looked to be capable of blasting sound throughout most of the known universe; but because the breeze was blowing the right direction, La Antigua was pleasantly quiet. The next morning the plaza was filled with soapsuds about two feet deep. Sounds like it was a good event.
The highlight, as far as I am concerned, of day five was held in my neighbourhood plaza. Every year as part of the summer fiesta, a play is put on, and this year it was ‘L’Estranya Parella.’ I was going to look up the translation for the Mallorquin words, but decided to read the description of the play in the brochure first. Miguel Fuliana was playing Oscar, and Joan Carles Bestard was playing Felix, ‘un perfecte hipocondriac.’ Well bugger me, it was Neil Simon’s Odd Couple…in Mallorquin. Well, whilst I am sure I wouldn’t be able to understand the actual dialogue, the play action does not exactly require a UN translator to know what is occuring, so a good way to learn a bit of Mallorquin.
Day six was a children’s activity where they get to play around on inflatable-shaped objects. Hmmm, this sounded about as much fun for me as getting ebola, so I passed. Later on day six were the finals of Petanca, a Mallorquin dancing thing, usually populated by people over 50-years old who still believe that dancing involves actual steps and being connected to your partner. A great cultural experience, but as I had seen it several times before, I let this activity slide as well. The last event on day six was comprised of several ‘cocktail latino orquestra’s.’ This actually did sound good to me, but as it began at 2300, and I apparently still haven’t assimilated completely into a culture where going out for an early dinner begins at 2100, and entertainment begins at least a couple of hours later, I missed it.
The last several days of the fiesta were filled with a football match in memory of someone who I have no idea who he is; the senior women’s tennis tournament; the senior men’s tennis tournament; and on the last night, an outdoor village dinner in one of the plazas. This was a must attend event, not just because the dinner last year was fab; it was a great opportunity to just be part of the village I live in.
amazing what can be recycled
summer in the courtyard
the weekly domino extravaganza
common sense keeps you from falling
this year's festival brochure
karaoke comes to Puigpunyent
dancing and rapping
an out-of-focus version of Shakira
Madonna amongst the fireworks
anything you bought last year you can sell this year
the set for the Odd Couple
a rainy courtyard after the week of fiestas
I have been working really hard at assimilating here in Mallorca. I have even worked on getting with the apparent national pastime. Bull-fighting? No. Tennis? No? Golf, Farming, J'ai-lai, consuming red wine? No, no, no, no. I am coming to believe that the national pastime here, especially on the island, is waiting.
Amelia was in the hospital. Okay, so Amelia is my car, and the hospital is really the garage of Onofrey, a mechanic who lives in the village. Nothing too serious, just in for a tune up and I sensed the catalytic converter had decided to go to converter heaven. I had noticed that Amelia was running a bit sluggish as I was doing my best ‘boy-racer’ impression on some of the better winding roads between Puigpunyent and wherever I decide to go. As I believe that doing as much as I can with shop-owners and local businessmen, I had decided to find a local mechanic to do the work, and after consulting with several friends, heard about Onofrey.
I had been given his phone number by a neighbour and after several attempts, finally managed to talk to him. You guessed it, no English. That was okay with me, but very quickly I discovered that whilst I am able to conduct my normal business on the island, finding the words for ‘engine tune up’ and ‘my car doesn’t seem to have the power it used to’ were a bit beyond my skill level. One option would have been to go into Palma to the Seat factory garage, with the assumption that they would have someone there who understood English, but instead I decided to muddle through. After all, I would probably learn some more language skills that would prove to be worthwhile in the future.
I did manage to explain that my car’s engine (el motor) had a problem and I needed a mechanic to fix it. Onofrey, who lives on the other side of the village, said he would come over in five minutes to see what the problem was. So far, so good. But when he arrived, the real fun began.
‘Hola,’ I began authoritatively. ‘Mi coche tiene una problema con el motor’ came sliding out of my mouth as if I had lived here for several decades. But it was clear that Onofrey had a cunning plan in mind to suss out my knowledge of Spanish as he replied, ‘Si?’ Then he deftly countered my language expertise with what sounded like a two hundred word sentence that appeared to be a question. Hmmm. I wanted to save my standard apology for poor Spanish until later, so believing that he was asking what exactly was the problem, I replied, ‘el motor no funciona muy bien.’ The look on his face compensated for the fact that he didn’t say ‘well no shit. That is why you called me.’ A kind man.
After about fifteen minutes with Onofrey pursuing a line of questioning about the actual engine symptoms, and my using words I knew and words I made up that sounded Spanish, we were both on the same page. The idle speed (velocidad) of the engine (el motor) was slipping due to Amelia’s need of new spark plug cables (cables, pronounced ka-blays), new spark plugs (enchufes, pronouced en-choo-fays) and distributor points (puntos, pronounced poon-toes), and this was all aggravated because the catalytic converter (el catalytico) was falling apart causing resistance in the exhaust (la systema de escape, pronounced la sys-tem-a day es-ca-pay). Okay, so even I thought that this was where we started, but the conversation had been good and I (apparently) was able to communicate the problem to the point that he knew what I was talking about. My next question – something that could perhaps be the most important question when buying a service on the island – was if he wanted to be paid in cash or by cheque. I might as well have been asking if he wanted to breathe air or sulphuric acid.
Onofrey told me that the best way to resolve the engine issues was for me to drive over to his garage Friday afternoon around 1800, and he would have Amelia all fixed by 1100 Saturday. Okay, so this sounded like a good thing to me. The fact that his garage meant his house didn’t bother me - the poor bloke has a day job and auto repair is just a sideline for him. I wouldn’t need the car Friday evening, nor would I need it Saturday morning; but then I realised that time on the island is sort of relative. My past experiences with time have included the village carpenter who told me that the kitchen island I had designed would be ready in two weeks, and was finally completed in four; the village metal worker who had told me that he would make some brackets for me ‘right away’ back in March. I still haven’t seen them. And then there is a heating and air conditioning specialist, who in July said he would be out to have a look at my central air unit within fifteen days. Still haven’t seen him either.
Getting things done here requires the right blend of patience and having a back up plan. The kitchen island did eventually arrive. The brackets I wanted made weren’t really needed, just something I thought up one day. La Antigua has immensely thick walls and they manage to keep the house cool regardless of how high the temperature gets, so the air conditioner system hasn’t really been needed. But my car? Well, I do need my car. I can (and do) walk to the shops in the village almost daily, but when I need to go into Palma for serious shopping, the 28 kilometres round-trip might be a bit much to walk. In order to be sure of Onofrey’s plan to have the car back quickly, I repeated what he said. ‘Mi coche sera listo por la manana el Sabado? Verdad?’ (My car will be ready Saturday morning? Are you sure?). He gave me a look that told me my question was way too accusatory about his promise, so I shook his hand and went home to wait for Friday to arrive.
It was shortly after 1100 that I went to collect Amelia. And if past experiences are any opportunities to learn, I should have expected that she wasn’t ready yet. It seems my mechanic was in Palma trying to obtain some part that he was changing on the car, so not being too distressed, I came back home. I walked back over about five hours later, but this time, there was no one there. Amelia was in the yard, but as the gate was locked, and as I had no idea if the work had been completed yet, I walked home. Around 1900, my phone rang and off I went…again. Well, Amelia was ready, sort of. New spark plugs, new distributor points, new cables, a freshly cleaned engine, but the new catalytic converter wasn't available this week. I told Onofrey to ring me when it was available, drove home and resumed doing what I have learnt to do best here in the village…and wait.
the courtyard, photo taken whilst waiting
the kitchen window, photo taken whilst waiting
burros in the village, photo taken whilst walking around waiting
grapes at Galerias, photo taken whilst waiting
hanging plants at Galerias, photo taken whilst waiting
a palm in front of the village centre, photo taken whilst waiting
waiting, the excitement of watching tree bark grow
Ahhh, Sunday. What to do is always the question on a Sunday. This Sunday, after my normal breakfast of tea, toast and fruit, it was off to collect the newspaper from the village centre, then back home to discover what was going on in London and the rest of the world. Yes, on the way to get the paper, I did stop at Parc Verd to make my deposit of recyclables, thank you very much. I buzzed through the Times rather quickly because whilst at Parc Verd, I heard the sound of music in my ears. No, Julie Andrews wasn’t here in the village – it was Grand Prix day here in Puigpunyent.
I had planned on putting another several coats of varnish on the dining table I am building for the courtyard, but, well, I have had a fondness for sports car racing ever since I had my MGB many years ago. So let's think about this: varnishing? Racing? Varnishing? Racing? This was the ultimate no-brainer for me.
The village racetrack is located behind the recycling centre, and for the past several days, there had been noises drifting into the village from the track. The drivers had been doing their track tests and today was going to be the big race. I grabbed my camera and headed back to the track to watch the Puigpunyent Grand Prix. Now in all fairness, I must tell you that the village version of a grand prix is not exactly the same as it is in Formula 1 racing, nor is the village track exactly the same as it is in Monte Carlo. But auto racing is auto racing, and in the village, it is pretty spectacular.
The cars – a marginal description of what was racing – have all seen better days. They have been pretty well stripped down, with hatchbacks and windows having been removed, roll-bars installed, and names painted on doors and bonnets with spray cans. I am not sure if the paint that had been sprayed on was solely for the purpose of identifying who was who or meant to cover some of the rust and dents that gave the cars the appearance of being entries in the Leprosy Derby.
The cars were all lined up in the village equivalent of pit-lane when I arrived, giving me an opportunity to have a close look at the modifications that had been made to them. It also gave me the opportunity to speculate on the relative value of the individual cars, with my best guess being somewhere in the five to ten euro range. The other spectators were already there, having arrived early to get the best vantage points of the track. The term ‘best vantage point’ in the case of an auto race in Puigpunyent in August seemed to mean someplace to sit that was in the shade, and not directly downwind from where the dirt track would spiral dust in the air once the race had begun. I had a cunning plan to achieve a good vantage point, and within minutes, I was standing just past the start-finish line, where I would be able to see the sort-of long straight-away before the first turn, as well as turns three and five.
Never having come to this race before, I found someone and asked him (in my best Spanish, of course) when the race would begin. Without missing a beat, he rambled on with me picking up about every fifth word. There had been a series of practise laps earlier, next would be two semi-final races, followed by the big final race. Or at least that is what it sounded like he said. I graciously thanked him, not so much for his answer, but because he didn’t give me a look as if to say, ‘foreigner.’
Within about 10 minutes after I found my viewing spot, the track maintenance vehicle slowly went around the track, making sure the surface was conducive for the big race. The reason that it went slow was that walking behind it was a young man directly the hose that was dumping water on the track in order to keep the dust down. Sadly, by the time the water-truck had made it back to the start-finish line, most of the sprayed on water had evaporated in the heat, but it was a nice thought.
The race was about to begin. The cars that had survived the semi-finals (several of them did not after one of them had its bonnet fly open causing the driver to spin around and send two other cars off the track) were all lined up at the starting line. The race steward (apparently the lad who had nicked one of his mother’s bed sheets and painted black checks on it) met with all the drivers to make sure they were ready and that they knew the rules. Rules? I think the only rules were to wear a helmet and try to keep your car upright. Then, with the grace of a ballet dancer, he waved the sheet (sorry, the chequered flag) and rushed out of the way of the surging wrecks as they blasted down the track. The Puigpunyent Grad Prix was underway.
The big race – hey, this is a village of 1,500 people so the word ‘big’ is relative – was strangely reminiscent of a demolition derby. The cars careened off each other as they tried to negotiate the hair-pin turns whilst sliding about in the dirt. As the track is not that wide, and rather short, passing is not the easiest thing to do, but it did happen a few times. Of course passing another car on this track also meant smacking up next to it as you approached a turn, hoping that the driver would simply slide into one of the big piles of dirt that seemed to be all over the place. The tension mounted as there was a real dual between the first place and second place cars, but after a deftly negotiated pass on the long straight lapping the last place car, the driver of car one managed to widen the gap. The second place driver found himself stuffed, as the car that he was stuck behind was having serious engine problems – or else he was just trying to find the exit to Parc Verd so he could drop his car off for recycling. The chequered flag fell after ten laps, and the man who apparently had the greatest death-wish had won.
I plodded home, very hot, completely covered in brown track dust, and happy as a pig in shit. I love this village!
pit lane at the Puigpunyent Gran Prix
getting the track ready
the big start
whoooo-weee, we are off and running
where is a water truck when you need one?
the village version of Charles Bronson
I can remember when I lived in big cities prior to coming to Puigpunyent. Milwaukee, Houston, London, and even Barcelona all had something in common. Walking down the street often required a posture of keeping one’s head down a bit, just on the oft chance that someone might actually say something to you. But here in the village, it is completely different.
Being in the village on foot means that you will encounter other people walking about doing whatever it is they are doing. It also means politely saying hello to everyone. This I find is a very nice habit to have; and whilst it is nice, it can also be challenging. I can remember years ago (quite a few years ago actually) in my high-school Spanish class, we were taught to greet someone with ‘Buenos Dias.’ This is hard-core, formal Spanish for ‘Good day.’ Of course Puigpunyent, whilst a part of Spain, is thought by the local residents to be more a part of Mallorca than Spain, and on top of that, being a small village, the rules of engaging people you encounter are a bit different.
Today I went into the village to buy some vegetables (see, I do eat things other than cereal and yoghurt), and on my walk, I encountered six different people, all who greeted me in their own way. This really isn’t a problem, as I do know what they are saying, but my challenge is to respond in a more-or-less locally perceived to be correct manner. The greetings I heard included, bon dia, muy buenas, dia (accompanied by a nod of the head), hola, and buenas. The people here don’t expect some long drawn out conversation about the state of the world, or even about today’s temperature; but what is expected is a response. In the past year or so that I have been living in the village, I have sussed out what to say.
When I came upon the first person, an elderly lady who was undoubtedly coming from the market, judging by the two carry bags filled with groceries and moving at an extremely slow speed up the hill; I beat her to the greeting, coming up with a friendly sounding, ‘Hola, bon dia.’ She smiled and responded with, ‘Muy buenas.’ When I was about to pass the next person, an older gentleman who might have been the first woman’s local stalker, I chimed up with ‘Muy buenas.’ His low-voiced reply was ‘Dias,’ as he kept walking, planting his cane firmly on the street with each step not wanting the hot chica in front of him to increase the gap between them. By the time I had reached Balthazar’s market, I encountered villager number three and had said hello to the workman coming out of one of the village’s bank with a firm, ‘Dias’ whilst nodding my head appropriately with the greeting. He actually stopped counting the fist-full of euros long enough to say, ‘Bon dia.’ The local residents that I encountered after the market all had their own variations on deliverying their greetings to me.
My cunning lanugage plan was to use the greeting I had heard last whenever I encountred someone new. By greeting a passer-by with the last greeting I had heard, I figured I was sure to have the appearance of actually being part of the village. Of course, I have no idea yet what to say when someone I meet hits me with a string of Mallorquin words that I don’t understand.
The real trick in saying hello isn’t down to making sure that each word is pronounced correctly. The trick is to be able to slur the greeting’s words all together. It isn’t, ‘Hola. Bon Dia.’ It is ‘holabondia.’ Not ‘buenos dias,’ but instead, ‘buenosdias.’ Or ‘muybuenas’ instead of ‘muy buenas.’ This can be a bit of a challenge to anyone who has been taught in a formal classroom setting. Luckily for me, most of my Spanish-language skills have been picked up by surrounding myself with the sounds of languages being spoken, or in some cases, slurred together. Besides, I lived in Houston – ‘heyhowyalldoin’ – and London – ‘hiyayouallright?’ - for a few years and am used to hearing greetings that stream together faster than lemmings rushing to the sea. I think that this slurring of words together may be a clue to the origin of the ‘dias’ greeting. Instead of putting the ‘hola’ and the ‘buenos’ in front of the the last word, wasting all that voice energy, it is just easier to say ‘dias.’ It is, after all, not a situation where someone might mistake the morning greeting with wondering why everyone in the village walks around saying ‘days.’
The other day, again whilst walking to Balthazar’s – by now you are thinking that I either eat voraciously, resulting in the seemingly constant need to go shopping, or that I only buy a few things per day as an excuse to do my walking exercise – I was stopped by a car load of tourists. You can always tell who the tourists are in the village, especially the ones in a car. They are evident by a combination of a glazed look on their faces, an open map that they will most likely never be able to re-fold, and they begin asking their questions with either ‘Right, habla ingles?’ or ‘Sprechen sie Deutsches?’ So there I was, confronted by five people, all crammed into their hired Ford Fiesta like sardines. The driver – the only one who didn’t have a camera strapped around his neck – asked me in his version of Spanish where the road was to Palma.
Well, as they were on the road that heads away from Palma, my answer was easy. I smiled, but not too much so they would feel that they were total idiots for going in the opposite direction they wanted, and then explained that they needed to follow the street they were on to the end, turn left, then left again and look for the ‘Palma’ signs. I recognised that Spanish wasn’t the driver’s native tongue, but I figured that if he was trying, then I should reply in the same language. “Vaya recto, entonces a la izquierda, entonces a la izquierda otra vez. Mire para las muestras a Palma” flowed out of my mouth as if I knew what I was saying. The driver was duly impressed, but clearly hadn’t read his German to Spanish translation dictionary well enough, so I repeated my instructions, a bit slower and with lots of directional arm-waving on my part. I was beginning to feel like I belonged on the runway at Palma airport with my arms pointing straight ahead, then both flashing over to the left. I felt pretty good about helping the poor lost bugger out. Too bad they don’t give out Merit Badges for ‘Good-directions-done-in-a-foreign-language.’ I assume I would be a sure winner. And as fate would have it, I believed this all the way to the café where I saw the tourists sitting still pouring over their maps whilst having several beers. Probably still lost.
the courtyard, this morning
more of the courtyard
a neighbour's garage window
a neighbour's house front
my carpenter's chair
the courtyard door
another neighbourhood house
It is that time of year once again. Yes, it is just about the autumnul equinox. The equinox, regardless of where you live, is traditionally thought of as signalling the change of seasons. In Mallorca, this means residents of the island getting ready for winter, the onset of cooler weather, and approaching rain. Well, that is what it used to mean at least. But for some reason (global warming does spring to mind), this year the weather cycles have sort of come a bit early. It has been getting cooler…well at least in the evenings. I am still able to keep my windows open all night, but it is cooler. The wood-cutters have been busy stockpiling mounds of wood that most of us will buy during the colder months. And the approaching rains? Well, they started a while ago, and whilst we have only had a few days of rain falling, it does seem different. So with the weather changing a bit earlier than in previous years, it does cause one to wonder what the actual equinox will bring.
For me, the equinox was precipitated by disaster. Okay, so maybe disaster is a bit strong, but the past week has been a bit trying. Besides the advising I do with some senior business-types in London, I like to do creative things when at home. And in my case, the term creative means painting, writing, and for the past year, making ceramics. Well I don’t actually make ceramics; I buy them and do things to them. It all began when I made a dinner service for myself last autumn. Then it was a large pitcher and bowl. Some serving plates. More pitchers and bowls. I even made some tiles (azulejos) to install around my kitchen window. Doing all this accomplished several things for me. Ceramics gave me a break from all the writing I do; it provided me with an outlet for the creativity thing that seems to run through my DNA; and enabled me to save a shed load of money that I would have had to spend if I bought all this stuff.
This week’s project – I tend to think in terms of projects I guess – was to build an outside dining table for the courtyard of La Antigua. Nothing dramatically huge, just a table that would seat four comfortably, and six in a squeeze. Step one was to figure out if I needed to actually construct the table or buy one, and I sort of did a compromise. I found a fab table top, or at least something that would make a fab table top. It was 80 x 145cm and made of actual wood. I mention the ‘actual wood’ part because I really didn’t want to have a table that was made of laminate, steel, glass, or the ultimate sin…plywood. No, this was proper wood that had been put together much like a cutting board. Bought it, took it home, and began to gently apply a coat of appropriately coloured stain. I was looking for a colour that would complement the courtyard, and after it was all stained and dry, I realised that the colour, whilst nice, was a bit dark and boring. It might have complemented someone’s dungeon, but not my courtyard, so after rummaging around the cans of stain I have acquired since arriving here, I found some teak-coloured stain. A little shaking, a little stirring, and I was ready to fix the colour problem. Of course, I also had to find a new brush to apply it with because the first brush had become stiffer than Elsa Lancaster’s hair in Bride of Frankenstein. I could go on and on about the staining exercise, but suffice it to say that it took four different colours (which meant four different applications of the stuff) before I had a colour I was happy with. Job done.
Step two was to attach legs to the tabletop. My original plan was to have the legs fold up out of the way so I could store the table in winter out of the weather. It does rain here in winter, and I didn’t want all my work to warp and twist into something that would make me seasick. The folding leg idea was discarded when I found some very nice turned wooden legs that had screw-mounted bases on them. This seemed like a good idea because when I wanted to store the table away, I could simply unscrew the legs. The good news of finding them was doubled when I also learned that the word for legs, as in table, is different than the word for legs, as in body. Bingo, I bought the four patas (don’t forget that word if you ever want to embark on a similar adventure) and went home to install them. Job well done.
So now I was almost ready for step three, the real essence of the table. In my mind, I could ‘see’ the completed table having azulejos forming a border just inside the edge of the table. In my vision of what it would look like, I figured out that painting a design that more-or-less looked like grape vines would be nice. After all, the table’s future location would be under the grape vines in the courtyard, and I figured that the table and the vines would create the environment I was trying to achieve. So step three was to go to my supplier of all things artsy in Palma and buy the raw azulejos for painting. I had calculated that I would need 16 tiles, so I bought 25, and actually discovered I needed 20 when I laid them out on the newly stained, semi-gloss, brownish-reddish-teakish-oakish coloured table top that was now residing on its own set of legs. After positioning them exactly where I thought they should go to form a border about 4cm in from the outside edge of the tabletop, I began the somewhat labourious job of sketching out the grape vine pattern that was looming largely in my mind. I then painted all the leaves a light green; put some detail into the leaves; painted the shadow-side of the vines; painted the non-shadow-side of the vines; and then painted on the top glaze that would, after firing, make the tiles more long-lasting than Keith Richards. I gently wrapped the azulejos in bubble wrap and took them to my ceramic supplier for firing in their ceramic oven-thingy. Job well done.
So now I had my table with legs; I had my tiles all prepared; all I had to do was route a trench in the tabletop that would accept the azulejos. This part of the project should have been pretty simple, with one minor exception: I don’t own a router. I do have a complement of tools, but they are tools that I nicked from Angelina when I sold her and I reasoned that routing a trench in a wood tabletop with a screwdriver and pliers wouldn’t be the easiest thing to do. But with ingeniuity and creativity flowing through my veins like the Nile in flood season, I resorted to borrowing a router. Ever use a hand-held router? Hmmm, nice. It is like holding a small motor in your hands that has a carbide bit on one end that is spinning at the speed of light. The trick was to avoid the cutting end of the router to only touch the wood and not either the power cord or my fingers, and after several hours, the trench was in. All nice and clean, and to make things even better, the trench was the right size. Job well done.
Two days later, I went to collect my custom-designed, hand-painted azulejos from my version of ceramic heaven. I walked into the store all fired up…I was only hours away from having my table completed. Bali, one of the two women who I have come to know at the store, greeted me in Mallorquin with something that resembled ‘why are you here so early James?’ I replied (cleverly) with, ‘Hola Bali. Tiene algo para mi?’ (Hi Bali, do you have something for me?) Well of course she did, and we both knew it. But because I had arrived earlier than she expected, she hadn’t even opened up the oven yet, so following her, I walked into the back room of the store where the ovens were. Yes, they have a big oven and a small oven and my azulejos had been cooked in the small oven, for two reasons. Reason one: the big oven was full of stuff. Reason two: the little oven wasn’t when I brought the azulejos in. The tension was mounting as Bali leaned over to check the temperature on the trendy red digital readout. ‘Senor James, todavia el horno hace calor’ (the oven is still pretty warm). I was polite beyond belief and avoided blurting out something like, ‘just open the flippin’ oven. I want my tiles.’ I instead just smiled, wishing I knew how to say something like, ‘I think the current temperature gradient will not affect the overall gloss of the tile surface.’ Her hand moved toward the oven door, as if the entire scene was taking place in slow-motion. She unhooked the latch and pulled the door away, exposing…the disaster.
Painting ceramics is a combination of art, science, and a bit of voodoo I think. You have to have the right tiles, the right colour glazes, and you cannot let anything touch the surface of a painted tile (or plate, or pitcher or anything) when it is in the oven. When the temperature inside the oven reaches the 1,400c it gets to, the glaze turns liquid and anything that is touching it becomes bonded to it during the cooling down part of firing. All my azulejos had been put on little shelves, keeping a small space between each one in the oven…until most of the shelves decided to fall apart due to the intense heat. The actual technical term for what had occurred was that my tiles, and consequently me, were buggered. Bali felt bad. I felt bad. The tiles had been in a mini-crematorium so they didn’t feel much of anything, other than stuck to each other. Job well buggered.
It was an interesting project: I learnt some new words to increase my burgeoning Spanish linguistic capability; I actually did manage to get the colour right on the table; I now know where to borrow a router if I ever decide to play with wood again; and it took me three hours less to paint the replacement azulejos.
I think I may forsake big projects for a while. Between building the new shower and the table, I think I had done something nasty to my right shoulder. Realising that being healthy is important, after suffering from some not-so-nice pain in my upper arm, I decided to go to have it checked out. Okay, so it took me a month to do this, but after consuming most of the annual output of the world’s ibuprofen, I finally decided that the pain wasn’t going to go away by itself. I drove in to Palma to my favourite hospital and explained to the receptionist at the Urgenicas desk that I had a pain in my upper arm. She asked me if I had whacked it on something – okay, she didn’t say ‘whacked’ but that is what she meant. I didn’t think it was worth an attempt to explain that I had been pounding on tiles whilst building the shower and then probably aggravated it by building the table, so I said, ‘no.’ But I did explain that it felt like there was a knife in it when I moved it around. After sitting in the waiting room for a few minutes, my name was called and I nurse took me to an examination room. After another few minutes and a nice conversation with a doctor who was on call, I was ushered off for several x-rays. Nothing. The doctor told me to come back the next day for an MRI.
I have had MRI’s before, and whilst it is a good way to catch a 20 minute nap, the constant buzzing and clicking sounds as the electrons (or whatever) are zapping around can be a bit distracting. Two days later, I received a text message on my Spanish mobile from the hospital stating that the results were in and I should return to get the good news. I stopped at hospital on my next trip back from the ceramic supplier and met with the doctor who had seen me earlier. Talking to doctors can always be a challenge as my Spanish has improved quite a bit and I can carry on long conversations, but when it comes to technical or medical terminology, I get a bit lost. The doctor asked how my shoulder was and after telling him that I still had the pain, I asked if he could speak slowly and ‘con palabras para ninos’ (with words you would use when talking to a child). Ha, I figured that this would enable me to catch most of what he would say about the shoulder. He smiled and said he would, and then said, ‘tiene un tendon se rompe.’ Perfect. I have a broken tendon. This was one of those times when you realise that some words don’t translate well, like the term ‘tendon se rompe.’ I figured that he was trying to explain that I had torn the tendon and not that it was actually broken. My arm was still attached to my shoulder so this was a safe assumption on my part.
Okay, I have a torn tendon, which would account for the pain, but what I really wanted to know was what is going to be done about it. I assumed that there would be options, like amputating the arm or, dropping something heavy on my foot so I would forget about the shoulder, or, consuming mass amounts of red wine, which would also cause me to forget the shoulder (and probably my name). He offered none of these and instead prescribed ten treatments with a laser. Hmmm, a laser. Not being someone trained in medicine, all I could visualise was me, laying on the table made famous by Sean Connery in Goldfinger. But after my previous little health problem a few years ago in Mallorca (click here if you really want to know), I have learnt to trust my doctors so I said okay.
The laser treatments take place in the physical therapy department of the hospital, and as of now, I have had two of them. All I have to do is take off my shirt and sit in a chair in front of something that looks like a Dalek jr for a couple of minutes. No noise, no flashing lights, just invisible laser-thingys zapping into my shoulder. I assume that the laser-doo-wah machine is actually helping the torn tendon heal, but apparently I won’t notice anything until the treatments are over. Until then, I will keep taking the fab anti-inflammatory meds that the doctor gave me…and stay away from wielding DIY weapons of mass destruction.
some of the mountains of wood waiting for colder weather
the newly routed village version of the Marianas Trench
remnants of the tile disaster
hmmm, a new table top with remade azulejos
a corner detail
just like it was supposed to be
the completed table
one of the x-ray's
the junior Dalek, ready to fire
Yes, this is the long awaited food letter for all you catering queens and aspiring Gordon Ramsey types. One of my favourite things about living in Spain is experiencing local food. Okay, so I am admittedly not a gastronomical snob; actually, some of my friends believe that I eat to live instead of live to eat. But none-the-less, there are several very Spanish foods that I love. One of them is paella (pa-eh-ya).
If you are in Spain, either on the mainland or one of the Balearic Islands, you will see many restaurants advertising paella on picture boards tempting you to come inside. You can find paella mixta (a melange of chicken and seafood mixed in with the rice), paella marisco (a seafood and rice paella), and even paella for vegetarians (probably rice with the rice). Just as there is a range of paellas to have, there is a definite range of the quality of the end product.
I have been trying to improve my cooking skills, and as part of this effort (and it is an effort at times), I have added paella to my list of the gastronomic delights that come out of the La Antigua kitchen. And because one of the purposes of these letters is to share my experiences with you, and I was having friends over for dinner, I thought I would share a paella experience with you.
According to most recipes (allegedly handed down over the centuries from one person to another, but in this case, blatantly ripped off from some website), the ingredients of a good paella marisco are: 1 small onion, finely chopped; 1 green pepper, finely chopped ½ red pepper, boiled until soft and then cut into long thin strips; 2 medium-sized tomatoes, skinned and finely chopped; 2 carrots, finely chopped; 100g peas, cooked; 200g prawns (if using cooked prawns substitute fish stock for the water); 200g small clams; 200g squid; 12 mussels; 350g rice (traditionally short grain rice is used but most prefer to use long grain); 2 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped; a pinch of saffron strands (if you can’t find any saffron, use yellow food colouring instead and add it once you have added the liquid); a sprig of parsley, finely chopped; olive oil; about 800ml water. If you want to make a paella mixta, add some cooked chicken bits. Oh, one last component that will make your efforts worthwhile; a bottle of a good red wine.
Once you have all the bits, you should:
Wash the mussels, removing those nasty looking beard-things. Throw away any of the muscles that don’t shut on contact with water. Take the squid and rub off the outer dark skin. Pull out the insides (including the transparent back bone – having fun yet?) and pinch the eye away from the tentacles (now I know you are having fun). Save the tentacles. Cut the squid into rings. Take the clams and wash them in water and then put them in a bowl with some salt so that the grit comes out. Throw away any that are open.
Whether you peel the prawns or not is up to you. If you decide to peel them, save the shells and boil in water for about ten minutes. Save the liquid and add later instead of water. If you decide to leave the shells on, then plan on having a healthy supply of napkins or on finding some new friends. Peeling the shells off prawns is about as messy as doing a liver transplant with bare hands. Take the garlic and beat it into submission with a pestle and mortar (or just use the round end of a spoon like us normal people do), put it in a small bowl and add the saffron (if you actually went to a store to find it), the parsley and a pinch of salt. Next, open the bottle of red wine and begin to pour some down your throat. Do liberally and often during the rest of the paella preparation experience.
Heat some olive oil in a large frying pan. Dump in the onion, green pepper and carrot and fry gently (how do you fry something gently in a pan that is probably at two-million degrees?) for about five minutes. Add the chopped tomato and squid (don’t forget those testy tentacles) and fry on a low heat for another ten minutes. Add the rice and stir well to make sure that the rice is thoroughly coated with the previously made slurry. Add water (or the water from boiling the prawn shells), clams and the garlic/saffron/parsley mixture and bring to the boil. Season with salt. Just a personal note here: I don’t usually add salt to anything. I actually own some Maldon’s sea salt, but I think I just have it in the kitchen for appearances sake. But if you feel the compulsion to add the salt, do it now.
Put a lid on the paellera (the shallow pan that you are cooking all this in), turn the heat right down and cook very slowly for about ten minutes. I am a bit anal when cooking, so I keep looking to make sure that the squid has not managed to put itself together again and try to reenact the fun part of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Add the prawns and peas and give it a stir. Arrange the mussels and strips of red pepper artistically on top, or, do as I do and just dump them in. Any bit of artistic effort will be destroyed when you stir it all the next time. Put the lid back on and leave for another ten minutes - checking that it has enough water. I have found the best way to check this is to say,’ do you want more water?’ to the paella. If it manages to say almost anything to me at all, I take that as a sign to add water. If I hear nothing from it, I assume it is just fine. Once the rice is cooked and the mussels have opened, it is ready to eat.
You can do what you want at this point, but I think paella is best served with French bread, which is a bit bizarre, as this is a Spanish food. This potential confusion should not be a problem if you have consumed the better part of the wine. Open another bottle and sit down and eat.
There are options when cooking paella. You could add peas or corn to the mix; browse through the latest issue of HOLA! Magazine between stirring; listen to a Chakira CD; practise your flamenco steps; or even wear a Zorro mask, but as I am a traditionalist when it comes to paella, I usually stick to what I know works. Which brings me to the next bit of wisdom.
Now, having gone through all this effort to share a paella recipe with you, I thought I might also share with you an easier way to prepare it. You will still need the wine, but at least you will have time to enjoy it instead of doing all that silly chopping, cleaning, mixing, and blending. Hey, you still have to open the package and cook it.
the desired culinary output
the paellera and needed tools
some of the bits needed
the easier way to make paella
Autumn is here in the village. Our days are still mostly warm and sunny, but lately, there has been an almost welcome shift in the weather. I say welcome shift because the shift has enabled me to slack off on watering all the plants in the courtyard and terrace; which in summer is a daily challenge. But autumn has brought with it occasional rain, and whilst the plants all seem to be happier, the rain does raise havoc with the other daily challenge of sweeping up the leaves that fall every day.
Autumn is a nice time here in the village. The temperatures shift from the high thirties during the day down to the high twenties, and the evenings cool down to the point of being able to dig out some of the jumpers that I had packed away in early May. The skies are different as well. Instead of the almost constant cloudless blue that surrounds the valley, quite often massive clouds sneak over the mountains, blanketing the village in a duvet of moisture-laden surprises.
The day before yesterday, the weather forecasts stated that we were supposed to have shed-loads of rain. Well, at least that is what some of the forecasts said. My friend John rang me from Palma to see what I had heard about the weather. Both of us are pretty addicted to being online and he often rings to see what I have read about the potential for rain. Checking the weather forecasts online is a pretty foolish exercise as there are about a half dozen weather sites for the island and for some reason, it is a rare occasion when the forecasts al match up. John had said that of the several sites he was looking at were forecasting varying amounts of rain. I quickly did a check of the other sites and found more variation, with one site only prescribing a light chance of drizzle in mid-afternoon. I looked further, clicking on a satellite photo of Spain, only to see some pretty thin clouds approaching from the mainland. Clearly, the highly paid, well-educated meteorologists who generate the forecasts were doing what they do best; guessing.
The whole issue of looking online for weather forecasts can be a bit frustrating. One would assume that all the websites get their information from the same source – the local weather-reporting station at the airport in Palma. But for some reason, on any given day, the forecasts can vary as much as five or ten degrees, with equal variance on how much sun we are supposed to have.
I think that the only reliable way to find out what the weather will be would be to go ask a local farmer, as these people tend to have a better idea of what nature will be bringing. Whilst this may seem like an exaggeration, I really think that farmers can tell what the weather will be just by looking to see if the chickens are standing on one leg facing the equator or some other low-technology method that only generations of farming can teach. But instead of checking further, I told John that from the best information I had available to me, in the next couple of days it might rain, or it might remain sunny, and if it did rain, the rain could be heavy, or perhaps not. As I had covered just about every option, I felt had done my bit and went back to make dinner.
The weather information that I had given John was spot on. Yesterday actually did bring more sunny, warm weather and life was good. But this morning things changed a bit. I was about to walk into the village to collect the Sunday morning papers, having just finished my breakfast. I looked out into the courtyard and noticed that there were some rain spots on the courtyard stone floor, so I grabbed one of the brollies I keep handy. I didn’t really expect to have to use it – an odd raindrop or two wasn’t enough to worry about. So out of the house I went, but by the time I had made it to the front gate, it was actually raining. And as I rounded the corner at the bottom of my street – bear in mind that the corner is only about 30 metres from my front gate – the skies had opened up as if a giant loo was being flushed. Before I could even manoeuvre my way back home through the now river-like flow of water careening down my street, the rain had turned to hail, with chunks of ice that were a centimetre or two in diameter bouncing off anything in their path. I did make it back into the house, just in time to see the courtyard awash in leaves that had been beaten off plants, trees, and vines.
The hail ceased falling after about ten minutes, but the rain continued for another half-hour before the sun came back out. And by then, the courtyard was a cushion of green leaves and flowers that had been beaten off the bougainvillea plant. At least I won’t have to water anything for a day or two.
ominous autumn skies above the village
the view from above
the proper way to wash your flag
nice paisely-like design, but it will be hell to sweep up
hail in the garden
The other night I was multi-tasking, as one does, trying to prepare dinner, whilst looking up a recipe online, and at the same time, trying to pay attention to what was on the telly. It was the announcer whose voice caught my attention. He was saying something-something-something-something-steps-something. Well, I said I was multi-tasking and was lucky to just pick out the ‘steps’ part of what he said. The first thing that flashed into my mind was the movie, ‘the Thirty-Nine Steps’ – a classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller from the 1930’s. I do like this movie and have seen it countless times, so I thought I might as well pay more attention to the programme to see if they were talking about it. After a rather long commercial break, the programme resumed. It was one of those rather bizarre ‘human-interests-meet-scary-reality’ programmes, this one focused on some Brit whose weight had climbed to 25 stone or something. The medical consultant had prescribed, as part of a weight loss programme, a daily regimen of 10,000 steps. I heard what he said, but thought I must have mis-understood it. 10,000 steps? Like in ‘take a walk of 10,000 steps?’ That did seem like a lot, but I began to think on how good that might be if I were to do it. You know, the whole healthy thing. And then I began to wonder how many steps I was taking in an average day.
I don’t own a pedometer, but I do know how to count, so the next day, I walked into the village centre; something I do just about everyday anyway. The difference this time was that I counted my steps. I know, a bit anal, but without a pedometer, it was the only way I knew of figuring out how many steps it would be. I suppose I could have just measured my average pace and divided that into the distance from the La Antigua to the village centre, but that method seems fraught with variation, so it was to be a walking and counting exercise. I have to tell you…this does not mean to imply I have nothing else to do with my time, nor does it mean that I was just out to prove how high I could count. It just seemed like a good way to find out the answer to the health-question.
There was near catastrophe – someone in the village stopped to talk to me, which was nice, but it is hard enough to remember what number I was on when speaking English. Trying to remember AND trying to keep up the conversation in Spanish was a true challenge. Eventually I did make it to the centre of the village; after a fun-filled 1,015 steps. I decided to round the count off to the nearest number I could remember, so for a round-trip from La Antigua, I would use 2,000 steps as the magic number. Good, but not 10,000. As I walked home, I began to speculate how many steps it would be if I took the long way into the village. The long way – past the recycling centre at Parc Verd – I assumed was a lot longer but didn’t know for sure until I … yes, I did another walking and counting exercise. This path turned out to use 3,000 steps for a round-trip. I assumed that I use about 1,000 steps just around the house during an average day, so that day I did a whopping 2,000 + 3,000 + 1,000 = not anywhere close to 10,000 steps.
Later that afternoon, sitting in near exhaustion after the mega-marathon, I tried to figure out how I would be able to rack up 10,000 steps daily without walking to Palma and back, and then the solution hit me. I did what most red-blooded males would do…and revised my counting method. From now on, I would assume that every step up a hill was worth two or three normal steps, and every step up the stairs at home was worth about five normal steps. Not bad; with this new counting method, I think I will be covering the 10,000 steps by noon each day.
Last week I was out doing that ‘work thing’ I do. I have a client I work with in London who had asked me to help out with a seriously important meeting he was having for his senior management team. I replied with my standard answer; ‘of course I will do it. Where will the meeting be and when will it take place?’ Well, the answers were last week and in Dubai. I had never been to Dubai before, with my nearest Middle-eastern desert experience being Qatar a couple of years ago. As I do like places that are sunny and warm, it seemed like a good idea to go.
I had to fly to London to catch the plane for Dubai, which didn’t make any sense to me. I may not be the geography-king, but on a map, London is way out of the way when travelling from Mallorca to Dubai. A function of supply and demand apparently, having me go through London saved my client a shed-load of air fare expense, and being a good guy (sometimes), I agreed to the Palma - London - Dubai flight arrangements.
The flight from London to Dubai was abysmal. I was seated next to a man who fell asleep shortly after take off from London’s Gatwick airport. For the vast majority of the seven-hour flight, he snored. That isn’t exactly right…he gurgle-snored. It was like sitting next to a massive Hoover that was sucking like crazy underwater. I was extremely thankful for noise-cancelling headphones and a continuous stream of feature films to drown out the sound emanating from the seat next to me.
Dubai is, well, the best way I can explain it is that it is a city on steroids. I have never seen anything like it. Sort of a Las Vegas without the trashy-lights crossed with the sprawl of Los Angeles crossed with the cleanliness of a Disney property. Dubai is one of a kind.
There is so much construction going on there. From what I was told, a full one-out-of-five construction cranes in the world are in Dubai…and none of them are just standing there waiting for something to do. No matter which direction I looked out of my suite on the 45th floor of the Jumeirah Towers, I could see new buildings going up, each trying to outdo the others for height. I am not sure what planning permission entails in Dubai, but by looking around, it seems to be a process where someone who wishes to put up a new building has to respond to several questions. My assumption is the questions are; ‘Will your proposed building be taller than anything else in Dubai? (the right answer would be yes); Will your proposed building be even more outlandish than any other building in Dubai? (again a yes would be the right answer); Will your proposed building have your name plastered all over it? (clearly, a yes response is called for); and, Will your proposed building fit in with the building aesthetic guidelines for Dubai? (as there apparently aren’t any, the right answer would be ‘oh sure.’)
The extremes of what is being built in Dubai can be found in the ski-hill that was put up recently. Yes, a ski-hill in Dubai. And because it is pretty flippin’ hot there, the hill is inside. A building housing a ski-hill…in which it snows daily. Oh my God. Then there is the Burg al Arab. It is a seven star (count-em…a 7 stars) hotel built on re-claimed land in the sea. And several Palm Islands – huge palm-tree-shaped developments in the sea connected to the city by causeways. And the latest construction challenge; to build the tallest building in the world…which is in process already.
Dubai has come a long way in the past generation when the Sheikh decided he wanted to have a World Trade Centre building put up on the outskirts of the sleepy fishing village of Dubai. Apparently his fellow Sheikhs thought he had herded one too many goats or something, but the building went up and instantly Dubai became an example of how one person’s vision for the future can take hold.
It is hot in Dubai, and my first hint of how hot it would be hit me when I stepped out of the terminal upon my arrival at Sheikh Rashid airport. It was after midnight, and the temperature was 35c. Yes boys and girls, 35c after midnight. For those of you that are centigrade challenged, 35c is pretty warm at any time of the day. During the days I was there, it was a nice solid 40c and all three days, the humidity must have been somewhere between ninety and two-million percent. Praise Alla for the air conditioning.
My hotel was wonderful; the people were all very friendly; English is understood by just about anyone you would come in contact with; the views are spectacular; but I was quite happy to come home. To paraphrase Dorothy, ‘there’s no place like Puigpunyent.’
"the" movie poster
where I attempt my 10,000 steps
yes, I actually get paid to make people do this
the Jumeirah Towers
view from the 45th floor
so much for a view of the desert
the land of towering glass and concrete
the Dubai version of Chamonix
Dicken’s had it spot on when he said it was the best of times and the worst of times. The first lines of “A Tale of Two Cities” began with those incredibly insightful lines, or something like them, and whilst the book was written almost 150 years ago, Dickens could have been writing about recent days in Puigpunyent.
My little village has been working diligently (by Mallorquin standards) to improve the services it provides for its citizens. This, quite often, isn’t too easy, especially because over time the village has grown dramatically, and at the rate new houses are going up, it appears that the growth will continue. This may not bode well for the village feeling I fell in love with, but that is a different story. Two months ago, I had received a piece of paper in my post box saying that the village decided that some of the streets in my neighbourhood needed to have their tarmac restored and after a week of the semi-chaos that occurs when you can’t park on the street near your house, most of the streets looked shiny and black. I say most of them because for some reason, they only patched up spots in c/Des Sol, the street at the bottom of c/Es Forn where I live. At the time I was a bit mystified as to why the village had only patched the street instead of putting an entire new layer of tarmac down, but I assumed that there was: A) some master plan, B) a shortage of asphalt, C) the asphalt crew had gone to lunch…in Buenos Aires, or D) the village would get around to it when they got around to it. Regardless of which of these options seemed to be in play, it really didn’t make any difference to me. The potholes on the street had been filled and Amelia was once again able to park near La Antigua.
Last week I received another notice from the village, but this one was about the water system in the village. Now in all fairness, I must say that the notices that the village puts out are quite good, apparently. I really can’t tell because they are printed in Mallorquin. My Spanish has improved dramatically since coming to Puigpunyent, but I really don’t understand Mallorquin at all. I can pick out the odd word in a written document, but I am completely buggered when listening to the locals talk. I did look carefully at the most recent notice and even asked Guillem, my local metal worker to translate it for me into Spanish. The basic drift of it was that the village was going to tear up two streets and replace the water supply piping. There would be no parking all of Monday. Okay, I can deal with these types of improvements in the village, so Monday morning I rushed out at 0830 to begin my errands for the day. I started early as I knew that I didn’t want to have Amelia being the only car left on the street when the workmen would arrive (which was the case when the asphalting adventure took place earlier in the year). Luckily, there were no workmen in sight when I made it to the car, but it was good I was there when I was, as again, Amelia was the only car on the street. I had a list of about ten things I needed to do in and around Palma but by 1100, I was already on my way home. I parked on an adjacent street and walked home with my groceries, crossing the trench that was being dug in the middle of c/De Sol. Happy workmen with a huge trench-digging-machine that was crawling along at about 1/10th of a kilometre an hour, leaving a trench in the street that was similar to the Marianas Trench, except Puigpunyent isn’t in the Pacific Ocean and the my trench was about 10,930 meters shallower. I watched the machine crawl along for a few minutes, but this was about as exciting as watching paint dry, so I went home and headed up to the terrace to read a book I had bought in London.
About 1600, I came off the terrace and went to make a cup of tea but this process was slowed a bit due to the lack of water coming out of the kitchen tap. Hmmm, the water must still be disconnected I realised, so I went out to ask one of the workmen when it would be reconnected. It didn’t take long to find someone. The trench digging machine was no where in sight, but there were several men with pick-axe things and hammers making small trenches heading off the main trench toward houses and side streets. I asked one of them what time the water would be working again. He replied without missing a beat, they hoped sometime tomorrow. WHAT? SOMETIME TOMORROW…THEY HOPED? This wasn’t good. I didn’t even have to worry that I didn’t understand what he was saying. My neighbourhood would not have any water all night. Okay, this wasn’t exactly a panic situation. I did have a nice stockpile of bottled water that I could use for drinking and preparing dinner. I could even use some of the bottled water for brushing my teeth I supposed. But I was concerned about how I would water the plants in the courtyard. Okay, so right about now, some of you are thinking that I am a bit too anal about the plants, but I hadn’t watered them in several days due to a good soaking they received whilst I was in Dubai. I had even thought about watering them the night before the water was shut-off, but I think I was too focused on writing something that by the time I remembered, it was dark out. I was also thinking about how to flush the loos in the house. I wasn’t about to use bottled water for that, nor for the plants. It was then I remembered that I was the proud owner of a cistern full of fresh water. A cistern that I hadn’t used before, but now was the time, and this, finally, is where Dickens opening line comes in.
Operating a cistern is a pretty straight-forward proposition. You lower a bucket down into the cistern, wait until it fills with water, then hoist it back up. My cistern, like most traditional Mallorquin cisterns even has a pulley situated over the top of the cistern opening to provide a bit of leverage in pulling the bucket back up. I hadn’t had a reason to use my cistern up till then, but I thought I would give it a go.
I laid out the very stiff rope that was threaded through the pulley and connected on one end to my official cistern bucket (I say official because it makes it sound as if I really knew what I was doing, don’t you think?). The rope was about 3 centimetres in diameter, and felt as if it had been used last just about the time Franco was still in power. Not only was it stiff as the generalismo, it was a tad mouldy from being coiled up on the cistern pulley-and-bucket-bracket thingy. I cleverly put on my handy-dandy leather gardening gloves and began to slowly lower the bucket into the darkness that was my cistern. Looking down into a well or a cistern can be deceiving. I had no idea how deep the cistern went, but it looked to be about 350 kilometres down to the surface of the water. Okay, perhaps that estimate was a bit further than I knew it must be, but it did look deep. The rope was about 10 metres long, and after half of it had disappeared down the hole, the bucket was at the water’s surface, and after figuring out that by playing out more rope, the bucket would actually fill up with water, I began pulling the rope back up. Rather easily, the bucket came back to the top of the cistern, with water right up to the top brim of it. Yes, of course, water went careening out of the bucket before I managed to fill up a container. But after several bucket-loads, I was set for the night.
The next day (the good part of ‘the best of times and the worst of times), I was watering the garden (yes, with bucket-loads from the cistern) and it was clear to me that spring was here. The oranges were beginning to ripen and my newly planted tomato seeds were sprouting. I know, it is October, but the growing season here is a bit different than where most of you live, and being able to see plants come to life year’round does make living here the best of times.
part of the best of times
more of the best of times
our own Mariannas trench
ready to fill...in a day or two
a view to China
the ultimate back-up supply
tomatoes signalling more of the best of times
copyright 2005, 2006, James B. Rieley