El Capitan Mainwaring

Captain Mainwaring is alive and well on the Costa Blanca. I saw him on the number 27 bus, wearing a check shirt, stay-pressed trousers and plimsolls. His wife was with him, freshly coiffed and perfumed, in a jewel-encrusted black wool poncho. It must have been his wife because he hectored her throughout the ten-minute journey.

No compras nada! Then when he comes to the house you can tell him, there’s nothing here. Nothing! If he doesn’t like it, he can stuff it.

Who is ‘he’, I wonder? Do they have a son? A ne’er-do-well, who sponges off his parents? Or maybe he’s just a poor relation, or a chance acquaintance that Mrs Mainwaring has taken under her maternal wing. She’s been getting in food, it seems, in case he turns up with another hard-luck story.

Whoever, he is, he’s no match for Mainwaring. ‘Poor?’ he rants. ‘Of course he says he’s poor. He’s the bueno and the rest of us are the tontos. Well, if he turns up again, I’ll call the police, and then we’ll see who’s tonto.’

Under fire from the Captain, her resolve weakens. The young man will have to defend himself. She’s only got energy for her own survival.

‘But he phones me on my mobile. What am I to say to him?’

‘Tell him to speak to me. I’ll tell him where to go.’

By now her voice is barely audible. ‘But he doesn’t have your number.’

‘Well, give it to him, woman. Do you know it?’ He makes her repeat it, write it down. ‘Now if he calls, there’ll be no excuses.’

She says nothing. She’s shrunk into her poncho, ready for another few decades of oblivion.

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Today I got to know Felipe. I’d often seen him walking around, confident and cheerful, weaving in and out of the strollers on the promenade, along the paths through the gardens, over the grass and under the palm trees.

From time to time he’d turn up on the terrace of the cafeteria where customers drink coffee and read newspapers.

‘One of these days I’ll kill that dog,’ said Paqui, the waitress, when he nearly tripped her up with a tray of cups.

But today she runs out in bare feet to greet him. ‘Felipe!’ she cries. ‘Where have you been? It’s four days since you came to see me.’ She carries a bag of broken  biscuits, and leads him off for a private feast.

‘Where does he come from?’ I ask, intrigued. Is he a waif and stray, or simply a free spirit, scorning the discipline of outings on leads?

Nobody seems to know. The dueña thinks he belongs to the people who run the restaurant of the arrozes. They feed him on kitchen scraps and leave him to fend for himself. An elderly customer says, no, he arrived with a family who owned one of the villas and when they left, he chose to stay. Life is good here with all the bars and cafes, and if he’s not after food, he spends his time following a lady dog.

‘There used to be three or four of them,’ says the dueña.

‘No wonder, with him and the lady dog,’ says the customer.

‘Now the others have all disappeared,’ the dueña tells me. ‘Maybe they died off in the winter. It’s a big problem – people come here for the summer, then go away again, and lots of dogs get left behind.’

‘The problem is the children,’ says the customer. ‘They want pets but don’t realise the responsibilities.’

We nod, three old people with the wisdom of experience. Down on the beach Paqui is running along the edge of the sand, skipping in and out of the waves, swinging her arms.

There’s no sign of Felipe.

How to play the idiot foreigner (1)

1) If you have no car or printer, walk to the pueblo and find the cybercafe. Chances are it’s a tiny room in a back street, pitch black inside, with half a dozen people waiting to be served.

2) Use your best Spanish to make your request. Don’t be offended when the reply is ‘Preeent?’  as if you’re a child or a half-wit. Remember your accent is a giveaway.

3) While you’re waiting to log on, open a bottle of what you think is water, making sure it explodes over clothes, desk and floor. Realise too late that the label says gaseosa.

4) Forget your glasses so that, even with the economy lights on, you can’t read the keyboard. Where have they hidden the @? Feel pleased with yourself that you know it’s called the arroba. Smile at the customers watching you learn how to find it. Ah, it’s up with the 2, selected with Ctrl + Alt. Nod wisely.

5) Realise you need a semi-colon and squint at the keyboard. Hold it up to the light in a vain attempt to distinguish between punctuation marks. Ask for help again. If you don’t know the Spanish word, request pen and paper. Smile apologetically at the audience of waiting customers. ‘Ah, punto y coma.’ Of course.

6) Log onto gmail and realise you’ve forgotten your password. Make several attempts at remembering and give up.

7) Start a migraine so that the visual disturbances interfere with your eyesight. Don’t even ask for a farmacia. They’re on strike due to la crisis – the government hasn’t paid them since May.

7) Succeed in printing documents from other websites and log off. Leave your jacket on the back of the chair so they have to remind you to take it.

8) Count out 80 centimos  in small change, rejoicing that it’s so cheap. Don’t be offended when they stop you at 77 – they probably think that it’s worth 3 centimos to get rid of you.

Ex-pat living

Life as an immigrant has metamorphosed into ex-pat living. Gone are the early morning queues and long waits in government buildings. It’s the weekend and everyone is off-duty.

Sitting in the sunshine on the terrace of the beachside bakery, I sip cafe con leche and nibble at a delicious ensaimada, a crisp coil fresh from the oven, dusted with icing sugar, meltingly soft inside. I’m playing at being a lady writer, scribbling in my Mslexia notebook, earwigging on the conversations.

Six Spanish women of a certain age keep up a loud and lively conversation at the table next to me. They have tinted hair, wear sunglasses and sweaters or quilted jackets (it’s November after all), silk scarves looped or knotted round their necks. Their table is littered with empty coffee cups, plates with crumbs, cigarette stubs and screwed up paper napkins, but they show no sign of moving. A rat-like dog of indeterminate breed, fed up with waiting, starts yapping under the table, trapped by their boots and trainers.

‘Caillate ya,’ says one, but it takes no notice.

‘Give up smoking?’ says another, lighting a cigarette. ‘Why? The stuff they give you to stop is far worse than tobacco.’

A third woman blows a cloud of smoke. ‘To give up you need willpower. You have to decide you want to do it, and ya esta.

At the table next to them is a grown-up family of four, or could it be parents with their son and his same-sex partner? The two young men are well-groomed and handsome, with dark curls and expansive smiles. One in a v-necked sweater, the other in a soft sweatshirt, they sit with their jeaned legs spread, knees apart, feet crossed, dipping in and out of the conversation, laughing at the mother’s jokes. She is plump and prosperous with freshly coiffed hair, painted lips and fingernails, designer sunglasses and gold earrings. The father quietly presides at the head of the table, his crisp blue shirt open at the neck, but it’s Mama who is the centre of attention, entertaining them with her anecdotes. Their breakfast has still not appeared, but they are leisurely, relaxed, in no hurry. Life is too good to rush.

A grey-haired man and woman appear on the terrace and hover by an empty table. How do I know instantly that they’re English? By the way they creep to the seats and settle there in silence. When they speak, their heads move closer, their voices are subdued and the snippets of conversation punctuate long pauses. No hairdresser has touched the woman’s hair, and her cardigan is a little crumpled, and shapeless.

They are ex-pats, like me. Enjoying life on the costas while the Brits back home battle with floods. Trying to feel relaxed and outgoing like the Spanish but not quite making it. Their days of queuing for residence permits are probably long gone, but mine, alas, are due to begin again once Monday morning comes. In the meantime,Viva the weekend!

Life of an Immigrant (3)

The gas ran out on Saturday, just as I was preparing lunch. The spag bol simmered and sank. My order for a new bombona of butano had failed to materialise. With no car, and the nearest supplier a couple of miles away, it seemed like a good excuse for eating out.

Not such a bad solution with several beachside restaurants just a short stroll from the apartment. Mmm, esparragos followed by a tasty paella-style arroz with plenty of cool beer and a view of foam-crested waves whipped up on a turquoise sea. But knowing that we’d have to survive for a week until the next delivery of gas spoiled our appetites. It looked as if we were in for days of cold food just as the weather was turning nasty.

What do you do alone in a strange country where you know no one? Luckily we have family with numerous brothers and sisters. Ivan lives nearby and he has a car, but a quick call to his mobile set our hopes tumbling.

‘I’m in Madrid for the weekend.’

Nothing for it then but to go out for lunch on Sunday, too. Oh well, I could get used to this. Tapas of calamares, gambas, mejillones and patatas bravas with a bottle of vino tinto. While we were eating, the family network sprang into action. Pilar in Madrid put us in touch with a cousin who lives just up the coast from us: Jose Manuel, who has a daughter who’s a dancer married to a Russian, also a dancer. They run classes in salsa which I’m hoping to join once I can work up the energy for them.

A few texts later and we’d arranged for him (JM, not the Russian) to come across that evening and drive us to the nearby gasolinera to collect a bombona. When siblings can’t help, primos are the next on call.

By the time Jose Manuel arrived it was dark and a gale-force storm lashed the palm trees. His comfortable Mercedes glided through floods to the petrol station while he entertained us with tales of his grandson. Hope was glimmering.

Butano?’ said the dour attendant in answer to our request. ‘No queda.’

They’d sold out, and so had every other garage for miles around. I know, because we spent the next hour or so visiting them.The onset of the worst weather that most people in Alicante can remember had sent everyone scurrying for supplies.

Defeated, we drove home. Jose Manuel suggested that we should ring the supplier in Alicante first thing the next morning and ask for a delivery.

Oh that life were that simple. Monday morning dawned with an uncanny stillness. We phoned the number he’d given us.

‘We don’t deliver your way until Friday,’ they told us.

Back to square one. No point in bothering Jose Manuel until we were sure that supplies at the gasolinera had been replenished.

By the time I set out to walk the couple of miles to El Altet  the wind had lifted and rain was falling. ‘So what,’ I told the elements, Lear-style. ‘Do your worst to me. I’m English, I can stand a bit of rain.’

As I reached the village the heavens answered me with a downpour of tropical proportions. I dashed into a couple of shops, tramping over their clean floors in my muddy boots, then crossed to the petrol station, dodging the floods.

A different attendant this morning, but equally expressionless.

Claro,’ he shrugged in answer to my question. ‘We always have butano.’

‘You didn’t last night.’

‘That’s because it was Sunday.’

Must be some local logic that I’m not up to speed with, but no point in arguing. The happy truth was that supplies of gas were now abundantly evident.

‘Could I reserve one and come and collect it later this afternoon?’ I asked. ‘Of course I’ll pay for it now.’

The way he looked at me made it clear that this was a preposterous suggestion. ‘At two o’clock the shifts change,’ he said. ‘We’re two different teams.’

Sod you. How d’you say that in Spanish?

By now I was feeling bullish. I battled back through the rain, dodged into a kiosko for a cafe con leche, and as I finished it, the rain began to ease. With a new spring in my sodden boots I walked home over the wasteland past the flooded oasis of palm trees and texted Jose Manuel.

A couple of hours later his car drew up and we revisited the gasolinera and stocked up with two bombonas, just to be sure. The spag bol tasted delicious, and with a celebratory bottle of tempranillo (1.50 Euros and quite drinkable) life as an immigrant was looking distinctly rosy, despite the rain.

Life of an Immigrant (2)

At 7 am I joined the queue outside the police station. Storm clouds threatened but at least it wasn’t raining. A couple of dozen people lined the building, North Africans mainly, leather jackets, jeans, hunched against the wind, smoking and chatting. A couple from Slovenia, studying pharmacy on an Erasmus scholarship, chatted to me in English. They’ve been here a month and picked up more Spanish than most tourists learn in a lifetime.

At 8.30 a policeman unlocked the gate and handed out tickets. Mine was K13. We filed inside, passing through the security scanner and into a huge room with palms and rubber plants reaching to a high glass ceiling. Rain started to lash against it as we collapsed into the seats.

At 9.00 they started calling people. K1 went in and came out at 9.20. In the seat next to me a Portuguese guy told me he’d come to escape the crisis there, but still hadn’t found a job. By 10.30 they’d reached K9. Behind me a Mexican, fluent in English, French and German as well as his native Spanish, talked in English to the Slovenians about his  business trips. Two children, one African and one South American, jumped excitedly in the base of a dry fountain.

It was past 11 when my turn came. ‘Ah,’ said the young officer, ‘if you’re a pensioner you need an S1 form from your government before you can get the authorization that you’re a member of the European Union and access services here. In the meantime you can apply for an NIE (pronounced nee-ay – numero de identificacion estranjero) But first you have to go to a bank and pay 10 euros. Once you’ve done that you come back with the receipt, a photo and a copy of your passport. Then tomorrow at 1 o’clock you return to collect your number.’ The reason it’s so busy here, he said, is that all the Moroccans come across on the ferry to buy houses, now the prices have fallen.

By the time I left the building rain was lashing down and my umbrella flew open. Finding a bank wasn’t easy but when I did I had to join another queue. Then to a shop with a photocopier. A cafe con leche – hair-raisingly strong – perked me up a bit before I headed back to the immigration centre with the documents.

I then made a quick visit to the British Consulate to see if they could help me with the S1. The Union Jack was dripping in the rain from a first floor window of the building in a back street. No signs, just a staircase to a security door with intercom, and inside soft-spoken diplomats,courteous but unable to help. ‘You’ll have to phone the Overseas section of the Pensions service in Newcastle.’ Ha ha. On a mobile from abroad. Imagine how long that will take to get through all the menus and muzak.

A quick dash through the rain to a bar across the road, a copa of Rioja and a pinchito of goat’s cheese, grilled pepper and lomo, and the world seemed altogether a more hopeful place.

Life of an Immigrant

You’ll get fed up with me gloating about how wonderful the weather is – so hot this November morning in Alicante that I was gasping for water by the time I’d visited four different offices in

El puerto, Alicante

an attempt to register me as a resident.

Spain is certainly living up to its reputation of tiresome bureaucracy. The ayuntamiento is where you have to register but after waiting in a long queue I was directed to another building a few streets away. Off I went, only to discover that as a member of the European community I first have to get an identification number from the police station. Another walk in the hot sun. ‘Oh no,’ said the fearsome looking officer on duty, ‘this service has now moved a mile out of town.’ So back to the car I went.

At last I found it, only to be told that I’d come too late. You have to be there at 8.00 in the morning to join the queue. If you’re lucky you’ll get one of the 40 tickets to see someone later that day. After that I have to go back to the ayuntamiento to start the process all over again.

Oh the joys of being an immigrant. Still, at least the sun is shining. Next week they’re forecasting rain.

A Walk on the Wild Side

If you think Somerset’s roads are a challenge, just wander a little off piste and try its rural footpaths. Fingerposts and waymarkers tempt you forward then leave you in the lurch. Rusting gates groan on a single hinge or are fixed with chains and a padlock. Broken stiles see-saw precariously on rotted supports, and once you’ve wobbled across them you’re just as likely to land in an abundant crop of nettles or ankle deep in mud.

Each  twist in the path, though, turns a new page in a fairy tale. Ancient stone cottages tucked in the folds of the hills. Cider orchards, the trunks steeped in lush grass where the fallen apples lie until they’re vacuumed into a cart or collected in a basket by an old man with a bushy beard. Medieval barns and manor houses with integral chapels. Copses of oak and ash and chestnut, conifer forests so black and silent that the babes in the wood might still be sleeping there.

When the path leads upwards the slopes might look gentle, but don’t be deceived. On a humid summer day they sap your energy, but by the time you reach the top, the view makes it all worth while. A rolling landscape of tiny pastures pieced together with hedges and dotted with farms and villages. Hazy hills in the distance. The clouds making their way across the open sky.

The Somerset Superhighway

I thought I’d got the delights of the Somerset road system sussed. Bruton to Newton Park is 26 miles, so an hour and a quarter should be plenty to get to my tutorial. But I hadn’t reckoned with roadworks on a z-bend, on a hill, just below a busy 3-way junction. It took the best part of half an hour to inch forward to the point where I could see one of the two poor men operating Stop and Go signs in the lashing rain.

On the way back I got clever and tried a back road. Fine as far as Paulton. Then the  signs disappeared. Which way was Shepton Mallet? Take your pick. I had a nice little tour of the hamlets of the Mendips before seeing a road I recognised.

Then there’s the Shepton Mallet showground to avoid. Tesco’s was full of bright young things in wellies, stocking up for a fun-filled weekend.

I won’t be going anywhere. I’m too exhausted!