Interview with Paul Read, the Gazpachomonk. #WABAS12

Paul Read - writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

Paul Read – writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

As a blogger and tweeter, I follow and read many other expats here in Spain. One who has intrigued me for some time is the Gazpachomonk. Apart from the obvious appeal of the name, I was delighted on meeting Paul at the recent WABAS weekend in Malaga recently to find that he is different from other expats – he has fresh and fascinating views on living here in Spain, coloured by his experience of Tai Chi, his love of history, and his wonderfully dry humour. I enjoyed Paul’s book, Inside the Tortilla: A Journey In Search of Authenticity, and am avidly watching his series of videos on Spain in the WABAS12 series (12 bloggers-on-Spain each posting a video every day for 12 consecutive days), so I decided to ask him some probing questions about authenticity, gastronomy, and eyewear.

Why are you called the Gazpachomonk?

In a parallel universe I am known as the “teapotmonk” (where I write about Eastern philosophy, teach Tai Chi and spout Taoist nonsense). When I moved to Spain, I wanted to keep something of this identity, but as I was now working in an Iberian context, I exchanged the tea for gazpacho. Critics argue that I still spout the same nonsense, it just has more of a garlic flavour these days.

How long have you lived here in Spain?

In 1994 I spent a year in Seville as part of a degree course I was taking. I returned to Spain in 1996 with my partner, Cherry, and we have been living here since then.

the town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

The town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

A previous chapter in Paul's life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

A previous chapter in Paul’s life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

Where have you lived, and which place(s) have you liked most, and why?

Ohhh, big question. The year in Seville was exciting and it still remains one of my favourite cities in the world. In 1996 we moved to Tarragona, but just for four months. Loved the place and the people, but couldn’t get work, so shifted to Madrid. However, found that too hectic, noisy, expensive and it reminded us too much of London. So we moved to Toledo – atmospheric and medieval and a really convenient place to buy a suit of armour and marzipan. However, it wasn’t too long before we realised it wasn’t so good for getting a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.

After two years without bread and many adventures later, we fled to Castille and Leon. But it was too quiet and too cold, so we headed south and in 1998 found ourselves in the coastal resort of Almuñecar in Granada. We stayed there working the markets for seven years until we couldn’t stand the ebb and flow of so many people – it was a bit like living in a big bus station, just more watery, and so we fled the coast and found ourselves here in Loja, where we’ve been since 2006.

What still frustrates you most about living in Spain?

When I hear people complain about either Spanish bureaucracy, corruption or oily tapas, I tend to want to poke them in the kidneys – not because of what they are saying, but because I find such posturing ultimately disempowering.

If frustrating things happen – and obviously they do to everyone – I’m convinced it’s as much to do with ourselves as our chosen country. Clashes of culture, language, social differences will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. How we respond is the only tool we have – and it comes down to this: how do we wish to play out our life here? Is it going to be an obstacle forever, or will it be a challenge?

What do you think of the expat scene?

Let’s be honest, we are all expats, and we all operate in some circle or another. Some do so on the coast, others in the campo or inland. Some are bound together by their inability to speak or contextualise the affairs of the country, others by their – often misguided – belief that they can actually do so.

Yet we all need to touch base now and then with our past, with people who share our history, our cultural or social reference points, wherever we find ourselves. In a way, I can understand the expat communities of the coastal strip who honestly make no claim about learning the language or integrating into another lifestyle. I may not be in agreement with their aims, but I respect their honesty. On the other hand, a lot of other expats – particularly those who boast of their ability to conjugate an irregular verb or publicly rejoice in shunning the rest of the foreigners in town – are simply hypocritical. It’s pure class politics raising its ugly head once more.

Paul's book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from flamenco to

Paul’s book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from siestas to Semana Santa.

Which Spanish dish do you make best? (apart from gazpacho!)

“Sopa de ajo” is my winter favourite right now. Whatever is in season is the base of all my favourite recipes – and of course that changes with the time of year – Ive a section on my website with all my best recipes – if you want to check that out.

Where did you get idea for your series of #WABAS12 videos?

I’d been doing podcasts for the last couple of years and had based them on the concept of trying to understand the foolishness of our present lifestyle choices by looking for explanations in the past. History is not about answering the questions of when or where, but rather why and how? These questions bring history alive, particularly when you can relate universal themes to somewhere as specific as the town you live in. So when the WABAS12 project was born, I decided to try and apply these ideas to the medium of video, and try my best to portray one small town in the most universal of ways. I wanted to show that you don’t need to be living in a major city to see the history of the world in front of your eyes.

Why do you always wear shades in your videos?

There are two possible answers:

1) Robin, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man – they all hide behind something when publicly fighting injustice, right? Well the Gazpachomonk wears shades.

2) “Uveitis Anterior” is an eye condition that dilates the pupils of the sufferer and makes sunlight almost unbearable.

Why don’t you mention your partner in your book, Inside the Tortilla?

It’s true that my partner, Cherry, was by my side during many of the episodes in the book, and her presence is there if you look for it. But I chose not to include her directly because the emphasis of the book is themes and not characters – hence we never get to know a lot about the narrator, and the Hound has no name. Even the identity of the town is never mentioned, other than by its fictional name of “La Llave.” In this way I hoped the book would not fall into the pit of two bumbling expats “Year in Andalusia, Driving over Figs” home-improvement yarn so prevalent since the last wave of North European immigrants discovered blogging.

Do you have any future book or video ideas/plans? You mention a sequel at the end of Inside the Tortilla: The Labyrinth Years.

The Labyrinth book was co-written by Cherry and I during our Toledo years and sits as an unfinished manuscript at home. Whilst we ponder over its future I’m working on a new book for 2014 called Voices, in which a series of historical characters describe what keeps them sane in an insane world: themes of love, passion, migration, gazpacho, corruption, churros. Meanwhile, I’m still working on my Tai Chi series of books with the teapotmonk – and a selection of videos and podcasts that accompany them (http://teapotmonk.com/).

How and where do you find authenticity?

Authenticity is an endangered species these days. Like people, towns have their authentic voices – at times loud and clear, other times silenced in the rush to embrace the latest expression of modernity ( eco-tourism and Facebook pages come to mind). My search for authenticity arose because I felt myself drowning in this sea of nonsense.

When any place or person engages in the exploitation of people or the land, and tags it as something new and trendy, they suppress its unique voice, its character, and we all lose out. I hope the greed we have seen exposed politically these last few years encourages us to look once more at the uniqueness of where we live and who we are, and not to fall back on the old cycle of unfettered growth in a world with finite means. Have I personally found it? Let’s just say it’s an ongoing project.

What advice would you offer for those thinking of moving to Spain?

If I had to give two piece of advice I’d say…

1. I know this is difficult, but try not to move to Spain without renting for a full year first. Yes, it means paying out cash, but it will give you so many advantages over buying. You can move around and check out the area, the town, the people, the dialect, the weather, the noise, the heat, the health services, the working possibilities etc without committing yourself to a huge investment that would be difficult to change later on.

2. Language – forget the imperfect subjunctive, just get familiar with the basics and let your new world teach you the rest. This of course means that if your new world is composed of satellite TV, internet news and watching rugby in the local Sports Bar, then you may have to make a bit more effort. Think of language as a useful app on your smart phone. It’s a tool that’ll help to contextualise this strange new world, explain it to you and help you explain yourself to others. Moving to Spain without the language is, as I’m often prone to say, akin to taking up golf and then pulling your arms of their sockets just before your first round.

You can find out more about Paul’s Spain-related books, ebooks, podcasts and videos at his website, Speaking of Spain: Resources on Living, Working and Sweating in Spain. (Paul has a great line in subtitles, as you can see.)
Watch his WABAS12 videos on his YouTube channel.
Other links: Paul’s books and his blog about Tai Chi.

The underside of Seville: City of Sorrows, inside the gypsies’ world

The daughter and granddaughter of Maria, the 116-year-old gitana woman I met in El Vacie.

The daughter and granddaughter of Maria, the 116-year-old gitana woman I met in El Vacie. Gypsies suffer extreme social and economic exclusion in Spain.

The popular image of Seville, the one tourists see, and which appears on blogs like this, in guidebooks and apps, in newspaper and magazine articles, is of lively fiestas, fragrant orange blossom, windy cobbled streets, beautiful patios, tapas, and bullfighting (yeuch).

Most visitors to the city are unaware of its less picturesque underside. Some years ago, pre-blogging, I visited El Vacie, a shanty town in northern Seville where gypsies live, to meet a very elderly gitana woman, Maria.

A street in El Vacie, an area of Seville home to around 1000 Spanish and Portuguese gitanos.

A street in El Vacie, a shanty town in Seville where around 1500 gitanos live. It has been there for over 80 years.

The reason for my visit was to write a news story for an English-language newspaper. Maria was allegedly the oldest woman in Spain, at 116 years old, and her family was lobbying the ayuntamiento to give her a vivienda digna to live out her days in comfort  (sadly Maria died, still in El Vacie, a year later). My friends and boyfriend (now husband) were horrified, warning me that it was an extremely dangerous place, and insisting that under no circumstances should I go there. In the event, I did, together with another journalist and a woman from an NGO who works here. Maria lived with her daughter, granddaughter and great-grandson in a small, spotlessly-clean prefab, with (cold) water but no loo, and intermittent electricity. The sitting room, where we sat, was bright and homely, with a large TV, pictures of the Virgin, and children’s toys. A typical Spanish salon.

The gitanas were polite but guarded, understandably suspicious of payas (non-gypsies), and even more so of foreigners; they were more willing to talk to the Spanish reporter from El Pais who was also there. Although I never felt frightened, I was aware that my safety depended on staying with my companions (the other journalist and the NGO worker), and not being overly inquisitive or taking too many photos. The news story was duly published (the print version was much fuller), but with a rather different angle about where Maria wanted to live; the paper obviously had its own agenda.

A few years later, I went to see a production of Lorca’s The House of Bernardo Alba performed by illiterate women from El Vacie, a stone’s throw from the theatre. It was a startling experience, watching these barefoot, strong-voiced gitanas acting out the words of this much-loved Granadan writer, who advocated the rights of gypsies. Then earlier this year, someone left a comment on the blog post I wrote about the play, saying that she had worked and lived with gitanos in Las Tres Mil Viviendas (three thousand homes) to the south-east of the Seville. Tres Mil, as it is known locally, is huge housing project notorious for its violence and drug-dealing. She was clearly an unusual person.

That person was Susan Nadathur, an American author who has now written a novel using her experiences of living with, and learning to understand, the inhabitants of Tres Mil; very few people (still fewer non-Spaniards) have had lived with gitanos, and been so accepted by them. Her novel, City of Sorrows, follows the lives of three men in Seville: two Spanish, from different ends of the social spectrum – a pijo (posh boy), and a gitano from, you’ve guessed it, Tres Mil. The other man is Indian – no coincidence, as this is where gitanos originally came from, 1000 years ago; and Nadathur’s own husband is Indian.

Each man in the book is an outsider in his own way. The Indian is an outsider in a strange country, and speaks no Spanish; the pijo is an outsider in his own home, since his mother is dead and he detests his father, whose mistress is a gitana; and the gitano is an outsider simply for his race.

City-of-Sorrows-by-Susan-Nandathur

The story starts with a terrible tragedy, which colours the lives of two of its protagonists; while the third main character eventually brings them together, to resolve their conflict provoked by a moment of thoughtless cruelty, and find some peace. Each character is struggling to survive without people close to them, from whom they’ve been parted, whether violently or otherwise. Each has their own way of dealing with their loss, whether turning to crime, drugs, alcohol… or unexpected but welcome friendship.

I found City of Sorrows a gripping read, a real page-turner; I wanted to know what happened, how these complex problems would resolve themselves. The ending managed to provide an unexpected twist, with the wronged man offering his tormentor a redemption I didn’t feel the other character deserved. Clearly I’m more hard-hearted and vindictive than Susan.

The book offers a valuable insight into the closed, secretive world of the gitano. Leaving aside the classic cliches of gold medallions, drug-dealing and flamenco, she gives them everyday, human identities – rounded personalities, in strong family units, ruled over by the intriguing, all-powerful patriarch, whose word is law – unquestioned. His sound, common-sense and empathetic judgement saves the protagonist from a dark future, as he spirals downwards, unable to cope with his terrible loss; given a second chance, he is ready to start again.

There are some memorable scenes which show up the prejudices of Spaniards/Sevillanos: the stubborn, determined gitano who refuses to be ignored by the waiter in a bar, sitting out his protest until he is finally served, kind of; the drunken, self-destructive pijo making an idiot of himself while trying to seduce a young American girl; the young Indian student sacrificing his religious beliefs to fit in with his new Spanish friends.

Soon after I finished reading this book (in a few days – it was a real page-turner) last summer, its events were reflected in real-life news reports from Seville about disturbances in the Tres Mil caused by a firearms incident, in which a child was killed. This novel is a fictional story, but it could so easily happen in real life. That’s why it’s such a good read – you believe the characters and their motivation; they are flawed and imperfect. Real people. Gypsies shown not as a two-dimensional, meaningless cliches, but as fully-fledged characters from loving families with strong morals: “We gypsies are many things. Stubborn. Proud, Vengeful. But we respect our elders and our laws.”

You can read more about Susan’s experience of living with gypsies in Seville here.

On October 30, 1996, the Andalusian Parlament declared that November 22 should be celebrated as “El Día de los Gitanos Andaluces”. This day celebrates the arrival of the first group of Gypsies to Andalucia, and their friendly reception by Don Miguel Lucas de Iranzo, governor of Jaén, in 1462. Today there are around 350,000 gitanos in Andalucia, about half of Spain’s gypsy population.

To celebrate Dia de los Gitanos Andaluces, City of Sorrows is available at up to 40% off the original price from Amazon until 22 November 2013 – see Susan’s website for direct links to buy the book (Kindle or print) from Amazon UK or US. Plus I have one copy of the book to give away, in either digital or print format. To win a copy, just leave a short comment below, before 30 November 2013, saying why you would like to read this book.

The Andalucia Show: from Almeria to Seville

Flag, fan and pennant in the regional green and white to celebrate Dia de Andalucia, 28 February.

My children with their flag, fan and pennant in the regional verde y blanco to celebrate Dia de Andalucia, 28 February. My daughter is proudly showing off her mixed heritage.

Children here in Andalucia are inculcated with a strong sense of regional pride right from the word go – they are Andaluces first, Spanish second (which leads to a sense of confusion about their identity, in the case of my Anglo-Andalusi children). They learn all about the culture, history, fiestas, famous figures, cuisine and geography of their region, which varies from desert to snow-covered mountains, from cork-oak forests to olive groves, from tidal marshes to sandy beaches, via Moorish cities and ancient sea ports.

This year, to celebrate Dia de Andalucia (28 February), my children’s school put on an exhibition about the entire region, province by province. Sections of corridors were magically transformed into colourful casetas in the Feria de Abril, patios in Cordoba, Cadiz beaches and Almerian hothouses.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the eight provinces of Andalucia as represented by three to 12-year-old Andaluzes, in products and pictures.

I haven’t captioned each photo – partly through sheer laziness and Alt Tag burnout; but also it means that you can try to guess each one’s contents (or, if you live here, ask your kids to) before reading the text for that province, which comes below its corresponding set of pictures. First up: Almeria.

Almeria invernadero

Almeria veg

Almeria skeletons kids

ALMERIA: Polytunnels, vegetables, spaghetti westerns and one of Spain’s most important archaeological sites.

Cadiz - atun de almadraba

Cadiz carnaval

CAdiz carnaval table

Cadiz entrance

Cadiz food 2

Cadiz piconeras

Cadiz playa

CADIZ: blue-fin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean using the traditional almadraba system of nets and boats; the Teatro de Falla and the Carnaval in Cadiz city (a masks and two kazoo: the one on the left is my son’s, from our recent trip); sherry, seafood and cheese; fishing nets; piconero/as (coalmen and women – new to me, that one) and, of course, La Playa (yes, that’s real sand)!

Cordoba -cruces, patio ,feria

CORDOBA: Las Cruces de Mayo (the cross of red flowers) and the Patios Festival (the little pots with their blooms on the wall).

Malaga food

Granada

Granada  Lorca

Granada Arabic stuff

Granada food

GRANADA: The Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra; bit foxed myself as to the second picture – possibly Conquest Day, commemorating when the Reyes Catolicos recaptured the city from the Moors, and the royal banner of Castille is carried through the city; Federico Garcia Lorca, with some books by the poet and playwright; Arabic clothes and objects; Granadan pastries.

Huelva

zHuelva- El Rocio

HUELVA: A jamon (don’t miss the piggies on the front of the table); fish, prawns and other shellfish; El Rocio: dress, tambor (drum), mini-carreta, leather chaps, and the all-important leather riding boots to protect from mud, dust and wading through river fords.

Jaen

JAEN: Land of liquid gold – olives, olives, and more olives.

Malaga food (2)

 

Malaga people  Banderas

Malaga sardinas

MALAGA: Pastries, olive oil and sweet wine; famous people, including Picasso and, the “Father of Andalucia”, Blas Infante, bottom left (but not Antonio Banderas, strangely); sardines on sticks.

Cordoba Sevilla

Sevilla Feria

Sev Feria table

Sev Betis baby

Sev cathedral model

Sev incense

IMG_4998

Sev paso

Sev tapas list

SEVILLA: Inevitably, our provincial capital takes a starring role, both in the exhibition itself, and in this blog post. First we have the Feria caseta, complete with entrance (each one has its own name, number and design); the traditional painted table and chairs, plus jewellery, castanets and dress; a creepy-looking Betis baby, for the youngest football supporters; the cathedral; then we’re into Semana Santa, coming up in a few weeks: incense (smells very strong; my daughter hated it), nazarenos with a small cardboard DIY model of the Setas in front of them: more nazarenos, with their paso (float with statue of Jesus); and finally a list of tapas on a blackboard.

I never fail to be astonished and humbled by the huge amount of work which goes into these school shows, projects and exhibitions. The teachers and children obviously spent many hours preparing, assembling and presenting it (we had been asked to provide items from Seville and Cadiz provinces, hence the kazoo) and the finished effect looked quite spectacular.

Happy Andalucia Day, and congratulation to the staff and students!

A review of four new children’s books by an expat-in-Spain author

One of the delights of blogging for me – and indeed, of being a journalist in general – is the variety of things you get to do, see, experience, write about… So I was quite chuffed when someone sent me some children’s books to review. I’m an avid reader and want to communicate to my children the joy of books, so it’s a pleasurable task to be charged with.

I was sent them because the author, Anita Pouroulis, who is South African, is also an expat living in Spain. Anita lives in the residential development of Sotogrande on the Costa del Sol with her husband and 10-year-old daughter. This coastal resort has some of the most expensive real estate in Spain, allegedly. Sort of like Sandbanks in Poole, except newer, and with sun.

Anita has written four children’s books, for ages 4-7 – my son Zac is just six, so he’s perfectly placed within the age range. Each book is illustrated by a different artist, so they all have their own look, though what they do have in common is being bright and colourful. The books are written in rhyming verse.

The first one we read was Mum’s Cronky Car. I’d never heard the word “cronky” before – it sounds like an amalgam of “cranky” and “wonky” – the only online dictionary I could find with a definition was a colloquial one. It said “shaky, dodgy, falling apart, in poor condition”.

Mum’s car is an old banger which doesn’t work very well – it stops and starts, chugs, coughs and lurches. The little girl is embarrassed and says “I wish that I could hide in the boot!” and “I just want to pull out my hair in utter despair! This car is so beyond repair!” After pages of complaints about the “cronky car”, which I found a tad repetitive (I was surprised the editor hadn’t cut them down), we have a welcome diversion in the form of a voyage into dreamland: the girl rides an elephant, a hippo and an ostrich; then the car takes off and flies through the air, over the houses, a la Harry Potter, and also meets a plane. My son was thrilled by the animals and the flying car, and liked this book in general – boy+car+flying (he’s currently obsessed with helicopters)=guaranteed success.

Next we looked at Oh, What a Tangle! which is a about a girl’s messy barnet – she doesn’t like to brush her hair. I have curly, hard-to-control hair, so I can identify with her torment. This girl, Kiki, uses her hair as a brolly, a herb garden, a bird sanctuary, and to clean windows. Finally, her mum gets fed up and chops it off. I thought it was quite funny, but Zac wasn’t impressed, as it was “too girly” and “too smelly” (don’t ask me), but he did enjoy the mum getting annoyed with smoke coming out of her ears (probably because he’s used to seeing me like that).

Pancake Pandemonium was better received, although it was about a girl (called Polly), but with no car or aeroplane. Unfortunately Zac doesn’t like pancakes, so that part of the appeal was  lost. This book is about a girl who yearns for an endless supply of pancakes, so she decides to set up a Heath Robinson-style factory in her back garden, complete with cows for the milk, chickens for the eggs, and bees for the honey. Again, Mum isn’t happy when the animals escape, trashing her garden and attracting the disprobity of the neighbours. The idea was great fun, especially the chickens sitting on their funnels, and the eggs being carried along on a conveyor belt.

My Monster Mayhem was the last of the four books. This one is about a superhero girl who has to fight monsters in her house with wonderful names like Scrapadapadocus, the Limbobo and Noctanonoes. Zac found it “too scary” – he “didn’t like the monsters” (this is a child who sleeps with the bedroom light on – the main light, not a nightlight – so I wasn’t going to push it), although he did love the bath scenes with the drain-dwelling Biver Quiver. There was one particularly frightening sequence, with a nearly dark page showing a beastly shadow, then on the following page, a many-eyed ogre who said “BOO!” It even made me jump!

Some of Zac’s reactions may have been down to a lack of enthusiasm on my part: these books didn’t really grab me. We’re used to a diet of the peerless Julia Donaldson (The Gruffalo, Zog, The Snail and The Whale), who has rhyming tales down to a fine art, so it’s hard not to compare the two writers. Donaldson’s couplets flow beautifully, bouncing along with no extra syllables, rhyme perfectly, have beautifully-structured stories with wonderful characters, and and are a joy to read, and wonderful to listen to.

So, from my point of view, it’s hard for other rhyming books to match up to the standard of hers, although these characters did have some interesting quirks. Anita’s books are full of fun and great ideas and adventures, but they’re not as well-crafted as Donaldson’s – they don’t read as smoothly (see lines quoted above). They’re  are also too wordy and long, in my opinion  – not that I’m one to talk; self-editing is not my strong point.

The illustrations were an interesting mix. My Monster Mayhem was sort of in the style of Dr Seuss, with eccentric-looking beasties, and other books from the same era. We’re big Dr Seuss fans – Green Eggs and Ham is a great book for a keen young bookworm like Zac to flex his reading muscles - so that was good. The cronky car pictures were nice, friendly illustrations, although there were too many similar pictures of the car stuck in traffic – labouring the point somewhat. Art is very subjective, I know, but personally I didn’t like the illustrations in the other two books. In the hair book all the faces looked bizarrely like Viking masks, and the pancake book ones were  too CGI-cartoony.

Having said all that, these books have some nice touches, such as word searches and spot-the-differences in the back, and find the creature hidden in pages throughout the book. Each book has its own app with various zippy interactive features such as objects you can find and move around, which my kids loved, roaring with laughter at the meowing cat which frightens the mum at the start of the My Monster Mayhem app. Nail-painting and changing hairstyles are probably of more interest to girls than boys – the books are more girl-oriented in general, with all-female protagonists.

I think whether or not you buy these books comes down to how you choose what your children read – is it you or they who make the selection? I mostly buy online, picking ones I’ve been recommended by friends, or by authors we already know. Living in Spain, English books are prohibitively expensive, so a trip to a bookshop when we’re back in England is a big treat. And our local library there is heaven, of course – they can take exactly what they want. I don’t know if my kids would go for these books if they saw them on the shelf – that’s the real test. The covers are great, as you can see, but the content didn’t win me over, and my children weren’t convinced either. Check out Anita’s website (see below) for yourself and see what you think.

Pancake Pandemonium, Mum’s Cronky Car, My Monster Mayhem and Oh, What a Tangle! are all published by Digital Leaf as both paperbacks and ebooks priced £5.99 and £2.99 each respectively. The apps cost £2.99; all except Mum’s Cronky Car are available now; MCC is out in early December. See Anita’s website for more games and activities.