27 Nov 2011

Hunting smunthing

To our utter shock and horror, we ascertained a short while ago that we have moved to a country where hunters live. Yes, hunters, in a European city, with huge guns.
This story actually starts some time ago, when I used to walk with the red dogs in farm lands very close to our house. We loved it: dirt roads, no traffic, the red dogs could run loose and smell SPANISH THINGS (it appears that everything smells different here for the red dogs, that’s why we have to stop at all the random spots where other dogs walked, breathed, sat, had a wee and a poo in the last century).
So the farm land walks were wonderful.
Until the day a strange looking hairy old Spaniard came galloping towards the red dogs and I on his horse and started shouting at me, in Spanish (which I could understand, yes, it is similar to alien language which I could speak from birth – please note the sarcasm).
Of course when I returned home, I spoke to a friend who told me that this shouting Spaniard was probably trying to warn me that hunting season had started, which means that anything that moves in the fields are fair game and as such, I should avoid the farm roads. I was astonished; firstly, clearly there is a difference between one standard human, two red dogs, and wild game? Furthermore, one would think that there would be enormous warning signs everywhere warning people about the hunting season, but apparently not. It appears that this knowledge is part of the book of knowledge that Spanish children are born with. Foreigners don’t get those books.
About one week after this event, my husband and I were woken up at some ungodly hour (on a Sunday), with the sounds of people shooting guns. Admittedly I did not know what this sounded like, but for some reason my husband does…
Apparently we live in an area where these shooting events take place regularly. Later that day, we went walking with the red dogs, on proper non-farm roads, when we spotted a group of 4x4 vehicles parked in a little field between houses. Of course being the nosey people that we are, we spied on the 4x4 vehicles and their occupants for as long as we were able to.
For the record, I come from a country where people hunt as well, with huge guns, camouflage gear, lots of alcoholic drinks and meat for the braai, in order to shoot some game. Not that I ever partook in these events.
Now, in the town we live, hunters seem to behave in a similar fashion: the 4x4’s were grouped closely together, the hunters were in full camo gear, bearing huge guns, their whippet dogs sitting quietly next to them… whilst they were sipping their coffees and eating the baguettes and gammon. Yes, I admit, I was already in stiches with this: clearly hunting in the European fashion requires some serious style. However, here is where it becomes even more interesting: of course the camo gear in necessary, the hunters are hunting in a farmed field full of cut corn, it is therefore of tantamount importance to blend in with the corn, but of course, since the wild rabbits and birds that they are shooting will spot them a mile away if they are not in camo gear. Indeed, they hunt rabbits and birds. The mind boggles.
As such, I have learned a couple of lessons which I have no problem in sharing with you:
1.    Walking on farm roads can be seriously dangerous for your health.
2.    Clearly some Spanish hunters have a size issue: from afar, the red dogs and I could be mistaken for rabbits and birds.
3.    It is safer for my health to stay at home and have more wine.

10 Nov 2011

Driving on the wrong (or is it right?) side of the road...and trying not killing any Spaniards

One of the most terrifying and difficult aspects of moving to an EU country like Spain, for me, was not the difference in culture (yes, they are not Africans. Duh.), or the language (nothing is in English. Nothing. If it is in English, it’s because you are a tourist and you will pay for the English), or the strangeness of it all. Nope. The biggest problem for me thus far was this whole driving on the other side of the road business.

When we moved from our furnished loft apartment to our house, we realised we needed wheels, and quickly. Yes, indeed, the metros and trains do not go everywhere. Of to Renault we charge with a friend who helped us through this maze of Spanish bureaucracy and red tape, to buy a car. Or two cars that is, the husband needed one for work, I needed one for the rest – shopping; going to my English classes; dragging the red dogs of to the vet and the like, you know, the little housewife stuff.
The first few weeks I was so scared of driving on the other side of the road, I point blank refused. Of course this meant the husband had to drive everywhere and between trying not to kill pedestrians and shouting at the Tom-Tom (my husband is convinced the Tom-Tom is out to get us. When we are driving anywhere in Madrid, and highways criss-cross each other - which they do in Madrid, a lot – then the Tom-Tom looses signal and tells us to execute a U-turn now. On this Highway. You can see where this is going. My lovely husband then turns into Chuckie, the crazed one), I realised that for the sake of my marriage and any future children we may have, that I need to drive on these crazy roads.

The first couple of weeks were completely insane.
When I tried to change gears, I would grab the window next to me. The ability to park completely evaded me, if I had to parallel park, I would stop four blocks further away just to avoid it.

Then I had to learn to watch out for pedestrians, since here they have right of way. That is fine, but the problem is that a lot of pedestrians start crossing the road a couple of meters before the crossing, or, and this has happened, they would just not look and start walking, so, for example, I would be on the pedestrian crossing, since they were not even close to where the crossing begins, and they would increase their speed to land in front of my car. So not only do you have to watch for pedestrians crossing the road, you have to watch for pedestrians possibly thinking of crossing the road. Trust me, this is not easy.
In addition hereto, this town is one big roundabout. I drive from my house to where I give class about 30 kilometres away, and there is one traffic light, but about 25 roundabouts. Now, the rules of the roundabout here are quite simple: you can do whatever the hell you like. If you enter the roundabout at 6o’clock, and want to exit at 3 o’clock, you are welcome to be on the inside lane of the roundabout. That does not sound like an issue, but then the other driver who enters at 6 o’clock, and exits at 9 o’clock, is allowed to be in the outside lane. You do the math.
Lastly, I have to avoid certain Spanish drivers. I do not mean to insult my host country but I would like to know how certain people obtained their driver's licences? Lanes are changed without indicating, I have seen drivers execute an emergency stop in the middle of a highway to change lanes, and for some reason the mimimum speed limit appears to be a goal. I have also seen more accidents in parking lots than on the roads. Apparently parking is not always tested when the practical test is done. Right.
Thus far, I am pleased to say, I have not killed or maimed any Spaniards, as far as I am aware (and if I have, I don’t understand Spanish, so I don’t understand their shouting), nor have I collided with anything.
One would think I have had my driver’s licence for three seconds. I have not, I have been driving for more than 10 years, but, alas, for the Spanish system this means nothing, of course. We come from Africa and this means we cannot drive. We were riding elephants a short while ago, what do we know about cars? I may just vent for a second here and inform you, my dear reader, that Algerian drivers licences are acknowledged in Spain. Algerian. Have the Spaniards been to Algeria in the past 50 years? I seriously question the logic of that decision but it has something to do with the Spaniards trying to rule the World at one point, which of course included Algeria, so now Algeria and Spain are friends. Wonderful. Why did the Spaniards not come to South Africa? It would be a lot easier today. Yes, admittedly we would have had an Anglo – Boer – Spanish war but come on people, at least I would have a valid driver’s licence.
So this means that the Engelas have to redo their licences. We have completed our classes, and now have to write the theory exam, and then do the practical. I am pleased to state that the Americans have to do this as well, therefore I don’t feel as prejudiced. Sorry my American friends. Therefore, this saga is not finished and I shall report on our administrative and financially crippling adventures regarding obtaining our EU drivers’ licences in due course.
In the meantime, I have to go, I am leaving the house in two hours which leaves very little time to plan my 30 kilometre route in order to be exposed to as little roundabouts, highways, Spanish drivers and pedestrians as possible. This could mean I have to take a 60 kilometre detour but for the sake of my own sanity, I am prepared to make these plans. Otherwise I may have to move to the Moon.

6 Nov 2011

This cooking thing, she is not as easy as she looks

After this weekend of taking care of a broken husband (he tore his left leg hamstring, I of course think it is hilarious that his boss asked him if playing cards is not a more appropriate sport for a man his age), and keeping the red dogs calm due to jogs having to be planned according to the rain (yes, I hate walking and jogging in the rain!), I am contemplating not only housewife duties, but more specifically, the whole business of cooking and baking. Due to our housebound state, I have been cooking and baking this weekend, and survived this ordeal. Yes, I admit, this sounds like an advertisement. And no, I don’t want an apron thank you. Not yet, anyway.
I, as a previously full time working singleton and later wife, had no qualms about the fact that I was what you would call an average (at best) cook. At university, my limited repertoire was spotted within weeks of sharing a flat with a (still) good friend (clearly she accepted my limited cooking skills as one of those things, possibly because I was a good drinking and partying buddy), when we, together with two other friends of ours, decided to at least have four “proper” meals a week, in other words, each person cooked a meal once a week. After the first three weeks, the girls realised that I could only make sticky chicken and macaroni cheese. Needless to say, my first birthday present was a cookbook. I am still too scared to look at it, but it did make the move from South Africa to Spain.
After finishing university, travelling and starting my articles, I met my husband, but still had not improved my cooking skills, unless making a killer salad, being able to cook pasta, perfecting oven roasted vegetables and making edible sandwiches, counts as cooking, which I strongly suspect does not.
Pretty soon into married live, my husband and I (good heartedly) made certain ground rules: I was not allowed to touch meat (meat should apparently not be burnt black); I was not allowed to make eggs (those damn things can get quite rubbery) and rice was just a no-no.
My husband, bless him, can cook, and for this I thank my mother in law. My husband and his sister each had a “cooking turn” over weekends. I assume that this meant a whole lot of toasted cheese sandwiches, but still. My mother in law had foresight; she knew her son would marry me, the worst cook in the world.
My husband is one of those people who just loves the creativity of cooking, which drives people like me crazy: he can just look at the cupboard or fridge and make a meal. I would look at the same cupboard and fridge, and promptly jump in my car and race to Woolworths. On this point I place on record that I think I have individually succeeded in making the shareholders and directors of Woolworths very, very damn rich. Bastards. But at least my alleged cooking skills “improved”.
Through my married years, I received a couple of kitchen utensil gifts which I always eyed with suspicion, put away in the cupboard for a rainy day (I mean, what is a pressure cooker for?), and still shopped at Woolworths.
How was I supposed to know that the rainy day would be when we hopped, skipped and jumped and ended in Spain. Without Woolworths. Without Mrs. Balls Chutney.
Suddenly, I was completely and utterly out of my depth.
Firstly, I, for example, loved the “Cook in Sauces” that was sold everywhere in South Africa, any stew tasted wonderful. Of course, I took credit for this. Sorry. Now, sauces are made from scratch. That’s fine, I can live with that, but to find the items on the Spanish shops can be quite a challenge, it seems people here are not that fond of spicy food. So, the learning curve for making sauces has commenced. I have found one sauce from a good friend, my husband thinks it is the best sauce ever. However, now I hear horror of people making their own stock. Yes, indeed, people do that. I shall not even begin to consider such a bold step, thank you very much, Oxo stock it shall be.
Secondly, recipes are quite stressful I have realised. I tend to follow a recipe down to the last gram, but I now realise that it is not always possible to have the exact same ingredients in this country, and as such, I have to improvise. Yes, my throat closes up at this point and I grab the closest bottle of alcohol I can find.
Thirdly, I have started finding out the purpose of a lot of these kitchen gifts: I think a pressure cooker is wonderful; my slow cooker is working overtime; I at long last know how to use the garlic press; I now use that Verimark “Twista” thing, and I even went and bought new pots.
Around Halloween I tried for the first time to make an oxtail stew, in our slow cooker, and I was gobsmacked that my guests did not go running for the hills. None of the sauces where homemade though, sorry, but I had bought them myself.
Today I was very bold and tried a completely new recipe, Coq a Vin. This means chicken and a box of wine. I was horrified by the smells emanating from my kitchen, but, the guinea pig (my husband), after tasting some of this new creation, promptly announced that I am the best wife in the world. This may be due to the fact that I have to help him get back up one flight of stairs, into bed, with his pills and cream on his torn ligament, and therefore I am in a position of power, but I would like to think it may be due to the fact that the food is edible.
As such, I have developed a very sound respect for woman (and men) that can cook and bake, and with such grace and ease that it seems effortless. But, as I read somewhere, it is apparently a skill that requires trial and error. I really hope that there will be more trials than errors in my learning curve, but I do know that the red dogs will not mind having some of the errors.

3 Nov 2011

Adventures of the two red dogs: Chapter 2

The red dogs have had an enormous culture shock due to our decision to move to Madrid – not only do other dogs apparently speak Spanish (which, it turns out, is a minor problem for the red dogs, they are much larger that most Spanish dogs, so their sense of superiority is firmly in place), they suddenly have to (and this is an “bad” word) EXERCISE.
Let me explain why this is such a shock. Our dogs lived in the lap of luxury in South Africa, they had a huge garden, they chased the gardener (to be petted, not to eat him), they also chased every single unsuspecting person who dared to walk in front of or in close proximity to – which included the immediate 10km radius around our old house - our front gate and as such, and generally they did not go for long walks. Yes, Mr Dog Whisperer, I admit, I am the worst dog owner ever; I did not exercise the dogs regularly. In my own defence, I would like to state for the record that most days, we left home before sunrise and arrived home after sunset.
In Madrid, I work only part time and since we have a small garden, the red dogs have been exposed to a vigorous work out every day. The transition from determining their own exercise regime to falling into my exercise regime has been a battle of the wills. At the beginning, they could hardly walk up our hill close to our house. Twenty minutes into the walk, they would drag their feet, their tongues would be extended past their feet and they would lie down in an attempt to stop the torture. This lying on the ground technique works very well, since they will only move if it is backwards towards casa Engela. Since I cannot carry a combined weight of 100 kilograms, they had the upper hand.
Of course, admittedly, their wilfulness worked very well for this unfit writer.
Now, three months later, the red dogs and I love our daily walks, we have conquered the hill, and the next one, and now we walk and run for about an hour and a half every day. I admit, I would some days love to not walk or run, but the red dogs have all their senses tuned in when such a thought crosses my mind, they start bumping into me, stepping on my feet and generally fledge a full scale war to drive me crazy, in order that I succumb to their will to go for a walk.
The walks are also quite adventurous, since we encounter all kinds of wildlife: crazy cyclists with dogs tied to their bicycles going for their daily run (I am in awe by the good behaviour of the Spanish dogs, I would be flat on the ground, with the bicycle wrapped around my ankles if I let the red dogs do this); parental cyclists who have their children in a little seat on the back of the bicycle (the red dogs are in awe by the good behaviour of the children); joggers (both the red dogs and I are gobsmacked by how fit most Spanish people are, we can only hope to achieve that level of fitness) and dog walkers (again, both the red dogs and I are in awe: Spanish dogs are not on leashes, generally, they walk and run freely and listen to their owners – I can only imagine the havoc the red dogs would create if I let them loose, I shudder at the thought and hold their leashes tighter). We also once encountered a car with six Whippets running next to it: the Whippets were tied to this bar extendable thing and running quietly alongside the car. I got a death stare from the red dogs at that, but I am still not prepared to even try that. The only time we encountered real wild wildlife was a little rabbit along a farm road, the big red dog sniffed and sniffed but to her credit, did not bite or bark or scare the little rabbit to death.
As such, the daily walks are (mostly) not negotiable at all, however, the red dogs are aware that if they refused to go for a walk, I would probably also bump into them and step in their feet.
I must admit, however, that on this cold rainy day, the red dogs and I are tucked underneath our blankets and refuse to go for our daily exercise, who on earth would walk and run in the rain? Not this human slave or the red dogs…

1 Nov 2011

Happy Halloween (Or is it Galloween?)

We did not know that Halloween is celebrated in Spain.
Yes, we may be completely daft but I was under the impression that Halloween is an American tradition. I have however been corrected quite a number of times this week and was told by someone that Halloween is an Irish tradition, and by someone else that the Irish are wrong, Halloween is a Scottish tradition. Where I got the short end of the stick that it is American, I don’t know.
The point is, Halloween is celebrated in Spain, with pumpkins, spider webs and creepy monster creatures appearing everywhere (no, I am not referring to my dirty house or myself in this description).
The entire week during my “fun” English classes (a topic for another day), the children for the first time became excited during class, possibly because they were making Halloween decorations and cards, both activities which require very little English input. Score one for Ms. Michele. This of course does not mean that some children did not cry or throw tantrums; I was just able to bribe them to behave like children and not like a scissor throwing, physically violent, screaming mob. Of course the childrens' level of English is so good, that when I explained about Halloween, I only got a reaction when I pronounced the H as a hard G.
Last night for the first time in my life, children were ringing our doorbell asking for candy. The red dogs were quite astonished and became extremely confused as to why little devils and witches are being allowed in our property, and they cannot eat them. Clearly my double standards are a point of dispute with the red dogs but be that as it may.
As such, we were dishing out some very expensive Belgian chocolates because of course we did not know we need to have a vast amount of candy available for strangers and their offspring who we have never met before. Luckily some friends arrived with a bag of candy, which was not some expensive Belgian chocolate brand. As I was handing out the candy to the well behaved children (I don’t know how children in other countries behave during Halloween and when trick and treating – or in Spanish, truco y trato), but here, they are extremely well behaved, you must put the candy in their goody bag), I could not help but wonder if these parents are aware that their children will be bouncing of the walls for the next three days. As such, and being the evil (alleged) witch that I am, I handed out extra candy.
I may just point out that my lovely husband at one point during the night commented that I can fit in quite well with Halloween, I don’t need a costume, just my broom. I would be careful with my home packed lunches this week if I was him.
As such, and in order to support my host country and the (American? Irish? Scottish? Spanish?) tradition of Halloween, I have decided that next year we shall partake in this event but not only dressing up and possible scaring ourselves half to death, but the red dogs shall promptly be made part of the cast, with, I think appropriately, little red devil horns and pumpkin baskets tied around their necks. Any child, devil, witch, nurse, zombie, skeleton, monster or other creepy creature that is willing to get the sweets out from the pumpkin basket, is welcome to it. I shall have a recorder ready, DVDs shall be on sale in 1 November 2012.