Thursday, 21 February 2008

Fiona Pitt-Kethley: Life in Spain

This blog is intended as a source of information on my life in Spain. It contains pictures of my family and pets and others related to my hobbies. I also have several other blogs listed in my profile that contain more specific data on the area I live in.

I am the author of twenty-one books - poetry, novels, travel, anthologies. My most recent book was the Selected Poems published in 2008 by Salt Publishing.

My life in Spain includes cat rescue, mineral collecting, karate, hill-walks, snorkelling, concerts, kayaking and fishing. My son took the photos of me with cats included.

In 2002 I moved to Spain with my family. Initially we were in ex-pat land - Playa Flamenca near Torrevieja. In 2006 we moved to Cartagena and love it there. We have a collection of adopted feral cats. At the moment we have eight. Feral cats are extremely intelligent and independent. When things are not to their liking they move off to another colony. I adored Lucia but she took exception to veterinary treatment and vaccinations and decided to return to the wild. Deaf Amazon moved off after beatings from her brother, Dragon. Sonny Chiba left after a big fight with Shen. Apart from the cats I think of as mine, there is a feral half-Siamese female who visits for leavings. Currently all my cats are male. At the moment we have Jet Li, Dragon Lee, Pedo de Lobo, David, El Gran Wyoming, Sherlock Holmes, Leopold and Chuck Norris. The cat in the photo below was Mofeta. Unfortunately he was shot (RIP). He was a great cat who helped to mother incoming kittens

Here are Dragon Lee and Mao Ying (RIP). Dragon Lee was the son of a feral cat but born in a house unlike most of the others. His family - ex-pats - subsequently dumped the rest of the litter.

Jet Li, below, was dumped in a road in Playa Flamenca at a few weeks old. He was so small he could fit in the palm of your hand. He weighs about sixteen pounds now but can still run very fast. He loves drinking water in the shower. He is what is known as a "suckler". Many cats who lose their Mums young take a human substitute and suckle from their neck or inside elbow on a regular basis. Jet started breastfeeding from my husband then went over to my son´s neck. He then sucked the necks of almost any boy who entered the house. He sometimes knocked them down first then pounced on them on the floor. He wasn´t interested in suckling from girls.

Bruce Lee (shown below) was given to us with his sister by Joe the Cat Man, a great guy who rescues cats and is involved in animal charities in the Torrevieja and Quesada area. They were feral kittens whose mother had been run over. Unfortunately both Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan died of leukaemia. We taught them both to skateboard while we were living in Playa Flamenca. Bruce lasted till he was almost 10.

Below is an old photo of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan with their leads skateboarding alongside our son one night at our former home. Bruce Lee used to enjoy a walk on a lead. We don´t do that where we live now though as there are feral dogs as well as feral cats on the streets.

Bruce kissing Mofeta

This is Lucia with Mofeta when they were extremely young

Shen came free with the house as he was living on either our roof or one of the adjoining ones. He was half-Tonkinese, half Siamese. He died recently at about nine or ten years old. RIP Shen.According to what info we could glean, some kittens from his litter found homes before the owners of the pedigree parents moved away from a house in Los Mateos, the next district. Shen was dumped as he was a biter. He moved himself to Santa Lucia and roamed the roofs for years before choosing to enter our house. It took several months to make friends with him. Feral kittens are much easier to domesticate than older cats like Shen.
Our only failed rescue was a kitten whose mother was shot soon after she had given birth. Ourselves and a couple of other people tried to hand feed the kittens in the few days afterwards. But all died one by one. RIP Torrente. We buried him on the Sierra Minera by Mao Ying, a friend of Jet, who died from panleukopaenia, we think, the year before. We are building a little cairn of stones over them, adding to it each time we visit the area. Bollux (a visiting feral) and Shen now have their own piles alongside.

We also have David (found by the bins) , El Gran Wyoming, Pedo de Lobo, Leopold and Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes got his paws under the table by impersonating a kitten.. Didn´t find out he was older until the vet looked at his teeth. Chuck Norris is the youngest at nearly 2.

Pedo de Lobo (puffball mushroom/wolf fart) is the smallest. We wanted to find a home for him but the son pointed out he doesn´t take up much room as he sits on other cats. Here he is on Jet. We have told him he can keep Pedo as long as he tells the next person who turns up with a starving moggy to eff off. We call Pedo Pedro if anyone polite is around.
Leopold was found limping in the middle of a busy road. Son stuffed him up his T-shirt and brought him home.

Sherlock Holmes

My husband, James Plaskett, former British chess champion and grandmaster, more often attends Spanish chess tournaments at weekends. He is also the author of a book and a blog on Coincidences.

He is on the left here in a tournament in Mutxamiel:

And here he is in a rare bonding moment with his son on a temporary ice rink.

And here he is taking a tandem jump.
We were told he had somersaulted in the air on the way down having forgotten to open his arms...He looked so ill afterwards I thought I was going to lose him. I have begged him never to do it again!

Occasionally we travel with him to tournaments but more often we engage in other activities. After moving to Spain I developed new hobbies. I love Kyokushin, the toughest form of karate. We went for 3 courses in Barcelona. Here´s a picture of some members of my class there. I am far left bottom row, followed by Begoña, Nerea, Federico. Our teacher, Antonio Celdran, is in the middle. The rest of the row are Eneko, Alexander (my son), Luis and Achmed. The course tutors are in the back row. People in the Martial Arts have a great sense of humour - one of the things I like about this hobby. The course usually ends with us going into the freezing sea in our karate gear. When we have dried off and warmed up there´s an evening of drinking and dirty joke telling...

When I first started the class about half its members were Russian or Lithuanian. There are many Eastern Europeans in Torrevieja. Now the class is predominantly Spanish. Mixing with Eastern Europeans in karate and the chess world has left me speaking Spanish with a Russian accent! My strange accent is proving very hard to lose but at least it is a good talking point! Our son speaks Spanish like a native thanks to several years in state schools. He can drop in and out of the Murcian accent as three years of his schooling was in the Alicante region. Murcians tend to drop s and d almost completely.
Alexander had to play a clown called Zanahorio in the school play, El Planeta de la Sonrisa, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am beginning to wonder if he will be a comic when he grows up. He now has many hours´ worth of mucky Spanish jokes on tap that he tells on mineral excursions and the annual karate course. Here he is in the play:

More recently he played a detective in his theatre clas end of year play: "El Asesinato de Bolo".
He competed in karate tournaments in Barcelona occasionally. Here´s a picture of him winning one. He´s holding the cup.

I am now brown belt. I had twenty fights as well as hours of combinations, katas, press-ups, etc. for the last exam.

Another hobby I acquired in Spain is rock-collecting. We started visiting the Sierra Minera by bus at weekends while we lived in Playa Flamenca. Eventually we moved to the area and I am slowly writing a book on it. The history of the mines dates back to the times when the Iberian tribes were trading with visiting Phoenicians.

Here is a picture of a trip we took to the barite mines of nearby El Gorguel with friends from a local mineral collectors´society. We are towards the right side wearing yellow helmets.

In June, 2007, we took a wonderful trip to Pantoja, near Toledo, with this club to search for acicular Aragonite in a quarry there. In May 2009 we went again. The aragonite is running low but it was still a good trip.

Here is a picture of us keeping a stall at the monthly mineral fair at San Vicente del Raspeig near Alicante.

We man a swaps stall at the huge mineral fair in La Union over Easter.,59&r=AgP-13552-DETALLE_EVENTO
We lunch in a nearby hotel with many mineral dealers from all over Spain and meet some fascinating people. My son gets on particularly well with the son of a meteor and meteorite specialist from Leon. Interesting family with an unusual line of work!
In May 2008 we went to the Fuentes de Ebro near Zaragoza to search for selenite in the alabaster quarries. Alabaster is very hard and we hammered our hands a lot. The trick to finding selenite is hammering a lump or bump off an alabaster boulder and hoping for a geode with crystals inside.

It was another fascinating trip. My son managed to win an essay prize with a piece about it. When the weather is hot our excursions are closer to home. We have an annual ritual of going to Maria Dolores in Llano del Beal in August and eating Haagen Dazs ice cream inside. The ice cream stays rock hard it is so cold and we have to wear jackets. It´s a straight tunnel that runs for at least half a kilometre into the hillside. There are several branches leading off the tunnel. One of the first has aragonite walls.

One of the oddities on my to do list was to play a minera (traditional Flamenco mining song) in a mine. We did this on our last visit. Here´s the son holding my ipod and his speakers while we play a few songs at the end of the Maria Dolores tunnel.

Last year we went to the Los Serranos quarries in Albatera with our group and came back with plenty of pistacite.

The picture shows Ginés, Eliecer and Fuensanta, Juan and myself.
We also had a wonderful trip to Navajun in the Rioja province for pyrites. It was a unique experience - fabulous local food as well as the minerals.

Hill-walking is a hobby that runs alongside mineral collecting. One of my favourite areas is the highest part of the Sierra Minera, known as Sancti Spiritu. I mine opal there. Here is a photo of some of the wind generators above the San Valentin quarry.

An interesting shorter walk can be had up a hill known as Cabeza Rajao. This was one of the earliest mined areas and has a volcanic crater and interesting industrial architecture. I have taken many photos of the old mining architecture and machinery there and elsewhere on the Sierra Minera. I am putting together a separate blog including many of these.

Another favourite walk is the road that runs over the Sierra Minera between Llano del Beal and Portman. For the first couple of kilometres there are interesting mining remains. The road goes through a section of the Calblanque Park which is a nature reserve. It is used at weekends by mountain bikers, occasional walkers and riders. The first two and a half kilometres is steadily uphill. The horses we saw were totally bathed in sweat by the time they reached the summit which has wonderful views.

I also enjoy the flora and fauna of the area. We eat fungi and figs when these are in season. The figs of the Sierra Minera are renowned for their sweetness. When they are ripe there´s a noticeable increase in the size of the local pigeons. The local prickly pears are also pretty good. There are many unusual birds to be seen and scores of lizards like this pair I spotted near La Union.

From May to October I enjoy snorkelling off Cala Cortina, our nearest beach. Most of our neighbours in the Santa Lucia part of Cartagena are Spanish fishing families. We also fish a little in the local harbours. Nothing tastes better than Cartagena cuttlefish seethed in olive oil with garlic and parsley. Well, maybe octopus freshly caught and cooked a la Gallego...We have also learned some very interesting and colorful language from the other fishers. We greet old friends at the harbour. I particularly like the guy who brings 24-year-old Jumilla wine down and passes the bottle round...

Cala Cortina has both deep and shallow waters and natural reefs. There´s a wonderful array of different fishes. Last year we followed a torpedo ray around, occasionally moving it on with our flippers, unaware it could have given us a shock.
Once a year one of the local diving schools, Hesperides, gives free lessons in a pool outside the sports store Decathlon. My son loves this. He is longing to take a PADI course but cannot legally in our region of Spain until he is 18.

Cartagena is a wonderful city for free or cheap culture. In our barrio of Santa Lucia there are free Flamenco concerts in the summer. Chano Lobato was the opening performer in 2007. He was 80 years old but still an amazing singer. RIP Chano Lobato. 2008 we saw Capullo de Jerez and 2009 Parrita. They were all wonderful singers. I now have quite a few of their CDs. The first and biggest concert is always held in the fishmarket. The smaller events take place in a little square opposite El Pinacho Bar. You can savour a one euro bottle of beer and a freshly barbecued pork roll while listening to some fabulous singers. The concert usually finishes with the singer stepping forward in front of the mike and singing unaccompanied. These artists have an amazing volume that carries for many hundred metres and a subtlety and tunefulness that would put many classical singers to shame. They are usually accompanied by the superb La Unión guitarist, Antonio Muñoz Fernandez who is from a dynasty of Flamenco singers and musicians. My son now goes to school and is friends with his cousin who plays guitar and cajon. He is giving my son some tips on the right fingering for playing a cajon. The minute a teacher leaves the room they start practicing on their bellies or on the desks.
June also brings one of my least favourite fiestas - San Juan. My son loves it though. All the local kids buy large quantities of explosives and light bonfires around the city. Many years ago, a guy in his eighties told me, they used to burn an image of Juan and Juana on the bonfire. These days it´s all unwanted furniture and building pallets. Many illegal firework shops open up around the town -women selling boxes of fireworks from their front rooms for a little pin money. The police don´t close them down because their children would complain. Some of the fireworks have good names like "abejas borrachas" - drunken bees. Some are just extremely loud. It´s an unnerving sight seeing all the local toddlers on the streets at midnight armed with cigarette lighters and bangers that look like sticks of dynamite...Miraculously they avoid injury but the fire brigade has a very busy time putting out fires on local scrubland throughout the night and the next day. Here was our nearest bonfire:

In June there is the Cartagena en Clave festival followed by the Mar de Musica festival in July. Alongside the more expensive events are also a few free ones. Here is a group of dervishes from Cairo.

This year there were some wondferul free concerts by Chiwoniso and others. We also went to see Rokia Traore and Oumou Sangare - both fabulous singers from Mali. At the beginning of August there is the Teatro del Mar festival. Comedians from all over Europe are invited. Paul Morocco from the UK was one of the funniest. We also enjoyed Ukrainian clowns, Spanish theatre and a Belgian mime. In 2008 I loved Ennio Marchetto and Sit by Clownic (3 Catalan clowns). In 2009 The Familie Floz was definitely the finest show. It may well have been the best theatre I have ever seen. The problem is that one or two shows cross with the start of the Cante de las Minas festival in La Union and concerts in Santa Lucia. I always like to watch the final concert in La Union where the finalists compete for large money awards and the Miner´s lamp, a prestigious accolade in Flamenco terms. It´s a big event that starts at 10.30 and goes on till about 4 in the morning. I particularly love the sad Minera songs about life in the mines. Cartageneras are also a similar sung and poetic form from the area. A local shop called Carrots runs a terribly tempting stall outside with rare Flamenco CDs. Other stalls are run by friends from the mineral world. My son always manages to cull some free samples. A friend called Mariano Miranda makes models of mining machinery that he sells there. He uses blacksmith´s skills to make exquisite small-scale replicas of wheels, carts, etc. The carts are filled with mini pyrites collected from a local mine. When my cats are older and less frisky I shall buy some of these. At the moment they break any ornament I am unwise enough to leave out.
In September, Cartagena is over-run with five thousand citizens dressed as either Carthaginians or Romans for a couple of weeks.

There are many historic pageants, a Roman market and an encampment area with themed tents for each legion. The whole city looks like a scene from one of the Asterix and Obelix films. There are some spectacular firework displays.

Our favourite event is the mock Senate meeting as this is extremely witty. The actors use an up-to-date script with loads of jokes about local and national politics. That´s one event I shall attend every year. I also like the final carnival. If you get a strategically placed seat at a point where the procession has to turn a corner you can get an amazing amount of loot - free T-shirts and sweets are thrown and certain legions pass out free liqueurs. Amstel sponsors the event so there are usually some free beers at various events. Sometimes there´s a free sardinefest or a giant paella. The best trick is to get there very early and chum up with the person next to you in the queue so that you can fetch each other free beers while saving a place.

Some of the other barrios have their own festivals. Santa Lucia is quiet by comparison with nearby Los Mateos which is filled with party animals. My son enjoyed their celebrations which included a foam disco for kids that went on to two in the morning. Other events included chasing a greased pig or climbing a lubricated lamp-post after a Serrano ham. Not to mention loads of music and bingo. There are several houses for sale in the square where all this goes on. Wonder why... After attending some of these events last year we were too pooped out to go to the free all-night meatfest. We heard on the grapevine that 200 people had managed to down 300 kilos of sausages, chops, etc. off the barbecue then finished with a breakfast of churros (deep fried sugary doughnut strips) dipped in chocolate. I don´t think we yet have Spanish stamina... In 2008 the final coincided with the last concert of the Cante de Las Minas, meaning that we were able to have a supper of longanizas and panchetta on the way home at about 3 in the morning!

Cartagena puts on a short festival of concerts in historic buildings. We heard Cecilia Berganza (daughter of Teresa) in an old palace owned by a bank and Beethoven in the Fuerte de Navidad, an ancient fortification with canons. That last concert was reached by boat which added to the experience. More recently we heard a Murcian group, L'Incontro Fortunato, playing Mozart and Haydn on old instruments. The fortepiano player was a marvel -
and the Hilliard Ensemble

My son wanted their autographs after the concert and managed to blag his way into going to dinner with them and ten of their Spanish fans. We all ended up eating a lovely array of tapas in La Tartana near Calle Mayor. They are charming guys as well as great singers. An unforgettable night.

Two of the Spanish men we met that night were in the orchestra of a group called La Lyra Hispana. We saw that company´s production. Duelo de Divas on the 26th March. The early music world is a small one in Murcia. I suspect we will keep bumping into the same people at concerts across the year. It´s a clever show about two divas at war with each other. It´s put together from several different Handel operas. It would be a wonderful introduction to the world of opera for any child as it´s funny and good to look at. My son was rivetted.
The November Jazz festival is another must. I only started going in 2009.
As my Spanish gets better I have also learned to enjoy stand-up comedy. We saw a marvellous series of stand-up comics from all parts of Spain in a small bar called Yo Que Se in the village of Alumbres. Spanish comics are generally ruder and more over the top than Billy Connolly. As with many of the concerts in Cartagena these evenings were free. Bar-owners and the city officials have a wonderful talent for getting their events sponsored by banks and TV. There is also an annual show by comics from Paramount Comedy in Teatro Circo every year. This is an event you pay for but the theatre was packed. I have never seen it so full for classic theatre or music.

A recent addition to the festivals of Cartagena has been the "Ruta de tapas".
The nicest thing about the tapas trail was that it took us into many new restaurants we had never visited. I have put together a blog on the subject of Cartagena restaurants;
I started visiting Cartagena in 2002 and it has steadily improved. There´s an impressive array of museums and some charming Art Nouveau architecture to contrast the Roman and Punic remains. An architect called Victor Beltri did most of his best work in the city. His buildings can be seen on this page:
I have also started a blog on the city´s architecture. More photos will be forthcoming in the near future.
I once went skiing with my son. I am about as bad at skiing as it is possible to be, my son took to it like a duck to water. Here we are with some of our group - members of a diving club in Cartagena! Even though I am probably the world´s worst skier I had fun as they were a good group of people.

Son went skiing with his father this year but they forgot to take pictures.
In March I took a course in the local modern art museum on the influence of Barcelona on Cartagena in the Modernist Movement. I have always liked the Modernist Architecture of Cartagena and now know a bit more about it. The best lecture by far was that given by Guillermo Cegarra Beltrí, the great grandson of Victor Beltrí.
In April 2010 both the son and I entered the Ruta de las Fortalezas. He ran 15km - the most allowed at his age - and I walked 50km. There were 2000 walkers and runners (some though were doing it in relays of 5). Only 1350 finished. A few hundred of these were miltary personnel. My time was terrrible - 12 hours 13 minutes - I managed to come last. It was a fascinating experience but a painful one. The views of the fortifications were stunning and the Spanish Infantry provided a great atmosphere of camaraderie. The first 30kms was easy enough but the rocky route up to Castillo de Atalaya was chosen and I had no walking pole. I completed the rest, including the ascent of Roldán, on willpower alone. Couldn´t have done it without the encouragement of the soldiers.!/album.php?aid=162814&id=683331917
The next year they changed the route to 51 kms and 5 mountains because some bastard said it was too easy. In 2011 and 2012 I was disqualified at about the 10 hour mark as you have to get to the foot of the last mountain at a specific time. One year I migh make it again!