Our first Galician Christmas

By our past UK standards we had a very busy Christmas, despite Galicia not feeling at all Christmassy. There is very little of the UK's bloated festive commercialism here, instead it is a time for families, eating well and having the odd party (which last the entire night).

The main celebrations take place on Christmas Eve (Noche Buena), New Years Eve (Nuevo Ano) and the evening of the 5th January (Los Reyes). Although Christmas day itself is a holiday there are no real celebrations as although Santa does visit, he leaves just a single small gift, with the major present giving courtesy of the three Kings on Epiphany.

We'd planned to be a bit Spanish, presents excepted, and have a slap-up dinner on Christmas Eve followed by a picnic on the beach (or in the car if it was too cold to sit out) on Christmas Day. Then in a lapse of concentration Amanda invited one of our Spanish friends, Dolores, to join us for Christmas Day lunch.

And then, of course, we'd no option but to go the whole hog and cook turkey with all the trimmings.

Despite a colossal Christmas shop (and not all of the expenditure on alcohol), we were still short of a few crucial ingredients. We'd got a turkey (thanks to Lidl), but were short of bread sauce and stuffing, but the biggest impeding disaster was an incomprehensible scarcity of sprouts.

The stuffing emergency was resolved thanks to our friends Stephen and Kay, whose sister had come for Christmas armed with two packets of Paxo, one of which was kindly gifted to us saving me processing loads of chestnuts and scouring the countryside on the almost impossible task of finding some sage.

Cloves, also provided by Stephen, and bay leaves picked from our own land, allowed me to make my own bread sauce which tasted very average on Christmas eve when I made it, but which matured brilliantly overnight in the fridge, to be just as good as I'd hoped when re-heated on Christmas Day.

The last missing ingredients were the sprouts which we managed to locate in the fourth Ribadeo greengrocers shop that we visited, almost on the verge of abandoning the quest. Here, I acquired all that they had left (two for Dolores, one for Amanda, and enough to sink a battleship for me) for a measly sixty-three cents.


Everything came together perfectly, even without Heinz Salad Cream for the Marie Rose sauce to compliment the lovely big Galician prawns in a cocktail. It was all washed down by a superb 1994 Rioja Grand Reserva which had travelled back to Spain from England when we moved here.

Dolores loved the stuffing, bread sauce and Yorkshire puddings (which we threw in for good measure) and declared the whole thing delicious. She was somewhat bemused by the Christmas crackers (again imported), and didn't get the jokes, but was amused by her 'gift' of a hair-grip despite having hair almost as short as mine, and Amanda being gifted a 'whoopee cushion'.

On the Saturday after Christmas we were invited to our architects for a pre-New Years Eve, New Years Eve party (as they were going to be in Iceland for actual New Years). It was like visiting royalty at their beautiful Pazo in the heart of the Galicia countryside where we drank well and ate better and conversed until making our excuses at five AM while the party was still in full swing, no doubt being called English 'lightweights' by the remaining guests.

For New Years Eve we attended the hostal at 'O Teixo' with our neighbours and their two children and again had a fantastic night, eating twelve grapes at midnight and then wishing all our English friends 'Happy New Year' by text message a clear hour before Big Ben chimed in 2015 in the UK. This time we weren't the first to leave but the party was still going strong when we left at five-thirty.

With thick heads and eyes held open with match sticks we joined Stephen and Kay for a New Years Day clifftop walk to blow the cobwebs away and we finally got that sunny picnic that we'd been promising ourselves since Christmas Eve.

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O Christmas Tree!

There is a romantic yuletide notion about country living, one borne out by countless films, TV advertisements, festive cards and music videos. It is that you can just wander up into the forests, fell your own Christmas tree, and carry it home over your shoulder to the appreciation of your wife to be adorned with baubles, lights and tinsel.

ideal christmas tree

I am sad to report that it doesn't happen anything like that!

Admittedly we'd left it late when we enquired of our neighbour, Elena, the best place to buy a Christmas tree. She shrugged her shoulders, enquired as to our preferred genus, and then suggested that we just go into the forest and get one. I smiled, but I'd instantly visions of incurring the wrath of a distant neighbour, which would develop into the kind of blood feud that would run through generations, the kind where the original reason was lost in the mists of time. Amanda and I looked at one another, with that knowing spousal look that while this sounded like the most romatic of ideas, we'd just go to a garden centre and buy one.

But mid-way through the following morning Elena arrived, gingham smock and all, carrying a deadly looking scythe and offered to take us 'tree hunting'. We donned our work gear and boots and trudged off into the hills on a two hour, ultimately fruitless, quest.

Nothing we saw matched our (Amandas) expectations. Every candidate that looked great from a distance looked rubbish from close up. They were all; too tall, too short, too bushy, too sparse, or simply too inaccessible. Elena got bored of the 'picky English' and we called it a day, thanking her for her help.

Tomorrow, we decided, the last Saturday before Christmas, we'd go to a garden centre and get ourselves a lovely Christmas tree, and all would be well with the world. Well, that was the plan.

After three garden centres, and a 100km round trip, the penny dropped. Galicians don't do real Christmas trees, and if they do, then they have already bought them way before the last Saturday before Christmas. Now I had a depressed Amanda and I was in the doghouse, as though it was solely my fault.

After a very quiet and contemplative lunch  it was after three in the afternoon and we'd one last throw of the dice. I chucked a saw, the axe and the chain saw in the back of the car and we set off for a remote hillside that we'd spotted a couple of days earlier while out driving.

And this is where the reality deviates, at 180 degrees, from the romantic notion. Where your brain now pictures lightly falling snow, the jingle of bells in the distance and small cottages with warm glowing lights; the reality is waist deep brambles and gorse, midges and mosquitos looking for a dusk time snack, and wild boar tracks indicating that we were far from alone.

After considering and debating the merits of twenty plus candidates we settled on a five metre tall pine tree, just far enough away from the road to be out of sight of any approaching traffic, and on level enough ground for me to be able to swing an axe unencumbered. We didn't want a five metre tree, but the top two metres looked as though they would make an acceptable festive decoration (to my eyes at least).

Trees don't fell as easily as you see in the films. Instead of three blows with a mighty axe, it took more like fifty-three, but eventually it fell, and to Amandas surprise it toppled in the right direction. I quickly lopped off the top two and a half metres with the saw and slung it over my shoulder for the perilous expedition back to the road.

Cut and bleeding from countless lost battles with brambles, tree stumps and gorse we were almost at the road when we heard a car, the first to pass us for about an hour. I dropped the tree and tried to look like a rambler  despite being up to my elbows in undergrowth. It was the post-mistress, but thankfully she didn't stop to say hello.

The tree just fitted in the car and we got it back to the barn without further incident. I spent the night expecting a knock on the door, which, once opened would see me face to face with a shotgun wielding local who would then accuse me of 'tree rustling', pointing at the two and a half metres of evidence overnighting in our wood store.

But fortunately the knock never came.


Today we put it in its bucket and adorned it with baubles and glittery things (well Amanda did).  It is now surrounded by the gifts which our families so kindly gave us before we left in November.  Amanda isn't particularly happy with the tree but accepts it is probably as good as we could get with six days left to the big day.

I think that it looks smashing, very rustic, and almost worth all the scarring to my lower limbs.

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Banging Heads with Bureaucracy – Part I

We've been living in Galicia for just under a month and already we've been outed to our neighbours (in a country which lives to gossip) as 'electricity thieves', and it's not our fault.

This is our first real 'run  in' with Spains' legendary bureaucracy, and I fear that it won't be our last, hence the title of this blog.

Let me try and explain.

When we had the barn watertight, we brought in a local electrician to do the installation, which included re-siting the meter by the road (a legal requirement), and we also asked him to change the name of the account to myself, and double our 'potential' (the amount of electricity in Kw that we can use concurrently). Everything seemed to go well, with the installation at least, however the bill remained in the previous owners name and the potential down at a lowly 2.2 Kw (just enough to run a washing machine without blowing the main fuse).

Within the first week of us being here we spotted an engineer at our meter and Amanda went to speak to him thinking he was taking a reading in readiness for a new bill, but she returned to the house in a blind panic as he told her that the meter had been disconnected, and that we were stealing electricity. He would now report it to his company and politely informed her that it was likely that they would cut us off.

Very alarmed, in a house where everything is electric, we called the electrician who came straight over. He was as confused as us. He'd installed a new meter two years ago which had now disappeared and a new meter was in place but not connected to the electricity supply. He called our supplier who confirmed that they were aware, and that there had been a problem with the meter which their engineers had disconnected it to test.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed we would be able to cook tea, have a warm shower, and preserve the food in the fridge and freezer. We waited, admittedly a little nervously, for an engineer to attend and reconnect our meter.

A fortnight passed before a most unexpected development.

The previous owner, who lives locally and whose name is still on the bill, and who speaks no Castellano (only speaking the local dialect, 'Gallego'), sent her son with a report from an engineer who had been out the previous day. In our absence he made out a formal report about our 'electricity theft', giving it to the neighbour, whose name is still on the bill. He was far from happy saying we'd landed his elderly mother in legal trouble, and after I worked out what it was, so was I.

We called the electrician again and he just said it was sorted and not to worry about anything. But he wasn't the one with a pink form from the engineer bearing accusations of 'theft' or the one facing the prospect of cold showers and sandwiches by candlelight!

Another week on and we still don't have a resolution, despite a letter to the electricity company demanding that they call us immediately.

It looks like the second engineer has reconnected the faulty meter as it seems to be showing random readings about the level of our consumption and our constantly exceeding our potential.

Much as I've tried to be logical in investigating the readings I've seen messages suggesting that we are over-using from a high of 130% to a lowly 29% above our potential. Some of those readings were when we'd nothing whatsoever switched on in the barn.

It's a relief every morning when the lights work and we can boil the kettle for a brew, but just in case we've stocked up on firewood and candles.

It could be a very romantic, rustic, Christmas! (But I'm not sure Amanda will think so).

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When is a pharmacy not a pharmacy?

After fifteen years of being cared for by the excellent Donaldsons in Thongsbridge, firstly under the care of Rhona and latterly tended to by Roberts' healing hands, Bonita now has a new Spanish vet in the form of Maria Jose at Hospital Veterinario Tapia in Asturais.

And it seems that she couldn't be happier.


Needing to get a stockpile of mediaction to try and manage her newly diagnosed heart problems, we searched the internet and asked neighbours for advice on veterinary services. All the local vets are, quite understandably, large animal vets and the two closest domestic vets were both a forty minute drive away.

Research into the nearest showed that the first service that they listed was 'grooming' and with the surgery looking more like a pet food shop in the photos, we decided to look a little further afield to Hospital Veterinario in Tapia. We'd passed this place several times on our drives to the airport and it looked clean and professional, with loads of vets and willing assistants.

So on Thursday we put Boni in the car (much to her disgust) and set off, credit card already trembling in my wallet, to get her registered and let the vets give her the once over.

We were quickly acquainted with Marie Jose who took over an hour (I could hear the meter running ever louder as the hour progressed) to give Boni a proper medical including two x-rays of the dodgy heart. She then went over her medicines to check dosage and prescribed the same for us to continue to 'manage her condition as well as we already are'. We were told to schedule in another appointment in about a month for some blood tests and sent to pay, and we thought, collect her tablets.

They only had one of the prescribed items and wrote us note for the others to take to a pharmacy. We double checked...a pharmacy? Yes came the response.

Boni safely home, and sleeping off the excesses of three hours without a single catnap or toilet incident, we went to the local pharmacy still expecting to be laughed out of the place when we asked for cat pills. But it seems to be the norm here, just in the way that you can buy almost any human drug over the counter without a prescription, and rather than guffaw the pharmacist just enquired whether it was for a cat or a dog!

And what did it cost? An hours' consultation and two x-rays was just sixty-six euros (£50) and the drug that they did have was £12, half the cost of the same pills in the UK. At the pharmacist we were asked whether we wanted a box of 30 or 60 tablets and after determining that they were both exactly the same price at £2, we opted for the 100% free option. These were 1/3 the UK price.

If only there was a pill to stop her waking us up at 5am to tell us that she's successfully used the litter tray!


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The little house that Amanda and Paul built

As we unloaded box after box from Hercules it became ever more apparent that in moving from an English three-bedroomed semi-detached, to a one-bedroomed, mostly open-plan, barn conversion, we'd simply got far too much stuff.

We no longer had a loft or a garage in which to dump the boxes of precious things that, despite not needing for the last sixteen years, we may need again at some point in the future. We have got loads of roofed space in the big house, but unfortunately that roof leaks into every room and the floors are the nocturnal play areas for mice, rats and goodness knows what other cardboard eating pests.

After hours of sorting, putting away and re-boxing we were still left with an unusable back-door, a porch stacked ceiling high, and possessions spilling close to the bottom of the stairs making ingress and egress to the ground floor a little tricky. It was an unsustainable situation and we knew it would probably be at least a year until we'd somewhere dry and relatively rodent free into which we could expand.

We plumped for the traditional English solution and we bought a shed.

After careful measurement and calculation we searched online and found a great little company in Almeria and purchased a 'Riveton' for three hunderd euros, delivered and sat back awaiting its arrival.

When I helped the delivery man lift it from his truck I was wondering where the rest of it was as a 150cm x 100cm x 25cm box surely couldn't contain a whole shed. Eager to get cracking I opened the box to be confronted by hundreds of pieces, a giant Meccano set, and sadly, as a child I'd only ever had Lego.

This time I did a very un-English thing and opened the instructions.

The opening page suggested that it would take two people just two and a half hours to build the shed, but I was pretty sure that Amanda and I weren't the two people of this fictional calculation. The person doing the calculation had not seen Amanda and I work together, and they probably assumed that I'd spent my youth engrossed in complex Meccano projects.

I decided that we'd need at least eight hours of daylight and so delayed starting until the next day.

Never has the building of a shed attracted such an audience. On one Sunday afternoon in early November, we'd become the only village spectator sport.

Carlos was fascinated, but I could tell that he was bemused as to why we wouldn't just do what he'd have done, and knock up a shed from timber off-cuts and a bag of six-inch nails. He spent hours stood in the doorway to the garage, watching our every move with an 'I wouldn't do it like that' look on his face. As it took shape he christened it the 'little house', and asked if we'd be spending the summer in it.

shedElena thought it was 'pretty', in its resplendent green, but was totally confused as to its future use, or why we were building a shed inside our existing ramshackle garage. Neighbour Nati simply thought we were mad and offered us space in her garage to store any boxes that were surplus to current requirements, but did warn us that it wasn't heated...as if she thought our shed would be!

Through many neighbourly interuptions, explanations, temper tantrums from both Amanda and I, and the aversion of a potential disaster (parts fitted the wrong way around early in the build, solved by brute force and a mallet rather than the removal of the entire roof structure), after six long hours we slid the awkwardly sliding doors closed and called it a night.

Teamwork had eventually triumphed.

The shed is now full to the gunnels of all the boxes that used to live in the loft and the garage in Huddersfield, which we'll probably never need, and which will stay in our new shed for the next sixteen years.

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