Sunday, November 30, 2003

I fancy I have read somewhere that the Spanish are the most anti-American people in Europe. Perhaps in John Hooper’s excellent book, ‘The New Spaniards’.

I am reminded of this by some statistics quoted in this week’s papers. In a recent poll, 57% of Spaniards confessed themselves to be worried about the consequences of American unilateralism. This was significantly higher than even the Germans and the French. And more than double the percentage in the UK.

I can’t say that I understand this, not having seen any evidence of this attitude since I came here 3 years ago. Perhaps it goes back to the Franco era. Or even further, to the war between Spain and the USA at the start of the 20th century and the subsequent loss of Spain’s last colony, the Philippines. Or to fears [or resentment] about the USA’s alleged economic imperialism. I have heard each of these mentioned, albeit all by the same single individual, who might not be totally representative. As they say, a sample of one is always useless.

On a happier note, I am impressed that the Spanish national press contains articles on the current depressing events in Northern Ireland [are there any other?]. It strikes me that the UK press does not accord Spain the same honour of reporting on tensions between the central government and both the Basque and Catalunian autonomous communities.

Finally – a possible sighting of another gerund…. ‘stepping’. This is the aerobics exercise, of course. But I have a suspicion it is more of a French than a Spanish usage. Vamos a ver
It is strange how beliefs about other societies can take so long to change. Despite the fact that it has long since ceased to be either the heaviest or the highest circulation serious newspaper in the UK, The Times is still seen in Spain as the most influential of the British broadsheets. So there is much wringing of hands in the Spanish press about its decision to bring out a tabloid size edition. Needless to say, the Independent’s initiative in doing this a few months ago was never reported on at the time. Or even now. It seems pretty clear that none of the Spanish commentators have ever read Mr Murdoch’s dumbed down and increasingly sensationalist Times. At least not for several years. The decision seems totally appropriate to me.

One of the more arresting sights of modern Spain – where Archbishops’ opinions are still sought by TV interviewers - is the number of roadside brothels just outside each major town. These days they are not called American Bars but Clubs and they nearly always have their name emblazoned in garish pink neon lights. I have sought opinions on this from Spanish friends but have never gained a clear view of whether they are legal or not. My guess is that they are but that the employment of foreign workers without papers certainly isn’t. I base this judgment on the fact that every now and then the police raid a local establishment or two and arrest the owners for employing illegal workers. The usual excuse given is that the owner of the ‘hotel’ was simply renting rooms to the 20 or more foreign ladies and had no idea what they were using them for. Or that they lacked the right papers.

One strange thing about brothels in Spain is how openly Spanish males talk about them. And about visiting them. This contrasts with my experience of never hearing a single Anglo Saxon friend mention even a massage parlour. Perhaps I have led a sheltered life. Or perhaps it is a reflection of British hypocrisy. Or perhaps there is an absence of shame about the activity in ‘Catholic’ Spain. Quite rum, really.

Friday, November 28, 2003

A couple more gerunds in today’s papers:-

Rafting – white water rafting, fairly enough.

Puenting – jumping off bridges [puentes], usually with a bit of rubber attached to your ankles. This nicely combines English and Spanish to make a word which exists in neither language. Spanglish, I guess.

When I wrote that Spanish society has an unusual immediacy, I meant to add that it was also an oral culture. But I suppose these are much the same thing. Both are quintessentially ephemeral. The oral aspect reminds me of an old boss of mine who responded to my first memo to him by taking me aside and recommending, paternally, that I avoided writing things down in future, especially minutes of meetings. This way one could always deny that one had said or agreed to something, whereas written evidence narrowed one’s options somewhat. I now wonder whether he had Spanish blood.

The papers today feature David Beckham getting his gong yesterday at the Palace. The way they report it, he has joined the British nobility and is now only a hop, skip and kick away from the knighthood he so richly deserves for scoring one goal this week and making another, ensuring that Real Madrid went through to the next round of the Champions’ League.

In the week in which Madrid Zoo’s celebrated albino gorilla was put down and the ‘father’ of Basque nationalism passed away, I read that several places in Spain are seeking to remove the latter’s name from their street signs and replace it with the former’s. Not sure what this says about Spanish society.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

I have been musing about the question of why things just don’t happen in Spain. You know what I mean – the letters you write are never answered; the offers you make are never taken up; and the promises made by travel or estate agents, for example, are never fulfilled. It strikes me that this is the other side of the coin to the problem that you can never rely on any acceptances to a dinner you are giving or a party you are throwing. Behind all this lies the fact that the Spanish very much live in the here-and-now. Both the past and the future matter much less to them than they do in other cultures. This, in turn, may owe everything to the fact that Spanish culture places so much emphasis on simply enjoying yourself to the maximum. How can one make a credible commitment on Wednesday to an event on Saturday when you have no idea whether or not you will get a better offer in the meantime? And all of this falls under the heading of ‘How the Spanish deal with time’. As has been said – possibly quite frequently – this distinguishes them from every other nation on earth. In essence, there is an immediacy – and quite possibly superficiality – to Spanish society. If it isn’t happening right now, it neither has nor probably ever will.

So, if you want something to happen here,:-
1. Don’t write a letter or make a phone call
2. Do deal face-to-face and do get as much specificity as you can, and
3. Take along a friend or relative who knows the person you want something from.

In Spain, it s not only time which is unimportant. So is anyone who isn’t a friend.

Of course, it won’t always work but it’s a start.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Like every other (legal) resident in Spain, I have an identity card. And I am obliged to carry this with me at all times. This is just as well as it bears my identity number and this is something for which I am frequently asked. Sometimes this is because your identity number is also your tax reference and the recording of the number – e. g. on the invoice for a car you are buying – helps the tax authorities reduce fraud. At other times – e. g. when you are picking up a parcel at the post office – I suppose that one can construct a reasonable case for having to quote it. But in many other cases, I get the impression that you are asked for it simply because, like Everest, it is there. And because the Spanish have an ingrained love for (or at least acceptance of) formalities. To say the least, this is irritating. It seems to me to be the result of an obsession with proving identity here and I often wonder whether the situation is the same in other countries where identity cards are compulsory. If my experience is anything to go on, it is virtually impossible to pay for anything with a credit or debit card in Spain without producing photographic evidence that you are the person named on the card. This is usually done by showing your identity card. I wonder whether the Blair government, in its eagerness to introduce cards, is aware of the risk of the creeping ‘identificationism’ that is likely to stick in the craw of Brits unused to these regular flea-bites.

When I first came to Spain I didn’t yet have an identity card and my driving licence was one of the old British ones without a picture. After the first time this was rejected and I found myself unable to take away the trolley-load of groceries I had taken from the shelves, I pasted a small photograph of myself on one side of the licence and this passed muster every time from then on. Of course, it didn’t prove I was the owner of the credit card or the licence but I didn’t let this bother me. More recently an old friend of mine visited and quickly came up against the problem of proving his identity in a local supermarket. When asked to provide evidence of his identity for one credit card he simply offered another credit card with the same name on it. The checkout girl rotated the card so that she could get a good luck at the hologram thereon and accepted it. Later both us agreed that he didn’t actually bear much resemblance to Francis Drake, with or without a feathered hat.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

I think it was V S Naipaul who wrote about how he was forced out into the traffic while crossing a bridge in Madrid. As I recall, the response to his angry remonstration was along the lines that he should go back to his own country since Spanish culture did not recognise an obligation to cede space to others. Never a truer word! Scarcely a day passes without me having to stop to avoid someone who has abruptly changed direction. Or who has emerged from a shop to join the pedestrian traffic. Or has decided to turn off to go into a café across my trajectory. It all rather reminds me of the drivers in Tehran who used to take all the mirrors off their cars to demonstrate that it was the responsibility of other drivers to anticipate their every move. Nowhere in the world can cultural norms be expected to be consistent with each other but this behaviour is squarely at odds with the fact that the Spanish, both young and old, display far more of the civility and good manners that used to be associated with the British. But in this one area, at least, they do seem to be lacking in social antennae. Or even just a sense of the existence of others. I don’t think it’s a question of consciously denying other people their ‘rights’. I‘m convinced it’s just an absence of any awareness that they are there! Spanish individualism??

Friday, November 21, 2003

There is no real tabloid press in Spain. But there is a ‘pink press’. This concentrates on the lives of those who pass for celebrities in Spain, most of whom (it has to be said) are unknown outside the country. The TV version of this innocuous nonsense is the ‘discussion programmes’ which dominate daytime TV and which compete ferociously with each other. These are fronted either by very attractive young women or by older women whom, I am assured, used to be very attractive before age, cigarettes and the sun wreaked their cumulative havoc. These programmes usually feature a line or semi-circle of guests who either talk excitedly in turn or – far more usually – all at the same time. The decibel level is always high and occasionally arguments or even fights will break out. Mind you, it is often hard to tell, as most Spanish discussions resemble arguments, even on the heavier programmes. In fact, the Spanish verb ‘discutar’ actually means to argue. Anyway, the depth of these programmes can be gauged from the introductory chat to one this morning. On a day when Sky News was full of pictures of bloody terrorist atrocities in Istanbul and Baghdad, we were told in solemn terms that the programme would be showing the pictures the entire world had been waiting for – Michael Jackson in handcuffs.

The programmes do, though, reflect Spanish society in one very significant way – they make a fetish of conversation. Talking is something the Spanish do a great deal of and there can be no doubt that they are very good at it. The seriousness with which they regard it can be discerned from a tale told to me this week by my elder daughter. She was discussing different cultures with a group of female teachers in their 40s. During this, the Japanese were dismissed as a very boring race, the members of which preferred to visit tourist sites and take the same pictures in lieu of having a drink, going for lunch and, yes, just chatting. The inference was clear – to the Spanish, talking has the status of a valid hobby or pastime. I did fleetingly ask myself whether it would appear on Spanish CVs but immediately realised that, unless other activities such as pot-holing, transcendental meditation or solitary praying were listed, it would naturally be taken for granted in respect of every candidate.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

One of the little things that one has to get used to in Spain is that service can not only be slow but snail-like. More often than not, this is because the waiter or bar tender feels a certain compulsion to demonstrate – quite rightly – that his or hers is not a servile trade. It doesn’t make much difference whether one is a regular or not; things have to proceed at their appropriate pace and one might as well get on with something else while they do. Nothing is going to accelerate them. So this morning my coffee took between 8 and 10 minutes to reach me from the machine directly in front of me. Before serving me my regular morning order, Carmen felt obliged to not only finish the dishes she was washing but also to have a long chat with one of her colleagues about how she was getting on with her new responsibilities. If it wasn’t for the fact that – being an above-average tipper - I always get a double helping of the statutory biscuit or mini-croissant, I would begin to wonder whether it was something to do with me. But it isn’t; it is everything to do with the Spanish concept of nobility. Very Old European.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Down at La Barca supermarket, customer service continues to be a concept that eludes the staff. I went there on Saturday morning at 11, to discover that this was, naturally enough, a busy period. As a result, there were no trolleys left outside the entrance in the mall. No problem, I thought, as we will soon be able to avail ourselves of the stack of trolleys that were being brought up from the underground car park (or ‘el parking’) as I came up the escalator. No such luck. These failed to arrive and the imperious advice we got from the diva at the desk was that there might be some trolleys outside in the street, if we cared to look. I didn’t. And neither, it seems, did the several stooped old crones in black who were staggering around the place burdened with at least two of the plastic basket alternatives to the trolleys. On the way out, I passed the line of trolleys abandoned at the top of the escalator at the end of the mall. The collection crew were out in the car park, with another line of trolleys, taking a cigarette break. Customers? What customers?

Monday, November 17, 2003

To say the least, the Spanish are not the most exact race on earth. One of the first expressions one learns is ‘Más o menos´. Or ´More or less´. This is what accompanies every forecast, prediction, promise and, indeed, restaurant booking. “12 people at 10pm” can easily turn out to be 4 at midnight. So it is all the more astonishing that every statistic in the papers is given to at least one decimal point. More usually two. So, today’s elections in Catalunia resulted in voting shares, we are told, of 36.27%, 33.46%, 15.79%, etc. One struggles to understand the rationale for this. Maybe it reflects the fact that no-one much believes any statistics here, so a specious validity is sought by providing numbers apparently accurate to two decimal points. Some credence for this view is given by the fact that the results of the last election were only given to one decimal point. As these numbers are now pretty irrelevant, it doesn’t matter whether anyone believes them. So accuracy is not even suggested.

Talking of accuracy, a correction – a face-lift is actually a ‘liftin’, not a ‘lifting’. Pro- nounced ‘leefteen’. My apologies.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

A couple more gerunds:-
- ‘Un peeling’ is a scraping of facial skin, understandably.
- Stretching’ is aerobics

Nuptials nonsense: One of the heavier papers yesterday ran two pages on the brain chemistry of the couple, explaining just what it meant for them to be in love with each other. Apparently his [male] brain operates differently from her [female] brain. Limited by the experience of only 2 sisters, 2 wives and 2 daughters, this came as a great shock to me. Meanwhile, on TV various experts were dragooned in to tell us – on the basis of ‘scientific’ examination of her voice patterns and body language – that she had been quite nervous in their first public outing together. Another huge surprise. And these are the papers which routinely refer to TV programmes as ‘tellyrubbish’. Perhaps, after all, we will get real tabloids here one day.

As a result of the recent global analysis of royal goings-on in the UK, I am now regularly asked whether it is true that Charles not only has someone squeeze paste onto his toothbrush but also employs the same flunky to hold his willy when he urinates. The original version of this last sentence was …’squeezed toothpaste onto his brush’ but something told me that this would only contribute to the media frenzy, given the millions who read and mail on the snippets in this blog page. Thank-God I noticed it.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Prestige oil slick disaster. One of the papers has stressed that none of the various measures proposed – special harbour, more tugs, etc. – has yet been introduced. If it happened again tomorrow, Galicia/Spain would be just as exposed to the consequences. There was another good cartoon today. It showed pictures of the various organisms that are affected in various degrees by the hydrocarbon residues. Some seafood was said to be very affected and some relatively unaffected. The most unaffected organisms were national and local politicians.

The nonsense has begun over the royal wedding of the Prince to the journalist. The Palace denied today that the contract for the nuptial flowers had been given to ‘a Mexican’. The Spanish do like to keep things ‘in the family’, even at the expense of higher cost and lower efficiency.

On a lower note, the papers today say that 63 woman have been killed so far this year by their partners. This is a very prominent topic here and I’m not sure whether this is because the incidence has risen significantly or because the crime has attained greater political importance. Quite possibly both, I suppose, as traditional Spanish males struggle to accommodate female emancipation and modern Spanish women make more noise about it. Spanish women are good at making noise, generally speaking.

The Spanish have a growing love affair with the English gerund. They use it even when the word means something else in English. Or doesn’t even exist. So, ‘footing’ is jogging. And ‘mobbing’ is harassment at work. And ‘un parking’ is a car park. This week I have come across a new one – a ‘lifting’ is a facelift! In a similar vein, they appear to have adopted the word ‘light’ [as in ‘Coca Cola light’] but to have given it a negative connotation. Last night I listened to a discussion about ‘padres light’. This turned out to mean bad parents, i. e. those who don’t fulfil their obligations to their kids. I like to think of myself as a ‘father heavy’.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

I realised today that I have written 3 letters since I came here 3 years ago offering free assistance. The first was to a local school’s headmaster, offering to give English talks to the pupils. The second was several months ago to the British Council in Madrid, offering whatever they might want in Galicia. And more recently, I wrote to the mayor here, offering to provide assistance with tourism matters. To none of these have I ever received a response, though I met the mayor in the street a week or two ago and he acknowledged my letter and said he would be in touch about an ‘association’. He hasn’t been. I like to think that all this says more about Spanish manners [and perhaps their efficiency] than it does about my qualifications!

Talking about the local mayor, it has struck me recently that mayors in Spain are vastly more important people than in the UK. Does anyone know who the local mayor is in the UK? Or even the head of the town or county council? The local papers here are full of the actions of the town council and, especially, the local mayors. I says ‘mayors’ because every little village and town has one. We have one in Poio, as well as one in Pontevedra. Of course, I suspect that the local coverage of the mayors’ activities may not be unconnected with the finance that keeps the local papers going. There is a raft of these and each of them is daily. It is very hard to see that they are kept afloat by their circulation numbers and advertising.

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

OK, if you have got this far, there's a fair chance you have enjoyed what you have been reading. If so, you can catch up with earlier jottings. These are under the heading of 'Things Spanish' on my web page -