Tuesday, December 30, 2003

I read in El Mundo last week that a chap had been sentenced to 600 years in jail for some dreadful offence. The article added that, in the first five years after his release, he won’t be allowed to go anywhere near Logroño. I assume it was Methuselah wot done it.

What, I wonder, are the odds that ‘Methuselah’ would be accepted by Word’s spellcheck facility, when numerous upstanding English words aren’t? ‘Spellcheck’, for example.

There is an enormous affection for acronyms in Spain. Or perhaps just a necessity. Spanish words are rich with syllables. And sentences replete with polysyllabic words. So I guess it is not surprising that organisations have titles that are less than catchy to the Anglo-Saxon ear. And, of course, when you have a central government and more than 20 ‘Autonomous Communities’ [itself a good example], there are a lot of official organisations with names that have to be abbreviated if one is ever going to be able to get through a newspaper article. So… in one short read today, I was confronted with PP, PNV, EA, BNG, PHN, EH, UPN, PSN and PSOE. And that’s just a few major political parties. When they all start forming coalitions and then negotiating with the unions [ICV, PSUC, CiU, etc.], it’s like reading alphabet soup. I don’t know how they get by with just Labour, Tories and the TUC back in Britain. Or the UK, perhaps. Acronomyic deprivation, I fear.

What, I wonder, are the odds on Word’s spellcheck facility not accepting ‘acronomyic’?

On the theme of the day, I leave you with ANECA – the Asociación Nacional de Evaluación de la Calidad y Acreditación. This is clearly an organisation crying out to be acronymised. What are the odds, I wonder, on Word's spellcheck facility not accepting the word ‘acronymised'?

Monday, December 29, 2003

At a supermarket meat counter on Christmas Eve I suppressed the cultural instincts of a lifetime and jumped a queue in classic Spanish fashion. Wanting only a single item and having waited 15 minutes while one women went through her shipping order for the entire holiday period, I resolved not to go through a similar performance from the next customer. “Look,” I said, “I only want a duck. Can I take it and go?”. As I knew they would be, everyone was very good about this and acted as if this was the most normal thing in the world. As it is in Spain, of course. Perhaps this is because, when everyone is taking things at a leisurely pace, it's recognised that it's only fair to give way to the occasional sad soul in a hurry. Whatever, this is one of the numerous ways in which the Spanish are more pragmatic than the more uptight British. But what an effort it took on my part to go native! I can’t swear to it but I suspect I apologised profusely as I left, which would have left everyone quite dazed.

And so to Mass on Christmas Day, in company with my Catholic daughter. Looking around, it struck me that she was quite probably the youngest person there - and that it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that I was next. Fittingly, the altar boy was at least 80. Equally noteworthy was the profusion of fur coats, adorning possibly 70 per cent of the women. Truth to tell, God had been kind and - with a temperature of zero and glorious sun – had provided ample justification for this apparently compulsory display of elegance and wealth. Perhaps it was this that had brought out the serried ranks of beggars who lined the long steps up to the church door. Going in, I had feared that they might even outnumber the congregation.

And that’s it because I’ve lost the notes I surreptitiously made when my daughter went up to Communion.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

The papers today are overflowing with details of the winners of El Gordo. I’m still not sure I’ve got a good handle on the numbers but it does seem that the winning ticket paid out close to 200 million Euros. This, though, was split amongst several winners in various parts of Spain, each of whom had bought a bit of the ticket. I guess the most [only?] noteworthy aspect of all this was that much of this year’s winnings flowed through a particular outlet in the North East which, in the last few years, has sold tickets which have garnered more than 600m Euros. Suitably enough, it is called The Golden Witch.

I did some last-minute Christmas shopping this evening. Just me and everyone else in a country which specialises in procrastination. My daughters pointed out that one of the things which made it relatively easy was that the aisles are two to three times wider than in the UK. This may be because account has been taken of the fact that the Spanish manipulate their trolleys in much the same way as they handle their cars. And, indeed, their bodies. Individualistically.

Monday, December 22, 2003

Well, today was the day of the big lottery draw – El Gordo, The Fat One. Several TV channels dedicated the entire morning to it. But I couldn’t take more than five minutes of some kids plain-chanting the numbers as the balls fell out of a very Sci-Fi-looking machine. So I have no idea where the big prizes have gone.

The papers today suggested that the payout would be in the region of 2.5 billion [yes, billion] Euros. Say, 1.8 billion quid. Of more interest to us non ticket holders was the news that the Tax Office will be putting the names of those who win 5,000 or more into a special database. These happy people will then be investigated to see whether their lifestyle has taken a disproportionate upswing. This is because some winners are known to sell their winnings – for a premium of 20% - to individuals who wish to launder black money. Even more interesting was the news that the Tax Office believes that introductions between buyers and sellers are routinely made by some of the banks. So they are naturally interested to know the identity of those individuals whose luck seems to be more regular than one might expect in normal circumstances. Thank-God I didn’t buy a ticket; I might just have won and entered into a whole new relationship with both my bank and the inland revenue!

Sunday, December 21, 2003

One of the things done tremendously well here is the wrapping of things you buy. Even the most basic commodity is carefully wrapped before being given to you. If you say it’s a gift, then appropriate paper, ribbons and bow are professionally applied. Free of charge, I might add. All of this can take considerable time, of course, and it is just one of the many reflections of the slower pace of life here and of the different attitude towards time. To be honest, it can be a bit of a nonsense and even a nuisance. Who really needs a small box of aspirins to be wrapped and then sealed with tape, all of which will be torn off as you leave the counter if your headache is bad enough? Or even if not.

It is a regular refrain of mine that I feel that I have seen everything now. Perhaps I have in the toy line at least. Last night, there was an advert on the TV for a doll which not only sits on the toilet and potty provided but, as we were shown, also farts and craps as well. Everything a trainee mother would need, though I suspect that papel hygenica is extra.

It was reported in Friday’s papers that, on the main roads, less than 50% of Spanish children are protected via a child seat. In towns, the number falls to less than 20%. As if we didn’t know. The European average was said to be around the 95% mark. A law making protection obligatory will come into force next June but one wonders whether it will make much difference. The Spanish affection for children is exceeded only by their love of breaking rules. Especially if they are not much enforced. It is rare that one sees adults using the belts that have long been obligatory.

Friday, December 19, 2003

The Spanish are a very sociable and effusive people. And so much given to exhortations such as, ‘You must come and spend a day on our boat!’. These expressions are well intended but, bearing in mind that the Spanish live only for the moment, what they really mean is merely ‘We are getting on very well and I really like you. Right now, that is.’ Should you want to convert one of these pseudo-invitations into reality, the onus will be entirely on you to force the pace. And you may experience some delays or changes of date, etc. If this goes on for some time, it’s safe to assume that the invitation has lost even its pseudo status. I am often reminded of someone’s comment about Bill Clinton - or was it Tony Blair? – ‘Was he lying? Well, I think it is true to say that, at the time he said it, he really believed it.’ The Spanish always mean it. But perhaps not for very long.

At this time of year, these exhortations are along the lines of ‘Why don’t you join us for our big Christmas dinner on 24th December’. Last year, I amassed at least three of these in December but by December 23rd still had no idea which, if any, were bankable. So, that evening I accepted a 4th from an English neighbour. I may well have been wrong but I took the view that he really did mean it!

Thursday, December 18, 2003

As Christmas approaches, the whole of Spain gears up for next week’s bumper lottery. This is called El Gordo (The Fat One) and, if my maths is right, a ticket cost 200 Euros. But you can buy parts of a ticket, down to quite a low price for, say, a 20th. The prizes are equally humungous and the press coverage correspondingly vast. Last year one of our local papers devoted 26 pages to it, including an analysis of where the prizes had gone in Spain and lengthy complaints that Galicia had deserved more after the Prestige oil slick disaster. This year there was a frisson of something a week or so ago when it was revealed that the tall, bald man in the national ad campaign was a Brit and not a Spaniard. I think the subtext was that Spain has quite enough bald men of its own, some of them quite possibly quite tall. This is in contrast to white-haired men, who are thin on the ground. As a happy snow-top myself, I am somewhat suspicious of this state of affairs and put it down to liberal use of pomade.

By the way, the average spend per person on the lottery in the Province of Pontevedra will be 50 Euros. We know this because the Government Tax Office issues the tickets on a quota basis to each region/province. Unlike in the UK, they must get their cut.

I had a curry dinner at my house last night for seven guests plus me and my two daughters. In the end, we had a mere three guests. This was because my elder daughter’s boyfriend had forgotten that he was playing a football match at 11pm (sic) and because the other three males turned up without their wives. Needless to say, no explanation or apology was offered, this sort of thing being common in Spain. No wonder legions of Spanish women ask me if it is true that British men make much better husbands than Spanish men. My answer is that it is all relative. Since the divorce rate in the UK is even higher than in Spain and since 60% of divorces there are initiated by the wife, it is clear that British women are not much happier with their spouses than their Spanish sisters. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine Spanish women being unimaginably happy with the British rejects. Especially if it is true, as claimed, that a whopping 40% of Spanish women have never experienced an orgasm. Perhaps there is a business opportunity here. Move over Russian Brides. Make way for British Hubbies.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Gerund watch: Two more sightings this week, one real and one illusory. The latter was ranking but this turns out to be not the gerund but the English noun used to mean the same thing in Spanish. The genuine article was un smoking . This is a type of jacket and the word has been in use for so long that it is sometimes seen in its Hispanicised form, un esmoquin.

A lovely vignette of Spanish life today. As I was coming out of the post office, I held the door open for a woman coming in. The woman behind me, clearly confused by something she had never seen before, moved past me straight into the path of the woman in front of me. Neither stopped, of course, and as they met in the middle of the doorway they performed the perfect paso pragmatico. This is a distant relative of the paso doble and involves nimbly sidestepping someone you are about to bump into without looking into their face and without saying a word. The nice thing about it is that no one loses face. I wonder if bullfighting started this way.

One of the obituaries in El Mundo yesterday was for the famous Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier, who apparently gave us the best ever interpretation of Desdemona. Today we had the equally illustrious German baritone, Hans Hotter. The others were of people rather less well known.

Saturday, December 13, 2003

The Obituary column of El Mundo is nothing if not eclectic. I may be doing little more than revealing the depths of my ignorance here but I am frequently surprised by the obscurity of the people who feature therein. These have recently included a Blues musician from the USA and a singing star from Egypt. Today we had the chap from Philip Morris who invented the Malboro’ Man, plus one of the leading lights of WorldCom, the disgraced telecoms business. Mind you, what I guess was his picture was entitled, David Hemmings, star of the 60s cult film, ‘Blow Up’. Maybe we will get the latter tomorrow, possibly identified as someone else.

In the Spectator this week, Alistair Campbell says that the questions he recently got from Ethiopian journalists were more intelligent that those he used to get from the UK press. I dare say the same would be true if he faced Spanish reporters. The reason is simple; in neither country has the media industry been dumbed down by anything like the egregious tabloid press of the UK. And what was Mr Campbell before his elevation? Why, a tabloid reporter, of course. And what techniques did he bring to the centre of British government? Why those of the tabloid press. Bit rich, him being critical now, eh?

An English friend of mine here was fined last week for not stopping in the middle of an empty road when he was turning left. Given the widespread flouting of traffic rules here, this was somewhat ironic. And rather unfair, we agreed. I thought of him yesterday when a woman – mobile phone in hand and seatbelt unfastened – zig-zagged past both me and the traffic cop on the zebra crossing I was traversing outside a local school. With impunity, of course. Things might have been different if she had had a child sitting on her lap, though I rather doubt it.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

I went back to the café last night to see if my umbrella had been put back. Naturally it hadn’t. A man came in with his wife and I couldn’t help noticing that his umbrella was identical to mine. After we exchanged glances – very loaded in my case – he sat for half an hour with the umbrella cradled between his knees. I mean, who sits holding an umbrella when they are having a coffee? My suspicions were confirmed but there was nothing I could do if he didn’t put it in the tray by the door. And he didn’t. I shall return!

Spain has at least two daily, national newspapers dedicated entirely to sport. Well, I say ‘sport’ but most of their pages are devoted to football [soccer], with the also-ran sports getting a brief look-in towards the back. These papers provide tremendous analysis of football matches in particular, including no-holds-barred ratings of each player’s performance. Reading these recently, I have noticed two words cropping up regularly, usually in articles about which mega-star Real Madrid are going to try to poach next, after Beckham. The first is ‘crack’ but as a noun, not an adjective. So ‘un crack’ is a star player. The other word is ‘galactico’, which speaks for itself and seems to mean much the same thing. Or possibly mega-star.

The other word which jumps out from these reports is ‘Mister’. This is what trainers [or coaches] appear to be called in Spain, especially by the players. So, really it is ‘Meester’. I suspect the Spanish think it is equivalent to Sir, as in Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson.

I saw Prince Charles’ Christmas card on Sky News today. Since this has him facing us with his two sons more or less lying on top of him, this will be proof positive to the Spanish that he is gay. They already believed the rumours but now they will be convinced!

Monday, December 08, 2003

El Mundo reported on Friday that a 425 million year old fossil had been found. The headline for its article referred to the world’s oldest male creature. The Daily Telegraph chose to headline this find as the 425 million year penis. Clearly, you don’t have to reduce the size of your paper to go tabloid. First the sensationalisation and then the down-sizing, a process that Mr Murdoch started with The Times about ten years ago in the UK and, as I have said, is now taking to its logical conclusion.

Here in Spain, the national press gives every impression of being unashamedly elitist. If they have ever faced the temptation to dumb down their contents, then they have successfully resisted it. Not for them the terror of being accused of addressing a white, male, middle-class, middle-brow audience. Or, far worse, of being ‘intellectual’. Middle-brow is the minimum they aim for. In El Mundo today there is an attack on the low-brow, celebrity-obsessed ‘pink press’ in terms which I doubt would have got past the editors of the Telegraph, Times, Independent or Guardian in the UK. Too much fear of losing a huge chunk of their readership.

Personally, I very much prefer my papers this way. But then I believe the world would be a poorer place without its elites. The fact that such a statement is controversial in the UK shows just how unbalanced society there has become.

Meanwhile, back in Spain, it doesn’t do to get too ambitious with your day. Some version of Sod’s Law – let’s call it ‘Paco’s Law – is always going to put you in your place. On Friday, I set out to do a number of things in Vigo and, indeed, en route to Vigo. Suffice to say, I managed to achieve about a third of them. The rest fell victim to something which, when I lived in Indonesia, I used to call The Random Equaliser. No matter how clever you are in planning your day, some dynamic which is perpetually at work is going to screw it up. ‘What Tourist Office?’ they asked me at the town hall. ‘The one mentioned on this brochure issued by the town council,’ I replied. ‘Well, perhaps there’s one in the morning but there isn’t one right now’. ‘What new city museum’? ‘This one pictured in this cutting. ‘Ah, yes. It’s 5 kilometres outside the city’.

When I went for my coffee in town yesterday someone took my umbrella. I suppose it’s possible that it was an accident but I was still very annoyed. My only compensation was to be reminded of an old poem I learned years ago:-
The rain it rains upon the just
And also on the unjust fella
But mainly on the just because
The unjust steals the just’s umbrella.

Friday, December 05, 2003

You do have to feel sorry for the Spanish government at times. While it fights off determined attempts by the Basque country to achieve some sort of independence from Spain under the umbrella of the EC, it is also fending off attempts by France and Germany to reduce Spain’s voting power under the new constitution for the same institution. In short, it is fighting against shrinkage both internally and externally. President Aznar used to think he had Tony Blair as a friend and ally against the big beasts of the EC, a disappointment which he must share with quite a few people these days, as the chickens of Mr Friend-to-All head for the roost.

Incidentally, Spain is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its own constitution this year. And the annual Day of The Constitution falls next week. It is hard for a Brit to empathise with this, given that we don’t even have a written constitution and probably wouldn’t celebrate it if we did. It gives the impression that Spain is a young country and I suppose that, in some ways, it is. But not in essence.

I will have to check this out but, having heard it twice now, I feel my understanding must be correct. A local radio station takes questions and complaints about local government from its listeners. But, along with their queries, the latter are asked to send in a photocopy of their identity card. I have tried hard but I cannot think of any common sense reason why this would be required. Is it the best example yet of the mind set which arises once cards are introduced? I can’t imagine it is anything more sinister. Not these days.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

I have to tell you this. I have been struggling with my underfloor heating system for 3 years - yes, you do need central heating in Spain; it is 7C here in Pontevedra today – and, having finally got the boiler to work, I am now addressing the issue of how the various valves work. I sent an email to Honeywell last night and have today received an immediate response. So used as I am to being completely ignored by Spanish providers, I feel like rushing out into the street with banners saying Buy Honeywell, or something similar. Naked, even.

Anyway, to get a little more serious, over the last few weeks – along with some Spanish colleagues - I have spent a lot of time dealing with the problem of a friend who has been living at the high end of manic depression. And I do mean both ‘living’ and ‘high’. This has brought me into contact with various nurses, doctors and psychiatrists working in the Spanish health service. The most noteworthy aspect of all this has been something that wasn’t actually there, not that I was looking for it. It just suddenly dawned on me yesterday that we had never experienced the sort of condescension one sort of expects from professionals in the UK. Even when my young Spanish colleagues argued vehemently with the medical experts. Simultaneously, of course. A class thing? Absence thereof, I mean.

Something else which dawned on me today – in 3 years, I have never used or received a cheque. In point of fact, I have never even seen one. It is as if Spain vaulted straight from cash to direct debit and debit cards. Possibly because no one would trust a cheque.

Gerund Watch – two more spotted this week:-
Un piercing. No explanation needed, though it means the adornment itself and not the operation to append it.
Un happening. Ditto, I guess

Back to the heating system – I have had more than 40 visits from the engineer in 3 years and I am still waiting for the findings of the trip he and his mate made up to my chimney a few months ago to check on the ‘draw’. This is obviously less than impressive but the good news is that I have yet to receive a bill from his company. I guess he is fiddling his time sheets. As if he has any!

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

In all cultures where the personal factor is disproportionately important – and Spain is the third of these in which I have lived – altruism tends to get squeezed out. Basically, strangers don’t count. The inevitable consequence of this is the triumph of individualism, something which is frequently said to distinguish the Spanish from other races. The bad side of this is, of course, selfishness and a lack of consideration for others. But there is a good side and this is greater self-reliance than is found elsewhere. People here expect to have to look after themselves, as well as their family and friends. I suppose it is possible – given the corrosive nature of creeping welfarism – to see Spain eventually showing signs of the dependency culture which now afflicts the UK but I suspect that the odds are against it. Perhaps this is merely because they came later to the welfare state but my perception is that Spanish soil is a less fertile propsect for these tenacious roots.

So …. ‘Immediate’, ‘Oral’, ‘Fun-loving’, ‘Spontaneous’, ‘Personal’, ‘Individualistic’, and with its own concept of time. Some of the key elements of Spanish society. All linked but who can say which of these is super-ordinate? Which the chicken and which the eggs? And, if you are here to enjoy yourself, who cares?

I should stress, by the way, that I make no claim to originality for my observations. If I did, I’d probably try to put them in a book and profit from them. If you want some original – but possibly dated – views of the Spanish, you could do worse than read Gerald Brenan’s 1943 classic, The Spanish Labyrinth. Or John Hooper’s book that I have already mentioned, The New Spaniards. Let me also highly recommend Cees Nooteboom’s beautifully written studies and sketches, Roads to Santiago. A little idiosyncratic but a great read.

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

I wonder whether the pedestrian-killing season has begun in Pontevedra. I say this because yesterday I twice had to take evasive action on a zebra crossing and this morning I witnessed the ultimate in confrontation. Just after I had negotiated a crossing, I heard a strident car horn and looked over my shoulder to see a young driver gesticulating and shouting at an old man who was rather slowing making his way across the road. The gestures and the language made it quite clear that the latter was being berated for not stopping in the middle of the crossing to make sure that the former had enough time in which to stop. The clear inference was that the young man had every right to drive exactly how he liked. In fact, he was advertising this belief by driving a garish red sports car. Others of this ilk drive customised cars with ludicrous spoilers fore and aft and speakers that seem to direct all their sound outwards for our benefit. More often than not, their cars are painted yellow, not a colour I would previously have associated with naked aggression. They are not unique to Spain, of course, but seem rather numerous here. The local word for them is ‘morulos’, which doesn’t appear in my dictionary but which seems to mean something like ‘country bumpkin’.

Back again to this subject of the immediacy and ‘orality’ of Spanish society. ….Because they live and work in the here-and-now, the Spanish will routinely respond to any new stimulus without even the slightest consideration for the person to whom they are currently talking. This naturally includes incoming phone calls but it also encompasses, say, an enquiry from someone who wants to talk to the bank teller or the checkout girl while you are dealing with them. In fact, it often appears that the only person who won’t stop what they are doing is the shop assistant at the till who is talking to her boyfriend when you want to pay for something. Because Spanish workers will happily accept any interruption whatsoever, this means that their working day can never be planned. Or, to put it another way, efficient. I suspect that, if one were to ask whether they put aside a part of the day in order to ‘deal with incoming correspondence’, you would not get a ‘No’ but just a look of total bewilderment. It would simply be beyond their conceptual horizon. And herein, perhaps, lies the reason why letters are never answered; unlike the human voice, they have no real immediacy and so can be left for later. Which doesn’t exist, of course.

All of this is compounded by the fact that the Spanish owe a massive duty of response to their family, friends and friends of friends. In a city comprised almost of people who have never left it, these can certainly mount up. If you fall outside one of these categories, your progress is inevitably toward the rear of any queue you happen to be in. A sort of perpetual motion backwards, if you like. And if you have little or no clout in person, imagine what priority your letters have!

Monday, December 01, 2003

When I wrote about Spanish society being immediate and oral, I should have added that these combine to ensure a high level of spontaneity. And fun. For both of these the Spanish have an undoubted genius. And this - in whole or in part -compensates for the absence of other things. I don’t suppose it can ever really fully compensate for an adamant refusal to engage in anything which smacks of planning. Or even just thinking ahead. But for other things, yes. Punctuality, for example.

By the way, just in case the observations recorded here give the impression that I am an unhappy critic of Spanish society, I should stress that they are merely offered in the spirit of random observation. I am a great admirer of Spanish society in its totality, even if I find some aspects remarkable. I have approached both of my ex-wives in the same spirit.