Monday, February 23, 2004

I’ll be in the UK for an indefinite period from tomorrow. So observations on life in Spain might well be in short supply for a while. I am not looking forward to returning to a place where it was recently reported that The annual pancake race in Okehampton, Devon, has been cancelled because the cost of insuring it rose from £75 to £280 and 25 marshals would be needed for the 80-metre dash.

And I will take my [temporary] leave on a decidedly positive note….

I love the fact that Sunday in Spain is still very different from the rest of the week. I never thought I would miss the traditional day of rest but, now that I have got it back again, I realise that I do. Or would have if.... Perhaps this is just another hark back to childhood, increasingly inescapable as one ages.

I give an hour or so’s conversation to a few teachers of English every week. This is great fun. Last week I listed for them the sort of things which are considered bad manners in Britain and which might not be in Spain. There was a certain overlap, of course – elbows on the table being a case in point – but, truth to tell, most of the British restrictions have no echo in Spain. And some of them had my friends in pleats of laughter. ‘Peas off the back of the fork!’… ‘A different shaped spoon for soup and the dish tipped forward!!’… ‘Knife and fork parallel in a perpendicular position!!!’... ‘Waiting for the host to offer you another drink!!!’ ….. And who can blame them? I made no attempt to defend these ridiculous ‘rules’. Nor several others. But I did point out that it was quite reasonable to regard shouting and smoking while others are eating as reprehensible behaviour. This was met by Hispanic shrugs, which I rather took to be acceptance of my point.

The waiter in my favourite café has now got my free pieces of cake up to three, the norm being just one. As I am trying to keep my weight down, I am tempted to leave at least one offering on the plate. But not very.

And now … this week’s crop of Anglicisms from my Sunday paper……

Un mitin – Political rally/meeting
Un best-seller – Harry Potter, for example
Un thriller de serie – A crime series
Un drag – A drag queen. Note the masculine gender.
Una conejita de Play Boy – A Playboy bunny. Or worse.
Un outsider – A misfit, I think.
Una top-model – A supermodel
Una supermodelo – Ditto
El top-ten – The top ten.
Un magazines – An armoury. As in ‘This constituted a powerful argument in his armoury.’
Un killer format – A highly successful TV show such as Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The
helpful equivalent – formato asesino – was given in brackets so this must be a new one.

I guess there will be no surprise that none of these appears in my Spanish dictionary.

Finally, there was an ad at the back of my local paper yesterday – amidst the hundreds promoting the charms of various Houses of Relaxation – which read:-
We are looking for gigolos
Not professionals
To look after ladies
High earnings

So, all you amateurs out there in need of a penny, contact me at my email [] and I will put you in touch. Literally.

Hasta la vista!

Friday, February 20, 2004

A week or so ago, I rejected ‘inefficient’ as the defining adjective for how things are in Spain, in preference for ‘piecemeal’. I am now wondering whether I was right.

In September of last year, my daughter - under my medical insurance scheme - went to see an allergist. In late January, an amount was deducted by the company from my bank account. I took this to be my ‘excess’ [or ‘franchise’] but I was puzzled that it was five times more than usual. I have been meaning to go and talk to them for a couple of weeks now but haven’t got round to it. And then today, I received a letter from the company – dated 3 January – itemising the total.

So…. 3 months to prepare the bill, 4 months to collect a fee and 4.5 months to send me the letter justifying the fee already collected. Meaning, of course, a delay of 45 days between the preparation and despatch of the letter. And this is one of Spain’s biggest and, one would hope, most efficient companies.

Worst of all, the bill is completely wrong. It itemises 3 visits to the allergist on one day in September. One could be forgiven for thinking that someone in the company might have noticed that this was rather odd. Anyway, getting things corrected will now certainly involve a visit to their offices, as we all know that a letter would be a waste of time. But then that is what time is for in Spain, it sometimes seems to me.

As a consolation for Spanish readers who take offence at my comments, this episode has motivated me to write a response to the criticism that I am too negative about Spain. See Spain v. The Rest of The World on my webpage –

The President of the Galician government, Mr Fraga, emerged unscathed from a traffic accident yesterday. Mind you, this was not a total surprise as he was being chauffered in an armoured Audi A8. The occupants of the two cars his ploughed into were not quite so lucky, being somewhat less protected. The accident happened when a car coming the other way both ignored the frantic waving of the President’s police protection and then crossed a solid white line to make a blatantly illegal turn. The reported reaction of Mr Fraga was to suggest that the curves on the road needed ‘improving’. Once again, I am lost as to where the logic is here, specifically how a straighter road would improve the driving of a congenital idiot. But this is why Mr Fraga, at 86, is still a powerful politician and I am not. And never will be.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Things happen here from time to time for which there is no ready explanation. I noted a couple of weeks ago that Telefonica sneaked into their last phone bill a circular saying that, unless, I wrote to them asking them to desist, they would sell my details to all and sundry. Not only was there no pre-paid reply envelope included, there was no bloody envelope at all. But, anyway, I sent off a letter and today I received a personalised registered/certificated letter from them saying that they had got my request and would act on it. So, having annoyed me but saved themselves the cost of a reply envelope, they have now incurred the higher expense of a registered letter. I can only suppose that the [data protection?] law obliges them to do this, whereas only common sense dictates that they show some consumer orientation in the first place. No contest, even in Spain.

My daughter happened upon a spinning class in the gym yesterday. The fifteeen participants all sat on cycles around a sadist in the centre who screamed orders at them – basically FASTER!! And SLOWER!! Like demented hamsters on individual treadmills, she said. It takes all sorts.

Un flirt – Guess
Flirtear – To flirt. Of course.
Un reality – Short for un reality show

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

I wrote last week of the prevalence of the piecemeal approach to things in Spain but, watching the UK news report this morning about the Diploma that will replace GCSEs and A Levels, it struck me that nothing could be more piecemeal than the construction of the now tottering British education system over the last 30 years or so.

There will be a general election here in Spain in March. So were now in what is called the ‘pre-campaign’ period. The parties here eschew the sort of comprehensive manifestos offered to voters in the UK and, instead, go in for promises of increasing extravagance, drip fed to the public. In the last week or so, we have been offered - inter alia - English language teaching for everyone, 2 million fewer unemployed within a couple of years, the total elimination of the ETA terrorist threat and seven doe-eyed virgins each. Oh, no. My mistake. That’s Islam.

Given the universal scepticism – and media disdain - with which these promises are received, you have to wonder why the politicians bother but I guess they think some people must believe them. Anyway, I don’t suppose today’s announcement that Spain will seek to vitiate the upcoming European elections in not just Gibraltar but also the UK is entirely unconnected with March’s general election.

All of these words were in one Sunday paper last weekend, admittedly in the Arts section for the most part. I suspect that it is here that the most avant-garde writers polish their apples:-
Los chillouts – Relaxation areas in clubs.
Un stand – Stand or stall. Again, this has the English plural ‘stands’, not the Spanish ‘standes’.
El gran feeling – Your guess is as good as mine
Un multiplex – As in English
El Establishment – Ditto. [Article on Princess Diana, of course. Replete with conspiracy theories.]
Una road movie – Ditto
Un blog – Ditto
El glamour – Ditto
Password – Ditto, in place of contraseña. For no good reason, as far as I can see.

Sometimes I wonder why I am bothering to learn Spanish. Such is the pace of adoption, if I hang around for long enough, I shouldn’t need to.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Pimpón - Table tennis
Eslogan – Slogan. Curiously, the plural of this is eslogans, as it would be in English. Not esloganes, as it would be in Spanish
El backstage – Backstage
El casting - Casting
En fashion – In fashion
Un reality show – Guess
Un docu show – A drama serial or soap opera [I think]

In El Mundo today, the dreadful ex-butler of Princess Diana deigns to give advice to Letitia, the future queen of Spain, about how she should comport herself and stay in touch with the people. It seems that he sees himself as an historian these days, as well as a guru to European royalty. God help us. How ironic that he should recommend that Letitia retains her grip on reality when he is so clearly losing his.

It is a common complaint of Anglo-Saxons [and, indeed, of my Franco-Spanish friend Elena] that Spanish friendships are shallow, flimsy and unreliable things. But to conclude this is to commit the crime - heinous in today’s world - of moral absolutism. It is to judge the Spanish by the wrong standards, yours not theirs. For what needs to be remembered is that the Spanish are only sociable when they are socialising. And one can only socialise today, in the here-and-now, where having fun is the highest priority. Within these – admittedly narrow - limits they make the very best of friends, being affectionate, spontaneous and overflowing with a sense of fun. Absolutely the best people in the world to go out with. As for anything beyond the moment, forget it. The Spanish have far too many responsibilities to themselves and to their family for you to be of any real importance. As friends, rather than wonderful acquaintances, they simply can’t be relied on. Or as dinner guests, even. There is no point getting het up about this; it is simply the way things are. A simple rule of thumb – the more florid the protestations of affection you get from a Spanish friend over dinner or drinks, there more unreliable he or she will be when push gets to shove. Or even when push stays at push. But don’t give up trying; there are exceptions to every generalisation as broad as these. And to find the gem among any dross, you need to sift through a lot of dross!

Interesting Headlines

- A judge in a grave situation after hitting his head against a wall – Found wandering in the street, apparently
- Man accused of trying to crucify his wife and children – It seems he thought this would rid them of the devil
- Man of 85 accused of killing his 82 year old bride of only two weeks – In a jealous rage, allegedly.

These, by the way, are all from the serious, not the pink, press.

Friday, February 13, 2004

The Spanish media gives a lot of attention to violence by men against their partners. If you landed here from Mars, you would quickly become aware of this. What you would scarcely ever read or hear about is paedophilia and you could therefore be forgiven for thinking that it doesn’t exist here. This, of course, can’t be right but it is certainly true that there is no phobia about it. One truly wonderful consequence of this is that young children come up to men in their very late forties like me and chat to us, while their mothers sit smiling some way off. When this first happened to me, not long after I came here, I literally froze at the unexpectedness of it all and walked on without responding to the little boy who had spoken to me on the street. Now I am quite used to it. So, when a little girl started chatting to me when I was having my coffee yesterday morning, I was able to respond like my parents used to the UK in the days before tabloid-generated hysteria. And so I learned quite a lot about her name and she learned about those of my two daughters.

Later, when I went in from the café veranda to pay my bill, I saw the little girl’s mother sitting at one of the tables and smiled a greeting in her direction. She responded in kind but, when I then turned to say goodbye to her daughter on the other side of the table, I realised it wasn’t my new friend. I can only guess what the woman thought I was playing at but, happily, I wasn’t arrested for sexual harassment either.

What a marvellously sane country Spain seems to me at times.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

If I had to choose one word to describe the way things are done in Spain, it wouldn’t actually be ‘slowly’ or ‘inefficiently’, tempting as this might be. Rather, it would be ‘piecemeal’. Not everything, of course. But quite a lot. As a good example - in the community in which I live, we took a decision just over 3 years ago to have urgent repairs done on the rotting walkways which go down to the garden behind and below our houses. As I type this, I can see through my window the chap who comes every often to do a plank or two and then disappears for anything up to a month. And it’s not as if he has done things in a linear fashion, starting at one end of the garden and working through to the other. There are, in fact, 5 separate walkways and he has repaired part of each one but leaving gaps and loose planks where he has decided to suspend things in that particular location. In the UK, this would be an invitation to sue somebody but no one thinks of that here in Spain. A second near-to-home example – the house next door was sold 3 or 4 months ago and the new owners are having the old wooden floors ripped out and new ones installed. Work is proceeding at a snail’s pace, largely because the word ‘sporadic’ would hardly do justice to the way in which things are being done. I would guess that, on average, work takes place on only one day a week. And I suspect that the workmen are doing something similar in several other houses at the same time. You may not be able to please all the people all the time but Spanish workmen certainly seem capable of displeasing all the people all the time. Though not really because this is what is expected of them. Finally, just across the road from me in the car park of the School for Granite Carvers, work has been suspended for months now on a rather handsome granite horreo, which is a small grain store on stilts, common in both Galicia and northern Portugal. After it had been like this for a while, it struck someone as a good idea to put up a little sign saying that one shouldn’t touch the structure as it was dangerous. A little bit down the road, the horreo has a companion piece in the form of an unfinished fountain. Can it simply be that they get bored and move on to something else? Or is all this yet another reflection of the fact that Spaniards live only for the day and make little connection between today, tomorrow and all the days that might or might not follow?

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

One of the things I love about Spain is that even companies who are aware that customer service is critical still get things wrong. But at least they try. Last week I called Telefonica to tell them that my phone set wasn’t working. They were very nice and asked me whether I preferred the engineer to call in the morning or the afternoon. I considered asking for definitions of these terms but let it go and just said the afternoon. Then yesterday morning they called to tell me that the engineer would arrive the following day [i. e. today] at 1pm. Now, by no stretch of the imagination is this ‘afternoon’ in Spain. The latter begins when you leave work, say 1.30 or 2, or possibly when you sit down to lunch, say 2.30 or even 3. But no matter; I was quite happy with 1pm the following day. So, imagine my surprise when the engineer turns up half an hour after the call telling me that he will be arriving the next day. Well, no surprise, really. Just satisfaction and amusement. And the engineer was a lovely man who took a great shine to my border collie, being the owner of two setters himself. We parted as great friends. And at least another engineer didn’t turn up today, morning or afternoon.

Word Watch:
Gánster – Gangster, of course
Puzzle – pronounced ‘pooth-lay’. Jigsaw
Un borderline – A person of subnormal intelligence
Prime time – Prime time
Top-less – Topless

Nuptials Nonsense
1. There will be a website dedicated to the wedding
2. The designer for the dress has been chosen and is from Catalunia. This is considered to be politically correct, apparently

For those interested, I have added a page of quotations about the Spanish to my web site –

I have also added short collection of Spanish proverbs that I have come across. One or two defy understanding but this is less than astonishing, I suppose.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Much consternation today in the USA over Janet Jackson’s liberated boob [regularly re-aired in all its strange whiteness on Sky News] and even more consternation in the UK over Johnny Rotten’s use of the well-known phrase ‘fucking cunts’ on British TV last night. This, in contrast, has yet to be re-shown on Sky TV. Given that there is even greater taboo associated with the C word in the USA, I don’t suppose Johnny’s slip of the tongue will be reported outside the HBS channel, if there. I see, by the way, that the C word is not recognised by Word’s Spellcheck facility. But then neither is Spellcheck. It’s almost a relief to see that they don’t claim to be ignorant of the F word.

All of which is very odd to Spanish eyes. And ears. For, believe it or believe it not, the C word here is a term of endearment so innocuous that it is used regularly on TV and on the street, usually alto voce, when old friends meet. Here, if you really want to insult and infuriate someone, you have to call them a cabrón. Which just means billy goat. Hijo de puta [son of a whore] might just do the trick, though I can never figure out why this is much of an insult when de puta madre [of a whore mother] is a great compliment. Ah, cultures and their inconsistent norms.

Speaking of which, I have yet to write my Spain v. Britain piece, but on this theme of the moment, I was gratified to read the following last night in the opening pages of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalunia:-

I defy anyone .. not to be struck by [the Spaniards’] essential decency; above all by their straightforwardness and generosity. …. And beyond this there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit.

Every foreigner .. spent his first few weeks in learning to love the Spaniards and in being exasperated by certain of their characteristics. ….. All foreigners alike are appalled by their inefficiency, above all by their maddening unpunctuality. …. In Spain, nothing, from a meal to a battle, ever happens at the appointed time.

So, not much has changed in nearly 70 years then, positive or negative. Thank God.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

As I will have to go to the UK for a while in the next day or so, I probably won’t get round to writing my Spain v. Britain article for a while. But, quite coincidentally, I have today read the following comments in the preface to Hugh Thomas’s The Spanish Civil War. I could hardly agree more with these sentiments. And they will do for a start.

Spain, little understood and often privately disliked by patronising Northern peoples ….is frequently held to be a more violent nation that it is. Isolated by good fortune and by geography from the ‘world game’ of great power rivalry since 1815, it has more lessons to offer peoples than it has to learn: above all, it has grasped more successfully than other nations the art of combining progress with the persistence of tradition.

More anon.
There are a number of important things about Spain that are not well known in the UK. One reason for this relative ignorance is that, whereas there is good media coverage here of major events in Britain [e. g. Blair & Hutton v. the BBC], things don’t work so well in reverse. I wonder, for example, how many Brits are aware of the extent of the Spanish government’s problem with the Basque terrorist group, ETA. Or of the fact that this has been around for 40 years or so. In today’s papers we learn that ETA has been sending two different round-robins to local companies in pursuit of funds. The first of these has gone to firms considered ‘enemies of the revolution’ and has simply demanded moneys with menace. Plus, would you believe, a 5 per cent surcharge if there is a delay in despatch. A quite different letter has gone to a thousand companies identified as ‘friends’, asking them to show solidarity with the cause by making a voluntary donation. Personally, I’m not sure I would be any less frightened by the latter than by the former, even if there were no penalty for late payments from ‘friends’.

Outside the Basque country, one of the leading lights in the new socialist consortium in Catalunia has just been driven out of office for meeting with representatives of ETA there. The inference drawn is that a deal was being negotiated to avoid atrocities in Catalunia, though the politician in question insists that he was only [and legitimately] negotiating peace. The rest of Spain is less than impressed with this explanation, though Socialist voters harbour suspicions that news of the illegal meeting was leaked to the media by the government in the run-up to the next general election. This would be more convincing if there were any evidence that the Socialist party [PSOE] stood much of a chance in said election. But the truth is that, rather like the Tories in the UK until very recently, they have long seemed incapable of laying a glove on a government that has survived, for example, the Prestige oil tanker disaster and involvement in a war disfavoured by a mere 94 per cent of the population.

A Galician gentleman has taken me to task for implying that the English culture is superior to that of Spain. I have long been conscious that, even though this is far from what I believe, I do run the risk of creating this impression by concentrating on those things in Spain that are different and which, by and large, amuse me. Anyway, for those with any interest, I will [any day now] be addressing this question in a bit more detail in a Spain v. Britain article on my web page -

Meanwhile, a good example of what he means, I guess – Making a hotel booking last week, I asked the proprietor about the value-added tax. ‘It all depends,’ he said. ‘If they pay in cash and don’t want a receipt, then there won’t be any’. This goes on all over the world, of course, but what makes it so endearing here is the honest dishonesty of it all. No nods and winks or coded sentences. Just a straight, matter-of-fact answer. Naturally, I said the guests would rather pay the tax.