Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Spain last night had the equivalent of the Oscars for its own cinema industry. The consensus in the press was that the ceremony was unprofessional, overlong and tediously boring. And these were the good reviews. In fact, the premier award – for the best film – was made at 2am, which gives you something of an insight into the Spanish timetable. And everybody smoked like chimneys, apparently. As did the spokesman at a press conference of the Galician Nationalist Party yesterday. He was, he said, merely showing solidarity with President Zapatero and the leader of the Catalan coalition, who apparently smoked all the way through the Constitution negotiations. But then I think I might even have taken up the obnoxious habit myself, if I’d had to take part in these.

In contrast to the national police [the Guardia Civil], Spain’s local police are not well-regarded. A woman driver in Pontevedra probably spoke for many recently when she accused two traffic cops of being ‘cocky clowns’. Unfortunately for her, she had neglected to put on her safety belt before opening her mouth and ended up in court, where she was fined 120 euros. This, though, was less than the 160 euros I had to pay when my elder daughter parked my car on some nearby waste land. On balance, I think the woman with the big gob got more value for her money.

Talking of the Oscars, the Spanish media is naturally giving a lot of attention to the American film about the gay cowboys. Or ‘Brookbackmontéyn’ as it’s called here. Perhaps there’ll be a Spanish version, featuring two gay local policemen, called Chulo and Payaso.

Hardly a great surprise but the EU is reported to have decided against the Spanish proposal to give the status of Working Language to Catalan, Basque and Galician. They say it would significantly complicate things in Brussels and open the floodgates to all the other minority languages in Europe. And there are far more of these than you’d think. Apart from the [to me] obvious ones of Welsh and Gaelic, there is Serbian, Frisian, Corsican, Armenian and Sardinian, to name but a few.

Finally, a couple of Gallegos have gently taken issue with me for my comments yesterday about Franco’s repression in the Basque Country and Catalunia. I should make it clear that, as my friend Portorosa had guessed, I was talking only about suppression of local cultures/languages. I wasn’t making any comment at all on the differing degrees of appalling atrocity visited by Franco’s rebel army on the cities that resisted it. Nor on the post-war industrial policies of Franco’s totalitarian regime.

Still a few puppies left.

Monday, January 30, 2006

I thought I’d have some fun with the stamp machine in the post office today and try the instructions in English. It was an equally long, multi-step process but all went well until the end when the final instruction from the machine was Receive. I guessed this was one of the meanings of the multi-purpose verb Cobrar and really should have been Pay. But I was once again left wondering why such critical things aren’t checked with native speakers, especially when you’ve gone to the trouble to cater for non-Spanish speakers.

Along with the other autonomy-minded communities/regions/ countries/nationalities/nations of the Basque Country and Galicia, Catalunia suffered greatly under Franco’s fascism. So it seems rather ironic the government there should now be indulging in measures such as a new law to make it compulsory for all university professors to speak Catalan. In other words, suppressing teaching in Spanish. Perhaps the Catalans – who are famous for their common sense [seny] – lack a sense of irony.

Meanwhile, back in Galicia, the year has started badly on our roads. A total of 34 people have been killed so far. 50% of these were not wearing safety belts; and 50% - possibly the same people – were killed by trees and walls, after their cars had parted company with the road. Usually around 5am of a Saturday or Sunday morning, I imagine. A columnist in one of today’s local papers expressed the hope the imminent points-based penalty system will have some beneficial effect, given that [surviving] offenders will be sent for remedial lessons specific to their offence. Having seen how driving instructors take their pupils around roundabouts, I am rather less sanguine. He also put forward the view the authorities should stop concentrating on tougher penalties and invest more in making the roads safer. I was initially tempted to dismiss this as a variant of the oft-heard argument to the effect that, if all the roads were wide, flat and dead straight, everyone could drive at 180kph in complete safety. But, in the end, I decided it was sensibly pragmatic to admit one can’t stop indulgent Spanish parents financing the purchase of fatally fast cars for their offspring and so should concentrate on minimising the consequences. If this is really what he meant.

The regions of Asturias and Galicia have amicably settled their dispute as to which side of the border certain towns lie. Both of them must surely feel a sense of relief they weren’t up against France and so facing the threat of a tactical nuclear strike.

A total of 12 foxes were shot during the weekend’s Galician championship. But no humans. And the little abandoned bitch which has adopted me escaped from my garden and found a male friend who, naturally, shared her interest in seasonal rumpy-pumpy. Next weekend, it’s the Pontevedra rampant-male-dog hunting championship. A new but wildly popular event. At least around here.

Anyone want a puppy?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

An article in the business section of El Mundo today comments on the time spent/wasted each day on emailing. Or on deleting spam and the pestilential phishing/pharming messages. One point it makes is the Spanish don’t approach email efficiently and so extend the working day by an hour and a half more than in other European countries. If this is true – and how can they really know? – I suspect it really means email has become, like texting, just another form of the chat at which the Spanish excel. By the way, pharming is diverting you to a false page after you have logged on to your internet bank, allowing the fraudsters to gain access to your confidential data. At least, I think this is what it is.

Talking of efficiency, I had an example this week of the sort of thing I’ve said must reduce productivity here. I took my passport to the notary’s office, said I needed a notarised copy of my details, stressed it wasn’t important and said I’d come back later for it. But no, one of the secretaries stopped what she was doing, made a copy, typed the relevant paragraph, put 3 stamps on it, and then went and interrupted the notary for his signature. All very good for me, of course, but more than I needed and only done because I was there in person. No wonder people eschew writing here. Other than chatty emails and texts, of course.

It must be difficult – other than on libertarian grounds – to justify being a director of a cigarette company. Especially if you work for Philip Morris in Spain. For, their reaction to the fall in sales caused by the anti-smoking law has been to reduce the price of their Marlborough brand, so as to make it more accessible to young people. Or, at least, that’s what’s assumed to be the logic of the strategy. The country’s already-suffering tobacconists are furious about the further reduction in their margins and have said they’re going to war against Philip Morris. Perhaps they will smoke each other to death.

The Spanish phrase for what the British call a lounge suit is traje de calle, or ‘street suit’. So, the British term is internal and the Spanish term external. Which probably says a lot about the respective cultures.

Finally, I turn once again to my Spanish friends for an explanation as to why a high-flying Spanish businesswoman is called una Ana Patricia. After Señora Botín?

Saturday, January 28, 2006

So Celebrity Big Brother in the UK was won by a woman who was a phoney pop star, planted by the TV producers. She’s won 25,000 pounds but is expected to make a million more in the next few weeks. This just about says it all about today’s mass entertainment in the UK. The only positive comment one can make is things are even worse elsewhere, naming no names. It makes one pine for Roman circuses. At least they were exotic, albeit fatally so for the stars. A feature which is surely overdue for a comeback.

Whatever the width of a Spanish street, it’s invariably converted to a single lane carriageway by the ubiquitous double/triple parking that so little is done about. In fact, the only thing quicker in Spain than this process is the departure of the cars once the tow-truck appears on the horizon. Then, by some sort of telepathy, every driver in the neighbourhood is instantaneously made aware of the danger and emerges to drive the car round the block, to wait for the truck to tow away its sole, hapless victim. [Incidentally, this may be the only time one sees people running in Spain. Well, walking fast.] Then the whole cat-and-mouse game is repeated some time later. But only at long intervals, meaning the financial odds are very much stacked in favour of the drivers. And always will be until traffic wardens are introduced. But this, I suspect, is another of those ‘unfair’ and ‘ignoble’ practices which local politicians are loath to introduce for fear of an electoral backlash. As with the smoking ban, they need the cover of a national measure.

For similar reasons, the local town halls are up in arms about the pressure being put on them by the Galician government to implement the law about the completion of house- building projects. The background to this is that the magnificent Galician countryside is scarred by a plague of partly-built houses whose progress, over many years, depends on the availability of cash. Not to mention the builders. Having turned a blind eye to this for decades, the local councils now say three months before an election is not the right time to take this ‘unfair’ and ‘ignoble’ measure. Stuff the law.

Here’s a nice bit of irony. I occasionally send relevant information to people who write to me after reading my web page on Galicia, e. g. on buying property here. After doing this today, I've been put on a blacklist by AOL, who are refusing to deliver my emails to anyone with an AOL address. Their stance appears to be that my site has been reported by several people to be spewing out SPAM. I suspect the truth is they have some ‘clever’ software which has penalised my innocent circular because it went to two AOL addresses at the same time. So, Farewell any AOL friends.

Friday, January 27, 2006

When asked what aspect of life worried them most at the end of 2005, 49% of the great Spanish public answered Unemployment. Second came Immigration, with 29%, followed by ETA terrorism. Only 3% felt very concerned by increasing regionalism/ nationalism and a mere 2% plumped for the revision of the constitutional arrangements between Madrid and all the regions. Which all rather puts us fevered scribes in our place, doesn’t it.

The major Spanish papers can sometimes seem a bit heavy but, in truth, it’s a pleasure lost to UK readers to pick up a serious paper whose front page isn’t dedicated to bloody whales or to pathetic politicians who’ve either just been kicked off Celebrity Big Brother or who are vainly trying to explain their sexual life to a bemused public. If Spain ever gets a tabloid press, I’ll have to move on. ‘Thoughts from Kurdistan’ should at least allow me to brush up my Persian.

Tomorrow, Galicia will see its 11th ‘national’ fox hunting championship. No horses - just men, dogs and more guns than you’d see in the UK in a century. I rather doubt there’ll be any protesters. But, if there are, I won’t be surprised to read of a hunting accident or two in Monday’s papers.

Only in Spain?
The government of Catalunia has issued a 2006 calendar which not only refers to the anniversary of a brothel but also contains ads for its wide range of services, including ‘shows eróticos’. But at least it doesn’t, like all our local papers, features dozens of pictures of transvestites who’d be at home in the UK’s Lib Dem party.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The majority of Brits appear to think Simon Hughes should not be leader of the Liberal Democrats because he lied about his sexual orientation and only came clean when it [and he] came out in the scabrous tabloid press. Many of these same people, I imagine, will have voted three times for Tony Blair - a consummate liar if ever there was one. What they really mean, of course, is We know all politicians lie. We expect them to. Especially in respect of high-tech rocks in Moscow. We just don’t want politicians who demonstrate incompetence by getting caught at it.

I was asked for directions again today. Although I don’t look remotely Spanish, this happens quite a lot. But I enjoy it, the main reason being that it clearly pleases [or possibly just amuses] people to hear me respond in Spanish. And they’re always effusive with their thanks. Even the guy I sent the wrong way today, though neither of us knew this at the time.

Faced with the prospect of a several rounds of Regional Leap Frog and Beggar My Regional Neighbour, the Council of State has suggested the Spanish Constitution be changed so as to place a ceiling on the powers of the regions. They seem unaware that, in politics, maxima have a habit of becoming minima. And, anyway, the lid is already off the pressure cooker.

As if to prove this, representatives of each of the more regionalist/nationalist Autonomous Communities have come together in a group calling itself GALEUSCAT. If you haven’t worked this out, they’re from the ‘nations’ of Galicia, the Basque Country [Euskadi] and Catalunia. One of their activities will be to lobby supranational bodies like the EU in Brussels. In 3 languages not understood there, I guess.

Most bars and cafés in Pontevedra now have two signs on the door – one telling you can smoke and another saying you can’t bring a dog in. I wonder, firstly, how many people have been killed by unhealthy dogs and, secondly, whether you could take a dog in if it had a cigarette in its mouth.

If the friendly staff in my regular bar keep increasing the size of my lunchtime glass of wine at the current rate, they’ll be giving me a bottle with a straw in it by the end of the year. Wonderful people, the Spanish. Especially bar staff and folks who ask for directions. Not to forget the chap from the post office who stopped me today to tell me there are some letters for me in the post restante. And the optician who yesterday fixed my glasses for nothing. All very noble people.

But why do so many of them forget to put their car lights on at night?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Not everyone in Catalunia is thrilled with the agreement reached over the new Constitution. Most unhappy appears to be the leader of the ERC, a long-established left-wing party which was, until this week, the partner of the governing Socialist party in the region. Accusing President Zapatero of treachery, he has picked up his bat and walked off the pitch. I did say the other day that ‘Bambi’ Zapatero had resorted to British-style divide and rule tactics and I’m now left wondering whether he’s had lessons from Tony Blair on how to hoodwink one’s partners.

The agreement also ruffled feathers in the opposition PP party, when their President in Catalunia [Spain is a country of a million presidents] took a more lenient view of it than right wing elements of the party in Madrid. However, feathers have now been smoothed and the re-unified PP party has demanded a nationwide referendum on the document. When it was suggested this would be illegal/unconstitutional, it quickly became a petition calling for a referendum. Can’t see it happening, myself.

President Z. has described the Constitution as being ‘as clean as a paten’. Having just looked it up, I know the latter is the plate on which the Eucharist is placed at Mass. But I’m lost as to what the whole phrase means.

I did decide to write back to the Corte Ingles, asking them how come – if my software was deficient – I could open every page on their site except the one for Domestic Appliances. Impressively, they responded more quickly this time – but with exactly the same standard message as before. You will recall this was that any customers having difficulty accessing their site had only themselves to blame. Having checked with an IT-expert friend, I believe the technical word for this is tosh. Given this basic attitude to customers, you won’t be surprised to hear that, in their 6-storey store in Vigo, there are no signs anywhere telling you which items are sold on which floor. You always have to ask. The good news is that, in this oral society, the assistants are always happy to tell you with good grace. Which is more than can be said for department stores in the UK.

Quote of the week

Loyalty is hard to sustain in politics. It is exhausting and it is tedious. The default setting of the politician is to shout loudly, strike a pose, disagree, find a vested interest to protect, pursue an obsession. The Labour Party is bored with loyalty.

Matthew D’Acona, writing about Tony Blair’s struggle with this own party in his final term.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The real issue behind the negotiations over the new Constitution for Catalunia was, of course, money. The region is the richest in Spain and basically wanted to keep and dispense more of its revenue. In this they have succeeded and some have argued that the emotional issues of nationality and language were really just a smokescreen to distract attention from what was really going on. Indeed, a witty commentator has suggested Catalunia has now achieved its desired status of finannación.

The Galician political parties have, naturally enough, decided to get together to see how quickly they can follow the Catalan precedent. However, it finally seems to have dawned on some of them that the Catalunian model of finance based on regional net domestic product would be a disaster for Galicia. On the other hand, they like the idea that Madrid has accepted the Spanish state has an ‘historical debt’ it must repay to Catalunia. They feel this means Galicia is likewise owed some 21 million euros. On the third hand, there are fears that diminished national coffers means half of what was in the Galicia Plan will now go to Catalunia. All very confusing and all part of the rich mosaic of regional comparisons and enmities that is Spain in early 2006. Things can only get worse. Or at least more interesting. Especially if it’s correct that emulation of the Catalan model across the board would mean the state losing 15% of its revenue and less money flowing from the centre to the poorer regions of Asturias, old Castile, Estremadura, Galicia and Andalucia. Turning them into 3rd class citizens, as someone has suggested.

As for that emotional language issue, one of the Galician nationalists/regionalists has come out with this gem – ‘The Galician language is the best key to our identity and the strongest guarantee we have of participating successfully in the globalised world.’ He looks forward to the time when Gallego is an official language of the EU. Or perhaps the lingua franca of global commerce.

Back in the humdrum, everyday world, another ten people were killed on Galician roads in the last three days, not counting the three I mentioned on Sunday. As ever, most of the deaths occurred in the early hours of the morning, when cars carrying up to five youths left the road and came up against innocent trees and walls. I suspect quite a lot could be done to reduce this appalling toll but it would be considered ‘unfair’ to put the nightclubs out of business by stationing police cars outside them. One day, no doubt. Meanwhile, we pay higher insurance premiums than elsewhere and stay off the roads at night.

Down in Sevilla, a court has imprisoned the gypsy who slaughtered the driver of a car which bumped into his daughter when she ran into the road a couple of weeks ago. His defence is that he’d found a gun in a rubbish bin and happened to have it on him when he got blind drunk before the accident. He then shot the man because he was beside himself with anger and thought he recognised him as the head of a rival gypsy clan. He insists that, although he was senselessly inebriated, it was him who fired 6 shots though the window, then opened the door, re-loaded the gun and fired another 6 into the body. No one else - least of all his wife – was involved. Obviously a believer in the Hitlerian principle - If you’re going to tell a lie, tell a big one.

To end on a positive note … I’m reading Paul Preston’s excellent Concise History of the Spanish Civil War. Not for the first time it’s struck me that, given the astonishingly violent nature of Spanish society long before, during and even after the Civil War – it’s a huge testament to the intelligence, wisdom and maturity of the Spanish people that Spain is the peaceful democracy it now is. And I can’t see any of the above regionalist shenanigans changing this. Even if pluralism does morph into federalism.

Monday, January 23, 2006

There’s much rejoicing today – in this household at least – that negotiations over the new Catalunian Constitution have ended. It’s certainly a good thing for Catalunia but opinions, to say the least, are divided as to whether it’s good for Spain. The Galician President says he thinks it is but, then, he’s next in line for an increase in devolved power. On the key issue of the status of Catalunia, the preamble contains this masterpiece of fudge – “The Catalan parliament, recognising the feelings and the will of the citizens of Catalunia, has defined Catalunia as a nation. This national reality has been translated in Article 2 of the Spanish Constitution, which defines Catalunia as a nationality.” If he weren’t dead, I’d suspect Lewis Carroll of having a hand in this.

Moving from this model of clarity to the divisive issue of language, I’m not entirely clear what’s been decided. But it seems that henceforth, if you live in Catalunia, you will have an obligation to learn both ‘co-official’ languages, Catalan and Spanish. I would have thought this made eminent sense as a personal decision, freely taken. But as an obligation? Is there anywhere else in the world where citizens are legally compelled to learn one language, never mind two?

To get back to sanity - The Spanish are not renowned for being animal lovers so it’s intriguing [and heart-warming, no doubt] that the TV News programs of the last few days have contained items about the confused Thames whale and the demise of the native British red squirrel at the hands [claws?] of the American grey interloper. Yes, I know whales aren’t animals but you know what I mean.

Politicians are strange folk. It goes with the turf. But in what parallel universe must someone live to be able to persuade himself he can safely run for the leadership of a major British political party when he’s regularly visiting two male prostitutes for a bit of S&M? Well, it was a major party last week. But a week, as they say, is a long time in politics and it's a minor party now.

Finally, some more wonderful Spanglish – Young Spanish women are said to fall into one of two basic groups: On the one hand we have La techno-woman, who is at ease with modern technology. And on the other, we have La mujer off-line. Who isn’t. So she won’t be reading this.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The young men of Galicia persist in their mission to eradicate themselves on the roads. Three more this weekend, in the Pontevedra province alone, aged 21, 23 and 24. All, tellingly, in single-car accidents. And ‘For reasons as yet undetermined’.

It’s traditional in Spain to talk of the ‘incline of January’, meaning the difficulty many families have of getting to the end of the month after the two gift-fests of Christmas and The Kings. Not to mention the 5 expensive family dinners inside two weeks. These days, though, it seems readily available credit has softened the gradient for many. The same factor probably accounts for the festive spend being significantly up on last year, even in real terms.

Which reminds me, at 3.8% Spain’s 2005 inflation was again the 3rd highest in the EU, after Latvia [7.1] and Slovakia [3.9]. The smell of burning must be coming from an overheated economy, unrestrained by any fear that the value of the country’s currency will reflect the problem. It can only end in tears.

Telefonica, my favourite company, has 18 different ADSL packages on its web site. As ever, all of them have 3 or 6 month introductory offers. If you want to know what the price is after this, you have to click Ver precios [See prices]. I probably don’t need to tell you this but, if you do, nothing happens. Perhaps – as with the Corte Inglés site – it’s all my fault for having a suboptimal browser. And not, God forbid, because Telefonica would rather you didn’t find out.

The number of phishing emails demanding I regularise my account with one or other Spanish bank has now risen to over 200 in the last 2 or 3 of days. I wonder if I’m being singled out for special treatment because of the letter of complaint I sent to the MD of one of them. If so, I think I prefer the customary silent response.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

At last some good news re correspondence. I sent an email to El Corte Inglés [Spain’s major department store] asking them why their Domestic Appliances page didn’t work. And I got a reply! True, it took 4 days and essentially said it was my fault for lacking up-to-date browser and virus software; but it was at least a reply. It doesn’t explain why my software [which is, in fact, all up-to-speed] works for all their other pages but I’m not sure I can be bothered to tarnish the glow of this major advance by asking them to explain this.

Back up in Catalunia, it’s emerged the government there has instituted a system under which selected pupil-narks monitor how much Catalan and Spanish their teachers use. And, on a larger stage, they have rejected the state President’s suggestion that their new Constitution contains the statement ‘The citizens of Catalunia feel that Catalunia is a nation’. This, they retort, is ‘aggressive and lacking in respect for Catalunia.’ Am I the only person to whom the words Nazi, Hitler and Sudetenland spring to mind? Not to mention ‘tin pot dictators’. The only good news emerging from that part of Spain is that negotiations on the Catalan side are in the hands of a four-party coalition and President Zapatero finally seems to have understood the merits of the old British strategy of divide and rule.

And still on strategy – it was inevitable that France would eventually demonstrate the pain it’s feeling at losing its influence and power in both the EU and the world at large. But to threaten to nuke countries which harbour terrorists? Then again, I suppose if your taxpayers are paying handsomely for an independent nuclear deterrent, you have to make some sort of desperate deterring gesture from time to time. Perhaps they’ll be threatening a ‘tactical nuclear weapon’ for Clichy-sur-Bois next. But it couldn’t be a smart weapon which hit only Muslim rioters as this would be illegal under France’s rigidly laicist constitution. Ah, the tangled webs we weave.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Here’s a bit of news that could well surprise many people – in this rather dry country, the per capita consumption of water is higher than in ‘central European’ countries. Possibly because it’s still relatively cheap here.

And here’s a bit of news that probably won’t surprise anyone – Spain is the EU country which most exceeds its fish quotas and against whom the most complaints are progressing in Brussels.

I wrote a couple of days ago of how foreigners perceive Spanish manners. It strikes me there’s one situation in which the Spanish are too polite, though this in the end also irritates non-Latins. Such is the profoundly oral and face-to-face nature of this society that very few people can resist responding to someone who addresses them, even if they’re already talking to sombody else. My impression is it’s considered rude not to respond. Very few Spaniards, I suspect, go through their day [or any part of it] ensuring they’re not interrupted. Or saying on the phone ‘Sorry, I can’t speak to you right now; I’ve talking to someone else.’ This willingness to respond does nothing, of course, for one’s concentration, continuity and, thus, efficiency. And it may help to explain why the Spanish – we are regularly told - work the longest hours in Europe but have the lowest productivity.

In the past few days, I’ve had well over 100 phishing emails purportedly from two Spanish banks. I find it hard to believe there’s anyone in the world still taken in by these. And impossible to credit suspicions wouldn’t be raised by a veritable torrent of them. This probably explains why I’m not rich.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The latest inter-regional spat to capture the headlines – though it’s been simmering for months – is between Castile y León and [who else?] Catalunia. It concerns the latter’s demands that documents from the state archive be transferred from Salamanca to Barcelona. Meanwhile, negotiations over the Catalunian Constitution seem to heading for a messy end, proving [once again] you can make all the people unhappy all the time. And the third senior army official in a week or so has been sacked for interfering in politics. All in all, I have some sympathy with an editorial in today’s El Mundo suggesting Spain is going backwards down a time tunnel. They attribute this, of course, to the country’s mismanagement by President Zapatero. In particular to his pandering to the nationalist [i. e. regionalist] coalition partners who keep him in power.

I mentioned the other day that, because of the tolls, very little commercial traffic uses the excellent autopistas of at least this region. One consequence is that traffic on the parallel National roads is slowed down by the huge trucks bringing logs up from Portugal to our local wood mills. Stuck behind one of these today, I resolved to run for local mayor when my Gallego is up to it. Once in power, I’ll force the heavy traffic onto the autopistas and liberate the other roads for the little guy. Except I won’t, as I’ll then be chauffeured – free of charge - along the toll roads. All power corrupts. Even before I’ve got it in my case.

These days, many Spanish banks try to attract new customers with a one-month interest rate of around 6% pa. Or 0.5% of the total. But this is not quite what it seems, especially after tax. For the bank you move your money from will charge you 0.3% just for making a couple of clicks on a keyboard. This may not sound much but here’s what it costs to transfer a large sum, e. g. to pay for a house:-
100,000 euros: 300 euros = 360 dollars = 207 pounds
150,000 euros: 450 euros = 540 dollars = 310 pounds
200,000 euros: 600 euros = 720 dollars = 414 pounds.
I don’t know what the situation is in the USA but a UK bank would charge you a maximum of around 20 pounds in each case. All this is, of course, designed to deter you from changing banks and, in the UK at least, would be illegal as being in restraint of trade and anti-competitive. But, if you think this is bad, ponder on the fact that banks here also charge you handsomely for receiving your money if you bring it from abroad. And then charge you to keep it in your account. And for every single little transaction you make. So, can you be surprised that I regularly rail against their rapacious practices? Not to mention their gross inefficiency. Except when it comes to fleecing customers, of course.

The Queen Sofia in Madrid yesterday admitted they’ve mislaid a statue weighing 38 tonnes. This is quit a feat. But, sadly, they won’t be able to sell on their expertise to anyone because they don’t know how they did it. They’re investigating but, as the statue went walkabout in 1992, I for one don’t hold out much hope.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Brussels has told Spain to stop being nasty to non-resident foreigners who have a taxable income here. This includes those taxed on the notional rental value of their holiday home. In contrast to Spanish residents, these pay a [much higher] flat 25% but this turns out to be illegal under EU rules against differential treatment of EU citizens. I’m sure the Spanish government will desist from penalising foreigners in this way but probably around the same time the country shifts wholesale to European working and eating hours. All tax authorities love such soft touches as ‘rich’ people who are not in a position to take effective action against inequity.

An interesting confrontation is developing in the Basque country. Like the IRA, the ETA terrorist group has a political arm, Batasuna. The difference is the latter is illegal in Spain, whereas Sinn Fein is not in the UK. Nonetheless, Batasuna is planning to hold a conference this coming Saturday and the president, Mr Zapatero, has said he regards this as permissible under some right to meet. Others, though, take a different view and have taken the matter to the National Court. Yesterday, this decided that the meeting would be illegal and instructed the Basque government to prevent it. We wait to see if and how this will be done. Meanwhile, one positive aspect of all this is that it’s removed the Catalan constitution negotiations from the front pages.

Sad to relate, it’s a regular topic of conversation among foreigners here that the Spanish are not well-mannered. The most frequent complaint is they lack any sense of personal space and so use both the pavement and road as if no one else was on them. My own view is that it’s simplistic to say the Spanish are bad mannered. My experience is they can be as well-mannered as anyone else, but with the crucial proviso they are aware of your existence. The truth appears to be the Spanish are not brought up to be terribly sensitive to others and so do not instinctively take your needs [e. g. for personal space] into consideration. For this reason, it’s true you won’t see here some of the little ‘courtesies’ that occur in other cultures. In contrast, though, once the Spanish become aware of your existence, they can be far more friendly and considerate than elsewhere. It’s a paradox and, at times, it can irritate but, basically, the challenge is to force yourself into the mental orbit of others. Nice in theory but I admit it’s hard to walk along the street shouting ‘Boo!’ in the face of everyone who looks set to walk straight into you.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

In 2 weeks’ time, the Spanish football federation will hold a conference designed to assist in eradicating racism from the sport. Right on cue, the trainer of a major team – referring to a weekend incident involving a black player – has offered us this gem - ‘The only people who spit are those who’ve just come down from the trees.’ Doubtless, he’ll now give us the usual excuse that it wasn’t a racist comment, as he didn’t intend it to be.

I’ve mentioned that - in contrast with Portugal - few Spanish TV and radio announcers seem to take the trouble to learn how to pronounce foreign names. Thus it was that yesterday I learned that the writer of The Phantom of the Opera was André Joyd Webber and that his ex-wife was Sara Breegman. My Spanish friends insist the Portuguese are better at this merely because their culture is very influenced by the British but I can see precious little evidence for this claim. When taxed, the usual argument is that Britain and Portugal have been allies for 600 or more years, ‘usually against Spain’.

There must be very few members of Opus Dei - the ‘right-wing’ Catholic organisation - in the UK. And the most prominent of these is surely Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for education. So, it’s a little ironic that she is currently embroiled in a massive controversy about an over-lenient policy that allows some sex offenders to work in schools. Especially ironic when none of them is a priest.

And, talking about Catholicism and sin, Sky News today told us there are about 70,000 [female] prostitutes in the UK. The number for Spain – still a Catholic country – is usually said to be around 300,000. Adjusting for population difference, this would become a comparable figure of 450,000. Or a ratio of more than 6 to 1. I am occasionally taken to task for making too many references to prostitution in Spain but, as these numbers show, it’s a hard thing to avoid. No pun intended.

I’ve finally found a café and a bar in Pontevedra which have decided to be No Smoking establishments. In fact, they’re virtually adjacent, just opposite a major school. Which surely explains their enlightened decision. The bad news is that at 1pm yesterday, the bar had but one customer. I wonder if they will hold out, supported by the kids that flood there during the long ‘midday’ break after 2pm and in the evenings to play on the pool tables. Meanwhile, I could just double their midday custom.

Prize for the Accidental Hit of the Week [so far] goes to whoever searched for ‘fat women streepers’. My guess would be someone Spanish.

Stop Press: The explanation given for the alleged racist remark reported above was he was merely talking about bad manners and meant that anyone, black or white, who spat had really just come down from the trees. Funny but I just can’t recall this analogy ever being used in respect of white folk. But maybe Spain is, as they say, different.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Suddenly the country’s fall of martyrs. A doctor in Catalunia, after three months of hitting his head against the wall, has said he’ll go on hunger strike because his daughter’s school has refused to meet its legal duty to teach her Spanish. This obligation is apparently enshrined in three different constitutional documents, proving just how useful these are when there’s no political will to abide by them.

Well, the handover of power in the Galician PP party went more smoothly than anyone might have predicted six months ago, though one of the feuding barons from the hinterland decided to stay away from the party conference which saw Manuel Fraga hand over the presidency to Núñez Feijóo. Mr Fraga, despite being at least 82, will not retire from politics but will move to the Senate in Madrid. Mr Feijóo says he’s a man of the people and will base his politics on a ‘Galaico-Spanish ideology’. I think this means he’ll be less nationalist than the ruling Socialist party and their coalition partners, the Galician Nationalist party.

In the 30 years since Franco died, there’s been a massive extension to the tax base in Spain, especially via sales taxes and personal income tax. However, a report published today says 75% of Spaniards still believe that there’s either ‘A lot’ or ‘Quite a lot’ of evasion. Nonetheless, only 7% would report any they knew of. The biggest evaders, it’s suggested, are businessmen and those operating in the ‘liberal professions’, with a total of 57,000 companies said to be ‘escaping fiscal control’. I’m not sure what the ‘liberal professions’ actually are but they’re clearly allowed to be more liberal with their earnings than the rest of us are.

A columnist in one of the local papers today opined that one of the worst aspects of the ‘antidemocratic’ new smoking law was that it encouraged non-smokers to crawl out of the woodwork and attack smokers for being [would you believe] insensitive, inconsiderate and even evil. Why didn’t non-smokers show such anger in the face of the failing education system, he asked. Surely, he added, there were things far worse for our health than passive smoking, such as being slaves to lying, cheating politicians. I’ve long felt that nicotine progressively destroys exactly that part of the brain which allows one to formulate arguments on the subject of smoking so I was grateful to him for further evidence of this. His photo, need I say, showed him puffing on a pipe.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

A footnote to my comment on the 500 euro note yesterday – Spain is today reported to have a black economy [or ‘submerged economy’, as it’s called here] worth 22% of its GDP. In the developed world, this ranks third - after Greece [28%] and Italy [26%]. One wonders how they arrive at these numbers and just how accurate they can be.

In Portuguese shops, one often sees the sign No Mexas. This comes from the verb Mexer and means ‘Don’t touch’. Portuguese and Galician are sister languages but Mexar in Galician means To pee. The imperative is formed in exactly the same way, which lends a whole new dimension to shopping across the border. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one such confusing opposite between American and British English. ‘To barrack’ means to support in the former but to jeer in the latter.

You’ll all be asking yourselves Well, did he finally get the bank credit card for which he had to send a photocopy of his identity card 3 times. And did he get a reply to his Nov. 17 email about the poor returns on his 3 year investment? Don’t be silly. I’ve decided to give up on the former and keep using my UK cards. As for the latter, I’ve sent a letter to the MD of the bank and await his response. Or lack thereof. Meanwhile, the internet bank with which I opened an account last week has got off to a good start by getting my post code wrong in its confirmation letter. Just what you need in a bank – a tendency to make errors with key numbers.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Although the café/bar I patronise each day still allows smoking, I was clinging to the hope its size would ensure that – on the very last day of the period of grace – it would be converted into a No Smoking establishment. But the head barman tells me that ‘It all depends’. As the place is L-shaped, the owner is hoping to convince whomsoever [no one knows yet] that it’s really two places, each of less than 100 square metres, and so neither of them has to ban smoking. I am personally unimpressed by the logic of this but dismayed at the thought that, for one reason or another, others will take a different view. I’ve said I’ll take my custom elsewhere but they don’t believe me, possibly because there are no signs at all that anywhere else will offer relief to non-smokers.

I received a flier on 5 January from an airline company offering special deals. These were available from 15 November until 15 January. As the company was Portugalia, it’s clear the need for better customer orientation is an Iberia-wide phenomenon. And yet, despite their tendency to waste a fortune on almost-out-of-time promotions, I should add Portugalia is an excellent little outfit when it comes to flying planes. I’m not sure I could find anyone prepared to say anything similar about Iberia.

A couple of people have been kind enough to write on the subject of Spanish parents and their alleged willingness to support their kids whatever they do. I had another thought myself. If true, is it perhaps connected with the national characteristic of getting angry with people who remonstrate with you for, say, blocking the street? Or parking in front of their garage? Or coming at them the wrong way down a one-way street? Or nearly knocking them over on a zebra crossing? Just a thought.

It seems that the 500 euro note still represents almost 60% of the value of notes in circulation in Spain. The Bank of Spain, if I understand them correctly, has said this is because of the upsurge in personal loans. So, nothing to do, then, with the fact that larger notes are much more useful in a black economy.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The Catalans would like their new Constitution to contain a provision giving everyone living there the duty [deber] to learn Catalan. This is something which I don’t think any national government in the British Isles [including the Irish government] has ever even considered in respect of Welsh, Gaelic or Manx. And I don’t suppose the old Cornish county council ever thought of obliging every resident to speak Cornish. The president, Mr Zapatero, appears to be disposed to accepting this demand, saying it won’t change a thing as it will be a duty without sanctions for non-compliance. So why have it, other than to cock a snook at Spain? Of course, Mr Z may be the only person outside Catalunia who believes this.

The book I quoted the other day finishes with the following paragraph. Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking of Spain and the semi-tribalistic attitudes which seem to underlie much of what is happening here at the moment:- Everywhere we always find the human urges to preserve at least a measure of personal autonomy, on the one hand, and to form communal relationships, on the other. It is the latter which tends to get out of hand. To form a national or other such grouping without forfeiting liberties and without generating venom against other such groupings – such is the problem before the world. To cope with it, we need careful thinking, balanced understanding and open yet unservile minds. One wonders how much of these are around in Catalunia and the Basque Country right now.

And I also thought of the UK’s Labour government plans for the replacement of counties by huge regions. Do they really understand the forces that might be unleashed? Except, of course, that envy and enmity presuppose personal loyalty to the region to which one belongs. And, in contradistinction to Spain, there would be little, if any, of this in respect of Britain’s artificial, EU-endorsed mega-regions.

I see newspapers and TV channels now offer ‘Weblogs’. In other words, professional reports dressed up as blogs. I suspect the only similarity with the real efforts of us amateurs is that you can post a comment to them. And so pretend you’re part of a major news organisation. I suppose it’s cheaper than phoning in your inane comment and waiting for someone to read out ‘Baz in Croydon thinks the world would be a better place if all blacks was white’. I wonder when Sky will get round to asking viewers to vote on whether alleged sex-offenders should be strung up without a trial. Can’t be far off.

Three cheers for the city of Leganés, the first in Spain [and Europe?] to set up ‘geriatric parks’. These are like the places with swings and things for kids but, instead, contain outdoor exercise equipment, imported from China.

Someone hit my blog last night after googling ‘Sanxenxo Pontevedra sexy nightclubs’. Good to know the quality of our tourists is rising. The endless brothel ads in the back pages of the local papers will surely be in English soon.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Spanish working hours are a thing of wonder, to say nothing of their hours of play. But the government - perhaps concerned about low productivity - has said it’s time for the country to move towards a more ‘European’ timetable. I hope they’re not too optimistic. My own belief is that this is inevitable but could take at least a generation or two. Right now, I suspect most people here would support the woman I heard on a phone-in program tonight who clearly equated a short lunch with a dose of bird ‘flu.

I’ve mentioned before we’re regularly told Spain is near the bottom of the table when it comes to educational statistics. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear teachers here are among the highest paid in Europe. Even more astonishingly, they’re more than averagely unhappy with their lot. I happen to know the state system doesn’t make exorbitant demands on their time so I guess they must hark back to a time when they had even less to do. No wonder it’s a popular profession. Why, they even have their own private medical insurance. Imagine the fuss that would cause in the UK!

Actually, I asked my teacher friends recently what they thought were the main reasons for the fact Spain has the highest school dropout rate among 16-18 year olds in Europe. Apart from low government spend, they cited:- a belief that education is pointless when employment prospects are low; the willingness of parents to subsidise children way beyond anything normal in other countries; and, generally, a low work ethic on the part of both parents and their children. Pretty damning. So I’m very glad I’m only reporting someone else’s views. This week they told me that Spanish parents not only indulge their children but also defend them regardless of whatever they’ve done. I suppose these are two sides of the same coin but I’m reluctant to believe the latter. So, if there are any Spanish readers who disagree, I’d like to hear from them.

Faced with a backbench revolt, the British government has reversed its policy of allowing pubs to chose, as of next year, whether to be Smoking or No Smoking establishments. Instead they will impose a blanket ban, as in Ireland I think. Here in Spain, the first week of the new law is reported to have led to a 25% drop in the sales of tobacco and the withdrawal of 40,000 vending machines. But hell will freeze over, I suspect, before any sort of total ban is imposed here. As of now, the law appears to have made a real difference to offices and other work places but none whatsoever to cafés and bars.

If you have an iPod and a spare 200 dollars, Levi will happily exchange it for a pair of jeans with an extra pocket in them just for your little machine. And Johnsons are advertising a massage lotion for you to rub on babies' chests every night. While Nivea are selling an anti-wrinkle cream for men. I wonder if anyone’s planning to launch a suicide kit.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

It’s been suggested the UK’s planned partial smoking ban will be contrary to the European Human Rights Act because of the exposure of staff to fumes where smoking’s still permitted. Here in Spain close to 100% of small cafés and bars will continue to allow smoking but I have some difficulty believing any suits will be initiated on this basis.

On the other hand, it’s reported today the National Court here has pronounced itself competent to judge an action brought against Chinese ex-politicians accused of genocide in Tibet. This must have them worried. At least it should stop them coming here for their cosmetic surgery.

And still on the subject of legal actions, a retired British general has said there are grounds for impeaching Tony Blair for taking the UK to war on the basis of lies. There probably are but I suspect it would be easier to prosecute him for breaches of the Human Rights Act inherent in the anti-smoking legislation.

It’s often said the UK is blessed with not having a written Constitution about whose words there could be interminable debate. Spare a thought, then, for poor Spain, which has 18 of the creatures. One for the state itself and one for each of the 17 Autonomous Communities. It all rather reminds me of the story of Gold Meir telling Nixon it was far tougher being President of Israel than the USA. ‘How could that be’, he asked, ‘when I have 200 million people and you have only 3?’ ‘Mr. Nixon, she sighed, ‘You may be the President of 200 million people but I am the President of 3 million Presidents!’.

Only a fool would hazard a guess as to where Spain will be in 20 years’ time but I don’t suppose many would have predicted the post-Franco ‘Transition’ would still, in effect, be continuing nearly 30 years after his death. A cartoon in El Mundo today neatly captured the situation. It showed Spain with the following caption written across it – “Nation (unique) of alleged nationalities and regions en route to metamorphosis”. Not exactly rib-tickling but to the point.

In Spain, the morning extends until your lunch time, usually about 2pm. So 12 noon is about two hours prior to ‘midday’. I had thought things were different in the UK but Sky News today announced someone would be coming into the studio at ‘noon this morning.’ Mind you, what can one expect when the channel is hell bent on changing itself from a News station into a fifth-rate entertainment channel and is fronted by an Irishman who thinks he’s more of a comedian than a newscaster. To say nothing of the woman who does the sports reports. But don’t get me started.

Spain seems to have a different cake or pastry for every occasion. Just before they left, my daughters bought a couple of slices of something made for the New Year. It appears to be concocted of little but sugar and sherry, topped with custard. Not unlike a rather solid English trifle. So rich is it, if you don’t have diabetes when you start on it, you probably will by the time you’ve finished.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Spain has its first Smokers’ martyr. It’s a 34 year old male [of course] who sat next to the No Smoking sign in the cafeteria of a motorway services in Navarra, lit up and then adamantly refused to either stop or move to the Smoking area just a couple of metres away. When he refused to give his identity, he was arrested, taken down to the nick and fined 240 euros in a summary judgement. I suspect, though, most of this was for the more heinous offence in Spain of not producing an identity card.

And a friend has told me of an old chap who lit up in the only No Smoking bar of her village and, when told to desist, said he missed Franco as life was freer under him because you could smoke where you liked. Most of us find our broad mind and narrow waist eventually change places but I hope it’s at least another 30 years before I start equating freedom to think and say what I like with the freedom to slowly kill myself and irritate a lot of people along the way.

The Catalunian government is reported to have examined patient records to check on whether doctors are complying with an obligation to favour Catalan over Spanish. There is a line somewhere between the legitimate promotion of a regional/national language in a ‘plurinational’ state and what amounts to abuse. The UK, for example, has faced this issue with Welsh and English in Wales. But in this instance, the line appears to have been well and truly crossed, especially as patient permission was not sought. This is a potentially criminal offence but it also raises the question of just how far the Catalan nationalists are prepared to go in pursuit of their goals. As it happens, I read this view today in a book about ‘reality and delusion in the course of history’. Most people will have come across – and many novelists have written about – the types who seek power in a village, or a college or a business, often with a high level of self-justification. In a state-wide – or continent-wide – bureaucracy, there is a great deal of room for this unfortunate temperament.

My nice-but-noisy neighbour, Tony, has gone back to his petrol tanker and so things are quieter again next door. Or, rather, they would be if someone who’s been doing this on and off for 2 years wasn’t hammering on and drilling holes in our shared wall. I guess this was left until now because it would have disturbed Tony during his R&R. Nice to know someone benefited from some consideration.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Sadly, I spoke too soon about reduced road fatalities during the Christmas period, which officially ended at midnight on Sunday. The final total was 32 up on last year. And for 2005 as a whole, there were 182 deaths more than in 2004. Is this the Fernando Alonso effect I’ve mused about?

I also got it wrong about there being 4 family dinners between 24 December and 6 January. I’m told that in many homes there are 5, as the New Year’s Eve marathon is followed by another gathering on New Year’s Day. Just as at Christmas, merely a week before. By 7th January, then, most Galicians must have seafood coming out of every orifice. No wonder the prices soar into the stratosphere.

Time to salute the citizen who has spent the last 2 to 3 years monitoring 935 telephone booths and now has enough evidence to bring an action against Telefonica for defrauding the public of 1.2m euros a day by short-changing them. Couldn’t happen to a nicer company. Perhaps he’ll move on to one of the major banks next, as these have a similar attitude to customer relations.

In a related vein, I came across a new bit of Spanglish today – El slamming. This is the practice of making it incredibly easy for you to sign up to a phone contract and then virtually impossible for you to extricate yourself when you are fed up with the abominable service and the fraudulent billing practices.

In a country where rule compliance is possibly less pronounced than elsewhere, the gypsies are in a class of their own. Simply put, they frequently act as if they were completely above the law. One of the worst examples of this happened yesterday in Sevilla, when a young gypsy girl ran into the road and was hit by a passing car. She was only lightly injured and the 64 year old driver got out to attend to her. For this he was beaten up by the girl’s family and then murdered with 11[!] shots into his head and body. This atrocity received rather less prominence in the media than you might have expected, possibly because we regularly read of deaths in gypsy clan wars that are invariably referred to as 'a settling of accounts’.

Hits to my blog are now running at about 60 a day. All very gratifying but I have a suspicion several of these stem from people googling my namesake who appears to be big in the world of marijuana. And then, of course, there’s those looking for ‘brothels in Spain’. Or even Wallasey. And, now that she’s in Celebrity Big Brother, for ‘naked pictures of Faria Alam’. It takes all sorts. Funny how no one ever seeks nude pictures of Sven Eriksson.

Interesting to note Word’s spell check recognises Sven and Eriksson but neither Faria nor Alam. Surely time to sue Microsoft for sexual discrimination. Everything else has been tried.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

The outspoken army general I mentioned yesterday has been put under house arrest, pending his dismissal by the relevant committee meeting in a week or so’s time. There seems to be universal agreement this is merited, though the right-wing paper, El Mundo, has dismissed as disingenuous exaggeration the government’s suggestion that the general’s words caused widespread alarm. With some justification, the paper adds that it’s the ‘anti-constitutional’ nature of Catalunia’s demands that are actually causing alarm among the Spanish populace.

An excellent question today from the Director General of the Traffic Ministry – If you kill someone when you are driving at 200kph[125mph], can it really be ‘involuntary homicide’?

This year is, of course, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. A Dutch company [Brilliant] has issued a full set of his master works for 99 euros. That’s if you live on the continent. In the UK, the price appears to be 99 pounds, say 144 euros. And on Amazon UK it’s 140 quid, or 209 euros. Plus package and postage. Maybe there’s a simple explanation. Anyway, a writer in one of the Spanish papers today commented that, whereas Cervantes was only too human in his genius, Mozart was divine. Before him, he added, there was no music. This may be going just a tad too far but I find it easy to sympathise with his adulation. It contrasts sharply with the attitude of the BBC’s classical music channel, which said they wouldn’t be giving Mozart the special treatment they’ve given other composers because he was ‘too chocolate boxy’. So, stuff the public and its taste. This strikes me as even worse than the Spanish classical music channel, which plays little but modern rubbish after 10.30 - apparently because the director is himself a composer of this discordant nonsense and audience numbers are irrelevant to the security of his tenure.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The army’s No. 2 has put his foot in it by suggesting that, if things go too far with the revision of the constitutional arrangements between Catalunia and the Spanish state, the military forces will have to look to their legal obligation to defend the interests of the state. In a country where there’s, understandably, a high degree of sensitivity to political pronouncements by military personnel, his demotion is inevitable. The Left have virtually accused him of plotting a coup d’etat, though the Right have said he’s merely voicing understandable concerns, widespread amongst the public. Whatever, it seems likely that he’ll now have to de-scabbard his ceremonial sword and fall on it.

In one of those typically parochial headlines which are the fruit of Spain’s intense regionalism, we read that the country’s second largest lottery [El Niño] had ‘ignored Galicia’ and bestowed its bounty on Murcia. What about the other 15 Autonomous Communities, then?

Domestic murders – or ‘gender violence’ as it’s called – are a regular media item here. The good news is that 2005’s total fell to 62, from 72 in 2004. But this year has started badly, with 5 murders in the first 5 days - 4 women and 1 man. In truth, the Spanish rate is no worse than many European countries but the current government is the first to take any real action against it, including special courts around the country. So the hope must be this is a statistical blip. Though this is no consolation for the poor victims and their relatives.

I can finally report I’ve found a small Non Smoking café/bar in Pontevedra. In other words, one where the owner could choose the status and elected for clear air. Strangely, though, this is a place which has always been rather empty when I’ve walked past. So I suspect the owner’s decision is actually a last-ditch commercial strategy. Time will surely tell and I, for one, certainly hope its fortunes are now reversed, however cynical the motivation.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Galician nationalist party, the BNG, lost votes at the last election but, paradoxically, gained power by becoming the coalition party of the much larger Socialist Party. Support, of course, has to be bought so last week we saw the introduction of a measure making it compulsory for candidates for certain government jobs to answer entrance exam papers in Galician. I suspect we’ll see more of this nonsense so it was good to see the leading regional newspaper – The Voz de Galicia – roundly condemning this for being gratuitously divisive. They also criticised the Xunta’s Christmas card for having a montage of Galicia’s famous sons which omitted those of the wrong political stamp. So there’s some hope we won’t end up as the poor man’s Catalunia.

A reader has queried that the Spanish anti-smoking law is the toughest in Europe. He points out that only in Spain will the owners of [‘small’] bars and restaurants be allowed to decide whether they’ll be Smoking or No-Smoking establishments. He’s right, of course, but I think the oft-repeated comment re the hardness of the Spanish law relates to the penalties. These escalate rapidly for serial offences, provided there’s the will to enforce them, of course. For the record, I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and share our friend’s view that it’s at least unpleasant to drink or eat in most Spanish bars and restaurants. Happily, my own favourite café/bar is more than 100m2 in size so will have to close off the smokers by end August. Would they would do this before then but this, I suspect, is asking too much. And I also hope the few non-smoking places flourish way beyond expectation. Against all that, the libertarian in me regrets that the signs on the doors of Smoking establishments remind us that smoking is seriously prejudicial to our health. This seems to me to be far more intrusively nanny-ish than putting it on the cigarette packets. And, besides, can any smoker really be unaware of this now?

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Today’s El Mundo reported that Spain’s inflation was running at 2.2%, against an EU average of 3.8%. El Pais had the figures the other way round. On this occasion, I’m confident the latter paper – albeit left-wing – has given us the correct economic data.

Having been adopted by at least one dog a year since I came here, I wasn’t too surprised to read this morning that Galicia ranks second worst in Spain for abandonment of pets. Mind you, in a poor region with lots of cows, pigs and goats there’s probably a lot less sentimentality here than elsewhere. Though I’ve never come across any hanging greyhounds.

Back to the anti-smoking law. It seems the regions have a good deal of latitude as to its implementation. So it is, for example, that Valencia hasn’t yet got round to establishing a team of inspectors to check whether or not the bars and offices are complying. And, strange to relate, the tobacco companies launched a host of cheap brands just before the introduction of the measure. Packets of 20 can be as little as €1.20. Ideal for teenagers and students, they say.

The very good news is that road deaths during the Christmas and New Year period were well down on last year. But I wouldn’t want to give you the impression the festivities are finally over. Tomorrow we have the feast of The Kings, when Spanish kids traditionally receive their presents. Or, nowadays, their second pile of gifts. So tonight will be the 4th big family dinner since 24th December. One wonders how Spanish families manage to remain so close. If they really do.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Driving my daughters to Santiago airport today, I noted the autopista was – as ever - relatively free of traffic. Dwelling on the possibility this could be connected with the tolls that double the cost of the trip, it struck me that only the wealthier drivers take the autopistas. Everyone else – and most of the commercial traffic – takes the parallel National roads. What this means is that, via EU hand-outs, Northern European taxpayers of all levels have financed the greater speed and comfort of the Spanish elite. This is even more true of North Portugal, where the toll roads are virtually devoid of traffic. Perhaps things will change when Spanish per capita income is higher and tolls are lower. And pigs have learned to fly.

At 10am on New Year’s Day, a member of the national police in Tarragona – returning from an all-night party - drove into the back of a cyclist. He was later found to be more than 4 times over the alcohol limit. But at least he'll be disciplined for his offence. Which is more than can be said for one of our local police chiefs, who makes a habit of driving into the back of vehicles after lunch. Or breakfast even.

Back home from seeing my daughters off at the airport, I decided to cheer myself up with a glass of Albariño wine and a plate of curry. Hardly the correct combination but what the hell. Having decided to baptise a new tray I got for Christmas, I carried the food and drink into my sitting room. But, being unsure of the dimensions and balance of the tray, I also managed to baptise the settee, my pullover and my trousers. The rest of the afternoon was downhill.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

As is well known, the Spanish favour superlatives. So, women here are never just ‘pretty’ [bonita] but at least ‘beautiful’ [guapa] and frequently ‘very beautiful’ [guapisima]. In fact, if you tell a woman she’s merely bonita, I suspect you run the risk of making what the Spanish call una indirecta. In other words, everyone [especially her!] will think you’re accusing her of being ugly. In such a way are words devalued. One small but telling example of Spanish hyperbole is that here young girls are not called Princesa but Reina, or Queen. The same is true of young bitches.

A teacher friend of my elder daughter stayed with us over Christmas. Like her, he teaches English in Madrid whilst writing novels. He frequently asks his young pupils to list the characteristics of a good friend. Without fail, he says, one of these will be that a good friend allows you to copy his answers during exams. I must check this with the English teachers to whom I give a conversation class each week. Well, it’s not really a class; I merely make some provocative statement and listen to them argue for an hour. As I think I’ve said before, I really should pay the school for being entertained.

I neglected to point out yesterday that the problem of calling Christmas ‘Christmas’ related to the UK, not Spain. Thank God it will be long time before, if ever, we face this sort of nonsense here. This is just one of the ways in which Spanish society is far saner than Britain’s. Interestingly, a US reader has said there’s been something of a backlash there against this madness, with customers boycotting shops which decline to feature the word ‘Christmas’. I fear, though, to some Europeans this will simply be further evidence that the USA is choc-a-bloc with religious nuts.

And talking of sanity.…. The press reported today that 90% of the small cafés, bars and restaurants which were given the choice have opted to be Smoking, rather than Non-Smoking - establishments. As I said yesterday, larger places must, by September, provide separate [air-extracted] facilities for smokers, whether they want to or not. The Ministry of Health says they’re surprised and disappointed at this initial situation and hope commercial sense will effect a change, as and when customers start avoiding the smoke-ridden places in their millions. Vamos a ver. Meanwhile, I can understand them being disappointed but it would astonish me if they really were surprised. Unless they feared 100%.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Today’s Voz de Galicia reported they’d only been able to find one non-smoking bar in Vigo yesterday, the first day of the new anti-smoking law. This is one more than I could find in Pontevedra today. The truth is proprietors have 8 months grace before they must take measures to provide for non-smokers. So, in a country where everything is left to the last minute, it was hardly likely much would be done at this stage. Meanwhile, 70% of Spaniards are said to agree with the new law in principle, though a sizable proportion think it’s too severe. What really is surprising is only 20% of smokers say they’ll ignore it.

God knows I’ve criticised Spanish bureaucracy often enough but here’s a tale which shows that problems are not exclusive to Spain. My younger daughter had her car stolen in Leeds the night before she came here and was concerned she’d heard nothing from the police in 10 days. So she called them today and quoted her Crime Incident Number, only to be informed they could tell her nothing because of the provisions of the Data Protection Act. What she would have to do was call the Crime Recording Bureau, revise her phone number to mine in Spain and wait for the Leeds police to call her here. If nothing came through in 2 days, she would have to repeat the process so as to re-institute her UK number once she was back in the UK. The logic of all this is beyond me. Are we to imagine the police believe there’s a risk someone would steal the Crime Incident Number and then impersonate my daughter? It sounds to me like yet another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences at work.

An eminent British historian has suggested that, as Scotland freely relinquished its independence a couple of hundred years ago, it should now stop pretending to be a real country. Presumably, it would simply then be a region of the UK. If so, the comparisons regularly made here between Catalunia or Galicia and Scotland would carry more conviction than at present. Though this would not necessarily appeal to those who are in the habit of making these comparisons.

For those who worry about these things, I read that the way to ensure you’re not offending anyone by using the word ‘Christmas’ is to substitute either ‘The holidays’ or ‘The festive period’. You’ve now got about 357 days to practice these.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Spain’s draconian anti-smoking law came into effect today and, needless to say, the first café/bar I went into at lunchtime had ignored the requirement to put a notice on the door advising whether it was a Smoking or Non-smoking establishment. A friend I met there complained that someone had earlier made a fuss about this but had been dismissed with the comment that it was early days and that, anyway, there was a [small] sign below the TV up in the corner.

After a meal in a restaurant last night, my daughters stayed in town to see in the New Year. Their intention was to do this in one – or several – of the bars for which the old quarter is justly famous. But, within ten minutes of me leaving them, they called to ask me to pick them up as there wasn’t a single place open. This, of course, reflects the fact the Spanish celebrate the arrival of the new year with a huge family meal which ends at midnight with the downing of a grape on each of the clock’s twelve strikes. Then, after talking about it for an hour or so, they depart for a bit of nightlife. If you haven’t guessed, this means the bars open between 1 and 2 and stay open until 8 in the morning, whether or not they have a licence to do so.

Closer to home, my nice-but-noisy neighbours – in keeping with Spanish tradition – enjoyed their 3rd huge, family meal in eight days. As ever, the party really got going around 2am, just as I was retiring to bed. I would have loved to reciprocate their love of noise and total lack of consideration for me by playing loud music from 9am. But, sadly, my daughters’ habit of sleeping until noon queered my pitch. However, they leave on Wednesday and revenge, they say, is a dish best eaten cold.