Wednesday, April 30, 2008

It was counter-intuitive to read yesterday that “In 2006, Britain spent ₤497m [then c.€750m] on cosmetic surgery – more than any other European country”. But there you are. It’s in the press so it must be true. No wonder British women look so good . . .

I learned yesterday it’s the law in Spain that you must leave 30cm [1 foot] between you and the next car when you park. I had thought the rule was 2cm in town and at least 2 metres where it’s slightly less difficult to park. In what might be a typical Spanish approach to the application of a law, the police in Pontevedra say they’re now going to fine anyone who leaves less than 20cm. So I guess both men and women will now be asking what 8 inches looks like.

On a more serious note – A columnist in the Voz de Galicia yesterday addressed the story of the Spanish [Basque] fishing boat ransomed by Somali buccaneers. His opening salvo went – “Socialists are famous for the masterful management of information. They know how to establish priorities, to dominate the news agenda, to stress what they want highlighted, to hide what is inconvenient and, as a result, to create opinions which suit the party and the government. The only problem with this [no less when they are responsible for governing] is that they frequently confuse information with propaganda, just like other parties when they govern. And over the last 3 days they have confused it with transparency”. Too much Orwell, I suspect. But surely correct. In this instance, at least.

Returning to frivolity – My use of an alternative word for ‘pirates’ has reminded me of an old joke which featured Bluebeard shouting “Where’s me buccaneers?” and receiving an insolent response from his crew. Which I’ll leave you to guess at. The usual prize for the winner. Though the competition is not open to Scousers.

At first glance, the UK and Spanish papers appear to agree that, offensively, Barcelona were the superior team last night but that Man United were more dangerous. Defensively, there was no contest and, unconstrained by fear, United would surely have scored more than Scholes’ solitary but brilliant goal. As someone wrote – “United weren’t the better team but they had better tactics”. That said, I agree they were “worryingly lax in possession”. Which seems to be the English disease. Why do keepers persist in booting the ball upfield? And, while you’re at it, what on earth is the purpose of life?

After 20 or 30 years, my credit card company and I parted company yesterday, when I took exception to their refusal to waive a late payment fee which arose because of my absence from Spain last month. True, they haven’t made much money from me in all those years, but I guess their willingness to accept my cancellation is a sign of the times. If you’re a credit card company, you really want your customers to live off credit. Assuming your parent bank has got the money to lend them in the first place.

Galicia Facts

I read yesterday that “There are many theories as to why complex cookery did not take off in sub Saharan Africa, away from the Arab-influenced coasts. None are entirely satisfactory but one plausible theory is that cuisines tend to migrate along latitudes, or climatic belts”. Which may well be the best explanation for the absence of spices/sauces in Galician cooking. Other than the bloody ubiquitous paprika, of course.

Events in Scotland are followed closely here in Galicia, as they are in Cataluña and the Basque country. So it’ll be disappointing for our Nationalists to read that – after a year of rule by the Scottish Nationalist party – the populace is even less interested in independence than ever. Only 19% say they want this, maybe because 81% of them are smart enough to smell a rat when the English are insisting they shove off and tax themselves. Not stupid, those Scots. At least not when it comes to money.

Finally, I hope someone enjoyed the Encyc. Brit. link while it was there. I decided this morning it was too intrusive. And distracting from the Google ads which will make me rich . . .

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A while back I said it’d be interesting to see what sort of thing would crawl out of the woodwork that had remained hidden - or uncared about - during our devil-may-care, carpetbagger good times. Well, here’s one. It’s called the Mirador Group and it operated on the south coast, offering future homes for trusting folk - In each case deposits of between €30,000 and 50,000 were demanded for homes in several developments which four of five years later have still not been completed, and where in most cases construction has not even started, or the necessary municipal licences to build obtained. These irregularities allegedly occurred despite the contract saying that construction was already underway. I fancy there’ll be a few more of these. Especially as the headline in the Voz de Galicia this morning is of the collapse of a major construction company up in Ourense.

If I wanted to quote dire numbers about the current economic situation, I’d have a blizzard of them to chose from. But I’ll just content myself with reports that unemployment is growing at least twice as fast among immigrants than among Spaniards. Given that Spain’s population is said to have increased by 10% in the last decade because of the arrival of these, I doubt it’s alarmist to worry about the implications. Or to be surprised that the relevant minister has offered a one-off payment equivalent to the dole to those prepared to make the return journey. But it’s fascinating to see that such a proposal does not get the reaction it would in the rather more race-sensitive UK. Horses for courses.

Regular contributor Moscow occasionally gives the impression life is tough in his part of the world. But it seems there’s at least one consolation. According to a UK columnist - The arrival of spring sunshine has filled Moscow's streets with women engaged in a Darwinian struggle for attention. Dressed to kill and teetering on impossibly high stilettos, their goal is simple: to capture a man who will keep them in the manner to which they intend to be accustomed. Shades of Pontevedra. Which is not a complaint.

Which reminds me – My midday Sunday ritual of squid and albariño was almost ruined by the conversation of two young women sitting on a nearby bench but using my table for their drinks. The topic was their respective needs for breast implants, complete with demonstrations of why they could be necessary. And how much they’d weigh. Fortunately, I’m too old to be affected by this sort of thing.

Speaking about the payment of the 1.2m ransom for the release of trawlermen by Somali pirates, the Foreign Minister has pronounced that ‘Saving Spaniards has no price’. I guess this is not really surprising and I anticipate widespread sympathy for this view across Spain. But will anyone be astonished when the pirates up the ante to 2, 3 or even 10 times this amount? Meanwhile, who’s paying? President Zapatero is currently being a tad coy about this. Perhaps the pirates were entitled to one of his pre-election tax rebates.

Which reminds me – a whopping 62% of Spaniard now say they think Mr Z lied about the state of the economy in the run-up to the general election. Astonishing. In a number of ways. For one thing, I thought only right-of-centre politicians lied.

Switching to the travails of Gordon Brown in the UK, you know he’s in serious trouble when a columnist on the Times writes:- You get a better write-up in ‘The Guardian’ if you are Fidel Castro or the leader of Hamas than if you're the Labour Prime Minister. Despite them rooting for Mr Brown when the hated Blair was in power, they now seem to concur that GB ought to be someone else, someone able to emote over the plight of mortgage-holders, someone as decisive as Tony Blair was over, say, Iraq. They adored Mr Brown for being Mr Notblair (“Look, no grandstanding”) in the summer, but the moment that things got rough, they plunged into the water and made for their nests on Purity Island.

Finally, I know that a barrio chino is a red-light district – just looked it up! – but can anyone tell me what a concerto chino is? Apart from the obvious, of course.

Monday, April 28, 2008

According to a Trivial Pursuit card, ‘Barcelona’ is the answer to the question Which city is called the Manchester of Spain? I wonder what the place has done to deserve this dubious accolade.

As I regularly say, the obituaries of Spain’s leading papers are astonishingly catholic. Yesterday, El País carried one on the English actress Hazel Court – a name, I suspect, unknown to millions of Brits. And another on Joy Pace, who apparently had a small part in Casablanca.

El País also carried a two-page article on the imminent election for the Mayor of London. Hard to see the Times or Guardian reciprocating as regards a Madrid contest. Unless, of course, Graeme from South of Watford had risen to the position of editor of one of them and Esperanza Aguirre was lurking in the background.

While no one would want to criticise the emotions shown by the families of the crew of the ship released from the maw of Somali pirates at the weekend, I have to say I found the triumphalist attitude of the Spanish government a little hard to take. How on earth can it be so proud of helping to ensure release via the payment of a huge ransom? And is this all at one with the pronouncements of the new Minister of Defence yesterday that she’s a pacifist who wants all Spaniards to see the army as a force for peace? Is appeasement back in vogue? Does no one actually want to blow the escaping pirates out of the water? Or would this, perhaps, need a UN resolution?

In their respective blogs recently, both John Chappell and Trevor ap Simon have touched on the issue of anti-Semitism in Spain. Or at least on prevalent attitudes towards Israel. So it was something of a coincidence to read in the Faro de Vigo last night that a member of the Galician Nationalist Party [BNG] had been expelled after becoming president of the Galician Friends of Israel Society. Apparently, this is incompatible with the BNG stance that Israel is an imperialist state. Even though the party claims to be in favour of democracy and free speech.

Which reminds me – I’ve been wondering recently why so many of Pontevedra’s youth sport the Palestinian scarf, the keffiyah. After all, if they wanted to show they were revolting, they could wear the Galician flag or some other symbol of protest against the colonial Castilians in Madrid. But now I realise that, in displaying anti-Israel sentiment, they are at the same time proving their Nationalist credentials. A toofer*, in other words. Clever.

I’ve repeated my view recently that local government in the UK is corrupt, in that it appears to operate primarily for the benefit of civil servants and not for their ‘clients’. Here, then, is some support for this claim.

I was saying yesterday I was a pretty contented chap. So how to explain that I awoke today after a night of dreams which included one in which my baby younger daughter – now a mere 27 – was missing? And another in which I drove an Alfa Romeo saloon into a deep flood in the tunnel of a motorway? But I should stress not all was disastrous; I emerged from the waters carrying the car under my arm. Albeit as a sans-roof decapotable. Triumphalist? Moi!

* Two for the price of one

Sunday, April 27, 2008

I must have blinked. The Minister of Finance now says his forecast for this year’s economic growth is 2.3%. I could have sworn he said 2.5% only a couple of days ago. At this rate, he’ll soon be agreeing with the pessimists down at 1.8%.

Fortunately for a Colombian woman called Darling who took out Spanish nationality last year, the state has finally decided she’s free to call herself by her own name and not by something chosen from a list of Catholic saints. Which must, I guess, be regarded as progress. And possibly as the thin end of an irreligious wedge. I wonder what the odds are on the first Chikilicuatre.

Regular readers will know I bow to no one in my distaste for the British tabloid press. And that I’ve never subscribed to any of the lunatic theories around the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. So I was pleased to read this morning this incisive comment by the novelist Lionel Shriver on the whole sorry affair. Not that it will change anything.

There is, of course, no limit to the range of remedies people will take for the common cold – an affliction that was once described as something which lasts for two weeks if you don’t treat it but only for a fortnight if you do. My favourite continues to be copious quantities of whisky, sugar and water. Which is ironic since, after drinking most of a bottle when I was 19, it’s dangerous for me to even smell whisky when I’m well. Anyway, here’s what Samuel Pepys wrote on the morning of 26 April, three hundred and forty five years ago - Up very betimes, my cold continuing and my stomach sick with the buttered ale that I did drink the last night in bed, which did lie upon me till I did this morning vomitt it up.

Talking of indulgence - At one of those spectacularly long, talk-centred, immensely enjoyable Spanish lunches that you could never have in the UK, I was asked if I was a journalist. I said not and that I supposed I was a journalist-manqué. I gave a similar response to the next question, admitting that I was also a writer-manqué. Then I volunteered I was, above all else, a comic entertainer- manqué. Driving home, I was forced to conclude that, with all this manqué-ness around, my entire life must be counted an abject failure. Which rather fails to answer the most important question – If so, why am I so contented? I finally put it down to the readership of this blog. Which allows me to go on pretending so much on the basis of so little. So, dear reader, the deal is – you keep reading and I won’t top myself. Not too much to ask, is it?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Not being what the Spanish call a philologist, I’ve no idea what the right term for this is. And nor do I know the correct phonetic symbols. But I’m fascinated – OK, irritated – by the change that has taken place in the last 10 years with the words title, hospital, castle, model and the like. All of these are now pronounced by people under, say, 40 quite differently from folk of my age. Even by professors from Oxbridge on the BBC who otherwise favour traditional Received Pronunciation. In this case, the word was, of course, Aristotle. Is this the TV-peddled influence of Estuary English? Anyone know? Anyone got a theory?

Having, as I write this, just heard a BBC report about people in the UK being sent to hospitul after being bi’ttun by a rapid puppy, I’m left wondering whether this shift in pronunciation doesn’t centre on the letter T. And on East End glottal stops. Whatever they are.

Talking to an estate agent friend yesterday, he guessed the number of vacant flats in Pontevedra at 3,500 – a total which can only rise, as many more blocks come on stream in the next two years or so. There are, he said, people with 2 or 3 flats they bought ‘off-plan’ to sell on when you couldn’t lose on property speculation but for which buyers now can’t be found and on which mortgages have to be paid. I doubt we’ve seen the worst of the consequences of the end of a boom built on sand. The bad employment statistics of this week can only get worse, as the relevant minister has finally admitted. Of course, it’s specious to blame all this on the mortgage mess in the USA but this, inevitably, is the government’s line. Nowt to do with us, mate. All the fault of those incompetent, dishonest Yankees.

You’d think all this would lead to an improvement in the rental market but it seems not. Potential lessors remain scared that a slow and inefficient judicial system will give them little protection against fraudulent lessees. As I recall, the PSOE said they’d do something about this structural problem if they were re-elected. But I suspect they’re going to be distracted by bigger problems. One of which is attending to the blackmail demands of the construction industry, which run along the lines – “If you don’t help us, you’ll lose even more of the massive tax income you get from property transactions. Not to mention legions of unemployed”. A no-brainer really. So the odds are the government will shove money in this direction, rather than towards the banking industry, à la Mr Brown in the UK. I think even El País favours the latter. On economic rather than anti-capitalist grounds, I should add.

Over seven years or so, the Nationalist mayor of Pontevedra has effected massive changes on the streets of the city. One day, perhaps, we will see these have all been part of a master plan and not made up as he went along. But, whatever the truth is, I have to say I’m very largely in favour of what’s been done. This is essentially because I don’t drive a car around the place and am, therefore, only positively affected by the strategy of reducing every road to one lane and making it one-way, while at the same time expanding every pavement/sidewalk so as to make it perfect for ten people walking abreast. One day, I’m sure a lot of people will be even happier than me about these changes. Especially if they comprise an invading infantry army. Eat your heart out, Houseman.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I mentioned the other day that St George’s Day [23 April] would probably be celebrated rather more in Georgia than in England. What I overlooked is that the Catalan for George is Jordi and so the dragon-slayer is big in the North East of Spain as well. Needless to say, in a region always keen to celebrate its nation status, things are taken to the other extreme from England. The words “refuge” and “rogues” spring to mind. Not to mention “Scottish”, “British” and “ Brown”. And “end in tears”.

In Leeds, where my younger daughter lives, she puts all her recyclable items into one [green, of course] bin and everything else into a traditional black bin. I wondered why the former weren’t separated into different materials but the answer came in a TV program this week. It all goes to a central municipal facility, where it’s hand-sorted into plastic, paper, etc. In contrast, here in Spain we put our bottles, plastic, paper and household waste into different containers in the street, to be emptied at different intervals. However, given that at least some of my neighbours seem to be rather confused as to what constitutes ‘paper’ and ‘plastic’, I wonder whether, as in the UK, everything isn’t later re-united in one huge sorting facility. If so, it might explain the doubling of the charges over the last few years.

Still on an Eco theme – If you’re someone who not only fears the consequences of global warming but also sees CO2 emissions as the main factor, you might like to know that “Projected emissions of greenhouse gases from the global south would trigger dangerous climate change even if the north were to cut its emissions to zero tomorrow”. The answer, it seems, is to transfer humongous amounts of money from the north to the south to bribe them to stop developing. Easy, peasy. Click here for the details.

Talking about municipal services and charges, I read this morning that a full 20% of municipal taxes in the UK now goes to finance the final-salary schemes of Britain’s growing battalions of officious bureaucrats. Given that these schemes have all but disappeared from the private sector because of government tax measures, this is little short of scandalous. Or, as I’ve said before, a particular form of corruption. Where is Wat Tyler when you need him?

A relevant comment from William Chislett’s Spain going Places – “Spain has the fourth most comprehensive mandatory pension scheme among OECD countries. Future retirees can expect, under the current situation, to receive state pension benefits equivalent to 81% of their pre-retirement earnings as against 96% in Greece, at the top of the league, and 31% in the UK, at the bottom”. Of course, Spanish workers may have to keep going until they’re 68 or more. But this seems like a fair trade-off for a life of geriatric ease.

For those with an interest in the current shenanigans in Spain’s PP opposition party which can’t be satisfied by my witterings – or even by Graeme’s analyses over at South of Watford - here’s an excellent summary from someone who really does seem to know what he’s talking about. But who appears not to have much sympathy for Señor I’m-here-to-stay Rajoy. I'm indebted to John over at Iberian Notes for this.

Along with the governments of the regions of Andalucia, Asturias and Castile y La Mancha, the Galicia’s Xunta has rejected Madrid’s proposed new way of financing the country’s 17 Autonomous Communities. But, if you choose to become President of Spain, you will quickly learn – and regularly re-learn – that it certainly is possible to displease all the people all the time. This particular president – Sr. Zapatero - is also now discovering that his €400 tax rebate/electoral bribe – not payable to me and a few deserving others, by the way – will hit state finances just as tax revenues are plummeting because of lower [7%!] property tax and [16%] sales tax receipts. And not long before he has to compensate the regions for scrapping the annual wealth tax [el Patrimonio] from the end of this year. I wonder if he really believed his own assurances of a soft landing and his forecasts of continuing stellar growth. I suspect not.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Galicians are famed in Spain for their ‘closeness’ and their tendency to be obscure. Hence this serpentine comment from the ex Franco minister/ex Xunta president, 85 year-old Manuel Fraga, about the would-be PP leader Esperanza Aguirre – “She should just shut up”. One wonders what he can mean.

Official forecasts for Spain’s economic growth this year now range from a high of 2.5% to a low of 1.8%. The Finance Minister here has just reduced his from 3.1% but I’ll leave you to guess which of these it is.

Toying with the thought of which person or act would best represent today’s popular culture in the UK, I came up with the ubiquitous and repulsive Piers Morgan. Thinking about Galicia, I alighted on the [allegedly] comic duo known as Los Tonechos. When it comes to Spain, I’m even less in the picture than I am with Galicia. So I’m really at a loss for anyone other than Chikilicuatre. Suggestions welcome.

Talking of British culture, I happened across this acronym this week – Tufty. Too ugly for television. That’s why you see bloody Piers Morgan all over your screen instead of, say, me.

I also heard this week of an epidemic of laughter somewhere in Africa in the 1960s. The Journal of Humor Research [yes, it really exists] confirms that this broke out in Tanganyika. Though its extent and duration have been exaggerated a little by those desperate for a laugh.

Which reminds me – A group of Islamic teologists and scientists has suggested that Mecca is a more logical site for the zero meridian long accorded to Greenwich. First an alternative calendar and now an alternative clock. I would have thought Islam already had enough to differentiate itself from the rest of the heathen world.

The Voz de Galicia this morning labels Manchester United’s performance against Barcelona last night ‘cowardly’. Boring, too, in my opinion. Allowing me to be distracted into various theories for the little beer mug icon which kept switching from one corner of the screen to the other. Possibly some form of subliminal advertising of the sponsor’s product. Anyone know?

For Spanish speakers, here’s a fine little performance by María Álvarez which is said to be one of the most viewed items on YouTube.

Galicia Facts

In the interests of balance, I should report that the sun came out yesterday midday and is still with us today. Thank God. I can now reduce the height of the grass in my garden from its current 30cm.

I should also report that the lovely wife of no-longer-nice-and -still-noisy Tony, Amparo, has immediately complied with my plea that she doesn’t put her high heels on when she gets up to go doctoring at 7 in the morning. So she didn’t wake me up – earplugs notwithstanding – early today. But my accursed brain did.

In contrast, I was not happy with the lady in my regular café-bar yesterday who had all 5 newspapers piled up in front of her so she could go through them one by one. But I’ve learned to be Spanish about these things. So took the one I wanted and embarrassed her into putting three aside. Some days are diamonds.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Two items on Spain appear in today’s British press, which is unusual. Firstly, there’s a report on plans to test bulls which don’t act bravely in the ring. This will be to check if they’ve been doped so as to make them act ‘more like gatitos [kittens] than toros bravos. Secondly, there’s a report that the Competition Commission is almost certain to recommend the break-up of BAA. This is the company which owns 7 UK airports and which now belongs to the Spanish group, Ferrovial. The provisional report of the CC says that “BAA currently shows a lack of responsiveness to the interests of airlines and passengers that we would not expect to see in a business competing in a well-functioning market.” And it adds that they’re “inclined to the view that common ownership of the BAA airports is a feature of the market which adversely affects competition between airports and/or airlines”. Los días están contados, it seems to me.

Today is St George’s Day, which will probably be celebrated more in Georgia than in England. Those who feel it’s time for a truly English parliament have set up a new web page to further this cause. And, with nice timing, it’s reported that the EU has published another of those maps showing new regions that cut across national boundaries. This one included the Manche Region – Bits of southern England and northern France; the Atlantic Region – bits of west England, Wales, Portugal and Spain; and the North Sea Region – bits of England, all of Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Allegedly, “Each zone will have a ‘transnational regional assembly’, although they will not have extensive powers”. Fascinating. If only as evidence of pipe-dreaming among Brussels bureaucrats with time on their hands.

The driver who killed 9 Finns and seriously injured more than 20 others at the weekend is said to be facing a jail term of 15 years. Well, we’ll see. Meanwhile, witnesses have said he was travelling way above the 120kph limit on wet and winding roads. This is not uncommon in Galicia. Hence our mortality statistics. And our insurance premiums.

Galicia Facts

The new leader of Paraguay is a Catholic bishop called Fernando Armindo Lugo Méndez. I’m just guessing that his family emigrated from somewhere near Lugo here in Galicia. Perhaps to get better weather . . .

Samuel Johnson once said "To call upon the sun for peace and gaiety or deprecate the clouds lest sorrow should overwhelm us is the cowardice of idleness and the idolatry of folly." Well, as I sit here contemplating the thick fog outside my window – or is it a low cloud? - I feel very tempted to indulge in a little idleness and folly worship. I think I preferred the rain. At least I could see beyond the end of my garden. But they say this will all change tomorrow. Snow?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

For the third year in a row, the El Bulli restaurant in Cataluña has been voted the best restaurant in the world. And Spain has taken 3 of the top ten spots, against 2 for France and the USA and only 1 for the UK. Though the British restaurant did get the no. 2 slot. Of the top 20, France has 5, the UK and the USA 4 each, and Spain 3. I wonder how many of these take the Galician view that sauces are the spawn of the devil. Fit only for disguising poor quality meat or seafood. Not many is my guess.

You have to smile. The chap in the centre of the massive Marbella municipal fraud scandal says he only lent the money he passed to members of the town council. And then you have to frown – How did he manage to get the €1 million to pay his bail? But at least the judge has initiated an investigation into this. Or will when he’s stopped laughing.

My thanks to readers who responded on the issue of the Spanish political scene. It’s true I’d forgotten that in much of Continental Europe ‘liberal’ is a term of abuse. Implying red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism at worst or Mrs Thatcher at best.

El Mundo – in support of Esperanza Aguirre – calls for more democracy in the way the PP party elects its leader. Which must cause problems for Graeme at South of Watford. For he’s criticised the absence of this but surely wouldn’t want it initiated just to bring ‘Espe’ to the fore. Except that he would if it meant another defeat for the PP. Life can get complicated for the politically active. We apathetic cynics have it much easier. It’ll be a real challenge for me when I finally get Spanish nationality and am allowed to vote for the people who want to tax me more.

Words: Is the Spanish un raid, an Anglicism or Spanglish? Or neither? Doesn’t sound very Latinate. In Mexico, it means a lift/ride, apparently.

Phrases: There’s a dental system much advertised in Spain called All On Fours. I haven’t the foggiest what this is intended to convey but presumably not On All fours. Strange postures do have to be adopted in a dental chair but surely not this one.

Galicia Facts

The Galician fishing fleet has reduced by a third in seven years. Whether this has been compensated for by larger boats, we are not told.

In 2007, only Andalucia received more state aid than Galicia, the numbers being €343m and €147m, respectively. This is a big gap. But, then, so is the next one down to Castile y La Mancha, in third place with ‘only’ €78m. I guess population is the key.

Alongside the Water Wars taking place between Madrid, Cataluña, Valencia and Murcia, we’re having one of our own up here in Galicia. This is between us and God. And God is winning. It’s rained on more than 50% of the days since the turn of the year, reminding me of my first winter here – 2000/1 – which was even worse. I lost five umbrellas back then, not one of which was stolen. It’s salutary to be reminded that we effectively live in the Atlantic. Which has again today shrouded us in its blanket. But, hey! It was 30 degrees here during my last week in the freezing UK. And what goes up must come down. It’s not all bad; it’s a great day for doing my tax return. And putting the heating back on.

There’s not a lot of vandalism in Pontevedra but graffiti is a big problem. Scarcely is the paint dry on a façade than the idiots are out with their spray cans. If it’s possible, things are even worse in my daughter’s barrio of Malasaña in central Madrid. But being young and artistic, I fancy she quite likes hers. By which I don’t mean that she actually does it. Too busy teaching, novel-writing and partying. But not necessarily in that order.

The city’s collection of old mansions which form its excellent museum is soon to be replaced by a single modern building near the river and visible from my eyrie. It’s built largely of what one might call sheet granite and, to me, is repulsive. Possibly its only redeeming [external] feature is four horizontal glass bands, which are presumably the windows. These give off a fierce blue light at night. All night. Which seems a tad odd in these ecological times. Perhaps the energy comes from candles. Or from the equally ugly wind turbines above the city. Which would give everything a certain aesthetic cogency. For which future generations will doubtless be grateful. Or at least more grateful than me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The leader of the PP Opposition party [Sr. Rajoy] has called on the President of the Madrid Community [Sra. Esperanza Aguirre] to put up or shut up, rather than to go on sniping at him because he lost the recent general election. Specifically, he’s stressed that the PP is a broad church, with room for right-of-centre voters of all stamps. However, if Aguirre really wants to lead a ‘liberal’ wing, then she should quit the PP and start a party of her own. What’s confusing me is that the real liberal, centre-right politician in the PP was said to be the mayor of Madrid [Sr. Gallardon], who is at daggers-drawn with Aguirre. Worse, the person I rely on for political insights – Graeme at South of Watford – clearly regards Aguirre as being to the right of Attila the Hun. I fear it will be a while before I really understand Spanish politics. Meanwhile, the left-of-centre El País is having a field day with all this stuff. And who can blame them? They even suggest that Rajoy has been burnishing his centre-right credentials by attacking both El Mundo and the Catholic radio station, Cope. And Graeme has chosen this moment to go off on holiday!

Explaining why French nationalisations had been more successful than those in Britain, a French expert said it was because the people in command of the dirigiste state were the clever, well-educated elite of the country and knew how to run businesses properly. It struck me that this top-down model of government is not only that of the EU but also of China. Though possibly not that of the other emerging giant, India. So the question is, in dealing with the economic threat posed by the Chinese command-economy model, will the similar model of France and the EU be more successful than the ‘liberal’ model of the USA, Britain and [perhaps] India. Time will surely tell.

My reader Moscow feels I’m unfair in painting a picture of Spain as a very corrupt place. In a short dialogue, we’ve agreed that Spain is certainly not the ‘systematically corrupt’ sort of country in which, for example, you’re called on to bribe your way to your entitlements. It’s not Russia, then. Or even Italy. And I’ve admitted to a rather wide definition of the word ‘corrupt’. But, if I have indeed been unfair in using this term, what would be the right description for a country in which recent developments such as these are reported on a regular basis:-
- A priest defrauds an old woman of €600,000.
- The Finance Director of the Guggenheim in Bilbao is found to have embezzled €450,000
- A priceless collection of pre-Colombian art is discovered to be missing from a warehouse in Santiago
- The leading cosmetic surgery clinic is accused of charging women for much cheaper implants than the ones they’d ordered.
- The leading abortion clinic is accused of operating on women way beyond the legal term.
- Medical consultants – not administrators – are accused of keeping false records so as to be able to publish satisfactory waiting-time statistics
- Police officers are accused of organised theft and blackmail.

At the very least, all this suggests you’re more likely to be cheated here by professionals you should be able to trust than in other countries. And this fits with my previous borrowing of someone else’s term of ‘low-trust’. But my question is - If ‘corrupt’ really is too strong, what is the right way to describe Spanish society? Suggestions welcome.

I occasionally comment on driving standards here but, in the interests of balance, I should stress I think most Spaniards drive well and in a sober state. However, there’s a significant percentage who drive like imbeciles or who are dangerously drunk at the wheel. Occasionally, of course, you get both at the same time. So it was at the weekend, when a young man who was at twice the legal limit tried to undertake a coach on a curve in the rain and caused an accident which cost nine tourists from Finland their lives and seriously injured another twenty-two. Sadly, he survived. It will be interesting to see how harshly the courts deal with him.

Galicia Facts

The Diario de Pontevedra says 30,000 people lined the city’s streets to cheer the local hero in Saturday’s men’s triathlon event. If so, they must have decanted from their houses after I’d left for home, chilled to the marrow. At my vantage point along the river, there’d been only me and a local policeman to discuss the arctic weather as we waited for the ladies in bikinis on bikes.

The Pontevedra gypsy wars continue. The usual manifestation is the eruption into the streets of all the residents of each village or town in which the authorities try to move one or more families from the illegal camp near me which is being demolished piecemeal. One wonders how and when it will all end.

At the recent general election, the President of the Galician Nationalist Party called for more votes so that the party could gain pivotal power with a minority governing party in Madrid. My impression is he didn’t have great success with this ambition. However, his line has now been taken up by one of his new friends, the President of the Scottish Nationalist party. The latter is openly seeking a trebling of Scottish Nationalist MP’s in the London parliament so that they can hold the whip hand in a future Labour or Conservative minority administration and so force the pace of Scottish independence. I fancy he stands rather more chance of success than Sr. Quintana.

Meanwhile, the Galician Nationalist Party here has fallen out with its Socialist coalition partner over the former’s new law changing the rules for the construction of flats in Galicia. You may wonder what on earth a government is doing defining the minimum size for a kitchen, a bedroom and even a wardrobe but the Nationalists are to the left of the Socialists and presumably don’t believe either the construction industry will do the right thing or that the people should be left alone to take their own decisions as to what they’re prepared to pay for. So, low trust again.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

For the year to end-march, house prices in Spain rose at a rate lower than our believed-by-no one official inflation rate of 4.5%. But not in the north west regions of Asturias and Galicia, where the figure was 7%. However, a columnist in the Voz de Galicia, discounts these numbers, claiming they’re a statistical artefact. I’d put it down to Brits continuing to buy properties in Green Spain despite the fall in the pound. But apparently not.

When I was young and the mortgage world was sane, whenever the rate rose you were given the choice by your provider to either extend the term or pay the higher rate. It seems the Spanish government is to manage a return to these days by subsidising the banks so the pain for their customers can be eased. This, it seems to me, is to reward profligacy and, as the phrase has it, to ‘privatise profit and nationalise risk’. The banks must be delighted. But I guess it could be worse; the government could be promising to compensate you for any negative equity you suddenly find yourself with. Or to help the greedy and once-highly-profitable construction industry to survive the bad times. Oh, sorry. It’s already said it will do the latter.

Counting the stars on one of the numerous EU flags one sees around Spain adorning Cohesion Fund projects, I noticed there were only thirteen, against a membership of twenty seven. Odd. Not a number I would have chosen.

If, like me, you’re continually struggling to get a balanced view on today’s key issues/religions of Climate Change and Global Warming, here’s something that’s a must-read. It’s said to be a devastating analysis of the case put forward by the International Panel on Climate Change. Reportedly, it is “Intended for a lay audience and signed by scientists from 15 countries. It takes all the key points of the IPCC's ‘consensus’ case and tears them expertly apart, showing how it has either exaggerated, distorted or suppressed the evidence available to it, or has imputed much greater certainty to its findings than is justified by the data”. If you can't face the whole report, just read the Conclusion on p. 26

Galicia Facts

Well, the weather improved a little for the start of yesterday’s international triathlon events here in Pontevedra and there were a couple of hundred spectators, including me, gathered at the start point. But, by the time the women competitors had climbed out of the [dirty, 14 degrees] river Lerez to get on their bikes, the cold and the rain had returned with a vengeance. As they were dressed in scarcely more than bikinis, I wondered whether the ambulance on stand-by was there to treat pneumonia cases. However, I’m delighted to report the winner of the men’s event was the local hero, Javier Gómez Noya. In the women’s race, the favourite, Vanessa Fernandes, retired because of hypothermia - possibly because she was used to warmer things in her native Portugal. The laurels went to Kathrin Mueller, from the more northern climes of Germany. But at least Fernandes got a lot further than the two ladies who dove into the river and then promptly got out after a mere 10 metres. To a wave of sympathy. From me at least. As the Voz de Galicia put it this morning – The public had a chance to see the hardest and most dramatic side of the triathlon challenge. I’ll say!

It’s reported that the Scottish highland bagpipe is a “recent invention, developed in the early 1800s for nostalgic Scottish émigrés.” Just like the kilt and most tartans. However, “Although the Highland bagpipe may be a phoney, there is a genuine tradition of piping in Scotland. A simpler type of pipe, which has its roots in the Islamic world, the Mediterranean and eastern Europe, was popular throughout the Highlands until the battle of Culloden in 1745. . . The first documented bagpipe dates to a 1,000BC Hittite carving from modern Turkey. . . The instrument spread through the near east, Europe and the Mediterranean to become a traditional folk instrument in dozens of countries.” So, I wonder where this leaves the Galician gaita? And our national costume. Probably more genuine and not designed for nostalgic émigrés. Even though there were a lot of these.

Talking of invention, I see that the British equivalent of the stories of a Galician Golden Age was the 19th century Romantic Nationalist British insistence that pre-Norman-invasion Anglo-Saxons lived in a truly democratic society where, for example, women had equal rights to men and you could with impunity tell the king where you thought he was going wrong. Tripe, apparently. There’s a lot of it around.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Just picking up on a couple of things from yesterday’s post:-

Ministers and crucifixes: I wonder what will happen when Spain, as in Britain and France, has a Muslim appointee.

Two year estimates: I forgot to mention that this is also the predicted time frame for the car park project which has obliterated the square in front of Pontevedra’s town hall. We will see.

The roundabout with the useless side: I imagine this will become a car parking space. Illegal, of course. Spanish urban nature abhors a tarmaced vacuum.

I wonder what the odds are on hearing within 10 minutes 1. A BBC podcast on corruption and organised crime in Bulgaria, and 2. A plea from the ex President of the Galician Xunta that some election or other – presumably Rajoy’s – is not done a la búlgara. Friends tell me this description is applied to elections in which a candidate gets 100% of the vote. Something which President Mugabe is trying to achieve retrospectively, it seems. Perhaps he has Bulgarian advisers.

There is some sort of ‘water war’ taking place between Cataluña, Murcia, Valencia and Madrid. This is about government plans to pipe Ebro water to Barcelona, despite its opposition to its predecessor’s plans to send [rather more] liquid to the south of the country. Needless to say, whatever the core issue is, it's overlain with considerations of, firstly, the centre v. the regions and, secondly, the PSOE v. the PP. I imagine the only thing agreed on by most participants is that everything is the fault of incompetent, thieving, Castilian bastards in Madrid. It’s at times like this that I’m reminded that the solidarity and cohesion so lauded by Spain when it comes to EU funds simply evaporate when domestic issues are on the table.

Galicia Facts

We have two international triathlon races in Pontevedra today and the Weather Gods have decided to take the piss. Temperatures have dropped considerably and the rain is bucketing down. I imagine the event’s spectatorship will be around nil. Poor buggers. But at least they’re professional and so are getting paid for suffering.

Carrefour: Well, something must have worked. They called this morning to say they’re going to give me a new printer. But, No, I can’t pick it up with proof of my identity; I have to first get the receipt they gave to my friend who delivered it to them after I’d left for the UK. Actually, I lied about them calling me; of course they didn’t. Nonetheless, I have temporarily suspended the web page. But it will be resurrected if I find that my old printer is in a new box . . .

Friday, April 18, 2008

Sad to read that the women of Seradilla de Arroyo failed in their attempt to raise school funds via a sexy calendar and are now left with printing debts to the tune of €10,000. But, truth to tell, I couldn’t help smiling at the reason given for this – there’d been a ‘sales glitch’ which meant the calendar wasn’t ready for Christmas. It reminded me of the relaxed approach taken here to the availability of the monthly guide to events in Pontevedra. Incidentally, having seen extracts of the calendar one would have to say – well this one, anyway – that its attraction can only lie in its curiosity value. But I still take my hat off to the ladies who were prepared to shed rather more for a good cause.

When you become a minister in the Spanish government, you can choose to either ‘swear’ or ‘promise’ something at your inauguration. I’m not clear on the distinction but, in either case, you have to do it in front of a crucifix. This seems a little anachronous and I wonder how many years it will be before this symbol of the power of the Church in Spain quietly disappears. Or not so quietly, even. I guess it will have to be during a Socialist administration. But whose?

I’m a little confused about Spanish newspapers at the moment. I’ve always shied away from reading ABC as I thought is was further to the right that El Mundo. If not as extreme as La Razon. But in his book Spain Going Places, William Chislett characterises ABC as ‘centre-right’ and El Mundo as a ‘populist right’ paper’. Reviewing the media over at South of Watford recently, Graeme advised that ABC had, indeed, shifted its stance towards that of the ‘wet’ wing of the PP party but had since moved rightwards again. Can anyone give me a definitive statement, shorn of their own bias?

In the face of relentless bad news about the economy, one commentator has posed the following question:- Is it really possible that the global financial system can be in the grip of its worst crisis since the Great Depression, as some pundits claim - or at least the worst crisis within the working lifetimes of anyone who now has a hand in managing a bank - and yet domestic economic life can jog along with only a shallow dip in consumer activity, a flattening of property prices and little or no impact on jobs? His answer is that, on balance, there are grounds for optimism and you can read his rationale here. His comments, though, relate to the British economy and I have no idea whether they’re equally applicable to Spain’s. But I hope so.

Galicia Facts

Observing one key thoroughfare in Pontevedra being reduced from two lanes to one, I concluded several months ago there’d be chaos unless a roundabout was installed at the end of it. No one could tell me whether or not this was planned but it has now come to pass. However, its configuration is such that it makes no sense unless something else happens. The answer came yesterday with the news that the bridge from my side of the river into the city is going to be made one way. This will happen as and when a new bridge - the 6th, I think – is built further along the river. This, we’re told, will be in ‘2 years time’. As this is code in Spain for ‘rather a long time from now’, I’m taking a relaxed view of events. I may not even be alive when it happens.

Finally - It will come as no surprise to anyone that the printer I handed back to Carrefour a month ago is still sitting in the store, waiting to be bundled with others and sent to the repair centre for checking that it doesn’t work. I’ve written a full account of my dealings with the various companies here, in France and in the UK and have posted it to This, of course, means Carrefour is French for Crap. I am hoping the company will, in stroke of defensive genius, buy the domain name from me before it leads to the destruction of their worldwide business.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Over at Notes from Spain, Ben has posted a comment – more in sorrow than in anger – about the infamous inefficiency of the Spanish postal service. It’s not hard to become aware of this and the non-arrival of some important papers this week has reminded me of it. But I hadn’t put two and two together and realised this is a major factor behind the low take-up of internet buying here. Specifically, we have no, though it certainly is possible to get stuff delivered from the UK, French and US companies. My suspicion has long been that internet buying here - in what someone has labelled a ‘low trust society’- suffered from a fear of fraud. But it seems I was off beam.

Incidentally, one of the consequences of an unreliable postal system is that you can make your tax return via either the 18th century option of personal delivery or the 21st century option of an internet declaration. But no one risks a 19th/20th century letter.

Talking of inefficiency – the Spanish judicial system is currently taking a lot of flak over two cases which would have rendered a true tabloid press apoplectic. The first centres on a paedophile who, despite previous convictions, was free to kill a young girl. And the second is of a mentally disturbed young man who despatched his mother, despite her having made it clear over the years – including on TV – that this was a serious risk. In fact, he not only killed her but, having cut her head off, walked round the town talking to it. As someone else has already pointed out, the real surprise is that we haven’t seen photos of this in the Spanish media. But the really important point is that a truly tabloid press might just have had the effect of forcing the judiciary and/or the police to sharpen up their act. It pains me to say.

The challenge of becoming more ecologically minded seems to me to fall more heavily on males than females. As I was gazing in my mirror this morning, the question arose of whether it would be best to buy a single metal/plastic razor and then use the 15-edged blades that go with these, or whether I should stick to cheap, plastic disposable razors and continue to use them at least 20 times longer than recommended. And then I took to wondering whether I should try to connect my battery-powered nasal-hair-cutter to one of the massive wind turbines I can see from my window on the hills above Pontevedra. Or possibly just try standing so close to one of these that the blades do the job for me. Tough choices, I think you’ll agree.

Spanglish: I fear I may have asked this before but does anyone know what El pressing-catch is? I know it comes from the world of wrestling but that’s it.

Galicia Facts

The property bubble may well have burst but, of course, not all construction projects have come to an end overnight. Or even decelerated. Yes, the volume of sales and approvals may well have plummeted but those constructors flush with cash have logic on their side when they initiate building projects which will take the standard 3-4 years to complete and so will come on the market just as the next boom begins. In the meantime, the off-plan take-up may be low but, as I say, this hardly matters if you’re sitting on a mountain of cash and have not, for example, bought an expensive airport which was crap before you acquired it and is even worse now that you’ve tried to increase your margins to help reduce your debt mountain.

The last paragraph is very much a personal bleat as my house in the hills above Pontevedra is surrounded by building schemes that are either well under way or only just starting. And I am heartily sick of the consequences, including the movement of tons of soil and granite and the depositing of these on any bit of green conveniently close to the building site. Not so much fly tipping as bluebottle tipping.

So you can imagine my feelings when I read yesterday that Pontevedra was one of the few places in Spain where property sales actually rose in 2007. And that the same is expected of this year. I might just cut off my own head and parade it round town.

Hey ho.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The creation of a cabinet dominated by women has certainly been a PR success for President Zapatero around the world. Back home, it may even have been, as some say, a ‘triumph of symbolism’. But – as a leader in El País pointed out last week – all that really matters is whether it is effective - during difficult times. So I guess the limelight will fall mainly on the Minister responsible for the economy – Sr. Solbes – and not on any of his [rather more attractive] colleagues.

Personally, I can’t help wondering whether this woman-powered cabinet will have the courage to do something serious about the scandal of prostitution that blights Spain’s image. But I fancy not.

One thing’s for sure, though; Spain does not have the problem implied in this comment about the other southern European country to recently hold an election - Italy at last has a reasonably coherent bipolar framework, a strong centre-right government that is balanced, for the first time ever, by a single and avowedly modernising centre-left Democratic Party. It may well be true that the cabinet reflects the balancing act any Spanish President faces in managing a mix of central and regional/nationalist expectations but at least the task seems doable. And the whole affair has been useful in clarifying how much power is devolved to the regional governments in Spain. And, thus, in highlighting which ministries are important and which aren’t. Only with this understanding can one separate the form from the substance. But I leave Graeme at South of Watford to flesh out these bones as I’ve reached the limits of my knowledge. Or quite possibly surpassed them.

A young reader of the Voz de Galicia yesterday quoted these statistics in her letter to the editor:-
- 66% of young people in Spain earn less than €1000 euros a month.
- 45% of them are on temporary contracts.
- More than 33% of those with higher educational qualifications are working in jobs which don’t require these.
So, it’s been a funny old economic boom over the last ten years or so. And it’s hard to see how these statistics are going to improve over the difficult two or three years ahead. Meanwhile, I wonder who the real winners have been. Apart, that is, from all the crooks accused of pocketing squillions of euros from one fraud or another. Not to mention those who’ve got away with it.

In another of those interesting – but possibly hopelessly wrong – surveys of Spanish life, 28% [‘27.6’!] of the population is said to suffer anxiety and stress because of the noise they’re subjected to. There are sixteen causes listed, of which the top three are:- traffic, motorbikes and neighbours. No reward for guessing where my opinion lies. But there is a prize for anyone who can explain how motorbike exhausts can remain so relevant when the noise so many of them make has been illegal for years. I mean, it’s not as if the police were busy stamping out other road offences. Except alleged speeding, in my case.

Galicia Facts

Our region turns out to be near the bottom when it comes to noise pollution. Only 7% of Galicians are said to suffer anxiety and stress. Maybe this is because most of them live in the hills and incessantly barking bloody dogs don’t figure on the list of sixteen factors.

According to the Voz de Galicia, only 8% of judicial verdicts here are given in Gallego. Which is a bit of a surprise.

Finally, some good news. From 21 June to 1 November, Iberia’s low cost operator Clickair will be flying from Vigo to Heathrow three times a week. And back! The cost will be €35, all up. Perhaps.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

As Spain’s economic growth more than falters – some forecasts for this year are now below 1% - concern is growing that the recent massive influx of immigrants will be more of a challenge than when these folk were filling jobs that could now become quickly [but temporarily?] redundant. Here’s what William Chislitt has to say on this subject in Spain Going Places:- Roughly half the new jobs created between 2001 and 2006 (three quarters in the first three months of 2007) were filled by immigrants, mainly in construction, domestic service, retail trade, hotels, restaurants and agriculture, all of them labour-intensive sectors. Immigrants are much more mobile than Spaniards and are prepared to work almost anywhere in the country and in any sector: unlike their hosts, they cannot afford to be too choosy. Partly thanks to them, real wages have fallen over the past few years and the labour market is more flexible.

Chislitt points out that Spain’s employment protection is one of the highest in the OECD. But I suspect this applies to ‘permanent positions’ and not to the temporary contracts which are such a feature of the country’s employment scene. I doubt that many immigrants were given the former. Many [most?] young Spaniards aren’t either.

Spain’s youngest ever Minister is responsible for Equality. This brief includes addressing the problem of domestic violence, which the President assures us he means to stamp out. The young lady will have her work cut out. I’ve often asked whether things here are much different from elsewhere but our friend Chislett says Domestic violence has risen at an alarming rate (74 women were killed by their husband or partner in 2007). Incidentally, the five 30-40 year old female teachers I give a conversation class to on Monday evenings felt very strongly that this appointment was purely political, not meritocratic. And that it might well backfire on women if it is a failure. I suppose this could just be envy/jealousy.

I’ve been banging on recently about the increase in state snooping in the UK. But there is one bit of technology which appeals to me. The Spanish insurance company Mapfre is said to be considering a bit of kit which is fitted in your car and justifies lower insurance premiums if your driving is sensible. I’ll certainly be a candidate for one of these, just as soon as they figure out how to rig it. Which they surely will. And even if they don’t.

I’ve also been banging on about Carrefour. And I’m not about to stop. A lawyer friend told me she’d represented several clients who’d run into the sort of problem I had. She even claimed Carrefour knowingly sold [albeit cheaply] defective or poor quality products under famous brand names. I rather dismissed this but reader David has now written to say he bought a [genuine] Compaq which the company later refused to repair because it was of East European origin. Hard to believe Carrefour didn’t know the item had no effective warranty. So, dishonest or incompetent. Or both, of course.

Galicia Facts

The besieged construction industry is up in arms here because the Xunta – with a nice sense of timing – is introducing laws which will tighten up building provisions and so make flats more costly. The Xunta has tried to calm things by saying it will apply the law ‘flexibly’. Local governments in Spain playing fast and loose with planning laws? Surely not.

Which reminds me – Just along the coast from Pontevedra, a large swathe of land is being bulldozed prior to the start of yet another development. This is clearly within 500 – never mind 1000 - meters of the sea. So smells of illegality. Perhaps the town council is demonstrating flexibility. By the way, the place is called La Granja/A Granxa. As this means The Farm in Spanish/Gallego, I guess it’d be the perfect place for a brothel with a flat roof, from which to hurl donkeys, goats and the like.

Finally - It’s widely believed in the UK that the country was last invaded, by French Normans, in 1066. But this isn’t so; the Dutch successfully invaded in 1688, when William of Orange deposed James II and became William III. The Anglo view is that this resulted from an ‘invitation’ by several English nobles but, in Going Dutch, Lisa Jardine argues that, to say the least, this is debatable. I guess there are worse people to be invaded by than the Dutch. I wonder if they found it easy because they all spoke impeccable English even back then.

Monday, April 14, 2008

There was, in fact, an even younger cabinet appointment than that of the 36 year-old Defence Minister I cited yesterday. This was of the 31 year-old lady chosen to head the Ministry of Equality. As I’ve said before, as the father of two exceptional young women, I have no problem with the notion that women can do things at least as well as men but I do admit to feeling that 31 is a tad on the young side for a ministerial appointment. Even more perplexing was yesterday’s report in El Pais that President Zapatero only knew of her by reputation. Some suggest this appointment – like that of a Catalan to the said ministry of Defence – owes more to political horse-trading between the regions and the centre than to meritocratic claims to cabinet responsibility. My knowledge of Spanish politics is not deep enough to comment on this but I guess it must be a possibility. I’ll keep checking over at South of Watford for a more-informed view.

Which reminds me . . . . I’ve finally started to read the book Spain Going Places I mentioned a week or two back. And this is what it says on this issue:- In all but name, Spain today is effectively a federal state. Ruling the country as a whole from Madrid is a complex matter and one fraught with tensions, particularly with the Basque Country and Catalonia, the two most ‘nationalistic’ regions. . . The regions (excluding the Basque Country, which is in a category of its own) account for just over 50% of public spending but generate only 19% of revenues, despite the tax-raising capacity transferred to them. The regional governments are happy to spend the money ceded to them by the central government but are reluctant to use their revenue raising powers to the maximum for fear of losing the support of their voters.

On a more macro level, the author [William Chislett] comments:- The political arena has become very polarised, leading Spaniards to hanker after the consensus policies of the 1975-78 transition to democracy when politicians of all persuasions could sit down and iron out issues. But that was a very different period because it was one that called for cooperation and restraint in order to avoid a repeat of past conflicts and move on. The constant state of warfare between the Socialists and the PP - part and parcel of normal democratic life - is, however, particularly vicious in Spain, with insults taking the place of substantive arguments. The press has also become increasingly sectarian. El País, the leading (centre-left, essentially pro-Socialist) daily, which played a key role in the transition to democracy, the centre-right ABC, the right wing La Razón and the populist right El Mundo (all three basically support the PP) write about Spain as if it was four different planets rather than one and the same country.

And here are a couple more quotes, made topical by reader Moscow’s comments to my blog of yesterday:-

1. Anti-Americanism is higher in Spain than in most European Countries. This is for a variety of reasons, ranging from the Spanish-American War in 1898 (when Spain lost the last colonies, including Cuba, of her once enormous empire) to Washington’s support of Franco after the Civil War (with the establishment in 1953 of US bases in Spain) and, more recently, the US invasion of Iraq. The degree of Spain’s cold feelings towards the US (towards the Administration and its foreign policy, not towards Americans, whom Spaniards generally admire and whose culture is prevalent in Spain), surprises many people.

2. The full scope of Spain’s contribution to Western security through peace-keeping and humanitarian operations is not generally appreciated abroad. Spain, a pacifist country to a large extent, perhaps because of the trauma of its Civil War, has participated in around 60 such operations and has sent more than 50,000 troops abroad over the last 20 years.

I hope these redress any balance that needs to be redressed.

Yesterday I made one of my occasional trawls on your behalf through the pages and pages of fascinating ads at the back of the Faro de Vigo. Most amusing was the corner of the large ad for an establishment called Night & Day which advised of the arrival of a young lady of 18 who possesses a Masters in Law. Quite an achievement. And, in this case, not open to males, I guess. Anyway, here’s another relevant quote from Mr Chislett:- In a remarkably short period, Spain has moved from being the Western European country with the most traditional values and attitudes to one of the most liberal, tolerant and permissive (some would even say libertine) societies. . . . . Spaniards’ tolerance today is graphically illustrated by the classified advertising sections in all of its main newspapers, including a leading conservative and Catholic one, which provide a varied range of sexual services, something unthinkable in the establishment press of the US, the UK or France.

Galicia Facts

I doubt that there’s been a day since I came here more than 7 years ago that I haven’t had to negotiate one or more set of public works on the pavements or roads of Pontevedra. Right now, the situation is worse than ever. One of the main entrances to the city has been chaotic for weeks now; the Old Quarter is riddled with digs of one sort or another; and the entire square in front of the town hall has been fenced off with metal sheeting, as a prelude to creating a new underground car park. As this square was, at best, a pick up/drop off point and, at worst, a large [illegal] parking space, the inconvenience to the residents must be huge. I had thought things would ease with the reduction in tax income following the bursting of the property bubble but, of course, there’s going to be a need to counteract adverse employment trends with public spending. Which – given how money spreads - the town halls won’t need much persuading to throw themselves into. I fear we ain’t seen nothing yet. So, not a good time to come to Pontevedra. Nor to shop for electrical items at Carrefour.

I was going to end there but I’ve noticed I’ve got a relevant quote from Chislett on the issue of women in Spain:- One of the most striking changes has been the improved position of women in a country that still has a strong streak of machismo. In Franco’s day, married women needed the permission of their husbands to go out to work or open a bank account. The [2007] current government has an equal number of male and female ministers and women outnumber men in the central administration. However, there are very few women in top positions in Spain’s corporate world.

That’s it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Nine of President Zapatero’s 17-strong, new cabinet are female. One of these is a 35 year old lawyer who’s been moved from the Ministry of Housing to become the Defence Secretary. This must have gone down really well with the armed forces. Though I guess it does send out the right message about Spanish/EU attitudes to matters military. Which is, basically, Let’s let the Americans pay for everything and then bitch about what the money’s spent on.

It’s emerged, in a new book by a Spanish author, that Franco’s regime cooperated with the Nazis around attempts to prove the Aryan race originated in the Canary Islands, then seen as part of the lost continent of Atlantis. I’m not sure how this fits with the belief that everyone in the world is descended from Iberio-Celts but suspect they are compatible nonsenses. Just a question of timing.

My printer calvario continues to throw up illustrations of the Spanish approach to customer service. At the Canon shop downtown, I was treated with great civility but, when I told them I wanted a simple black & white laser machine, I was immediately offered a colour inkjet model. When I gave them the reference number of the printer I had in mind, they said it wasn’t in stock but it might be in Vigo. They would check and call me at home. The next day[sic], I was advised Vigo didn’t have one but they could offer me one in the same range - at twice the price. I declined this and ordered the one I’d originally asked about. This, they said, would take a week to arrive. ‘Or possibly two’. These are words which strike despondency into the heart of all consumers used to better things. But, as I say, everything has been done very pleasantly. And, if I die today, I will take to Heaven the view that a good two-word description of Spanish service is ‘smilingly inefficient’. Except in El Corte Inglés. Where they never smile but are sometimes efficient.

Inevitably, when talking of customer service, the subject must turn to Telefónica. These fine folk have just announced they’re going to charge for the previously free service of call recognition. This is the latest in a long line of such revisions dating back to at least when I got my line in late 2000. At that time, one’s [complex] bill comprised a number of such ‘free’ items, including a €6 discount. Even back then it was glaringly obvious what their strategy was. Anyway, the discount soon [quietly] disappeared and this latest withdrawal will net them pure profit of €12 million a year. If there were any evidence the company planned to fulfil its obligations to rural [would-be] customers, I guess few would complain. But there ain’t. Maximising income in South America is a far-higher priority than meeting needs back home. And any government pressure on Telefónica to change its ways is conspicuous by its absence.

I’ve received notification that my driving licence is up for renewal. I don’t know whether this is age related – it appears not – but I first have to go to a Centre of Driver Recognition to get a Certificate of Psycho-physical Aptitude. However, Spanish friends tell me that, so long as I don’t turn up both blind drunk and waving a white stick, this shouldn’t present too many difficulties. We will see.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spain’s annual inflation reached 4.5% in March – the highest [I think] in the EU. This would be less iniquitous if you could get anything like this on your bank deposits. The current – Brussels-decided-same- for-all rate – is around 3% and under severe downwards pressure. With property long gone as a more-than-safe bet for your white or black money here, there must be an awful lot of pasta swirling around looking for a better home than your mattress.

Talking of such things – I went yesterday to the local BMW dealer to check out the prices of a new Mini. This turned out to be located on the edge of Vilagarcía, a town renowned as the centre of Galicia’s [= Spain’s] drug trade. I wasn’t too surprised at the salesman’s snotty attitude – given whom he must be used to dealing with – but I was astonished that they couldn’t give me even a typed list of prices, never mind the equivalent of the glossy brochure I’d got from the Liverpool agent the previous week. Instead, I was told to go to the web page and consult the ‘virtual dealer’. And then come back to them. Which I probably won’t, as it was made perfectly clear that my current Rover has nil value as ‘the mark is dead’. Ironically, when I bought the car five years ago, I mistakenly assumed it was still being manufactured by BMW. But the Teutonic bastards had already sold it to the management team, who quickly passed it on to the Chinese, pocketing millions along the way. Perhaps one of them would now like to take my worthless car from me.

A leader in [government supporting ] El Pais yesterday shocked me with the news that The slowdown in the Spanish economy is deeper and slower than the government foresaw. And it is not correct to paint this as something which was outside the its control. In similar vein, a columnist in the Voz de Galicia had written the day before - There’s now a pervasive silence about the crisis in the construction industry and in the banking sector. Those who assured us only six months ago that there was no risk of a crisis are now clamourously silent. The expert who said there’s never been a soft landing after a construction boom obviously never told the Minister of Housing, who assured us last October that ‘Our construction sector is one of the best in the world. We are passing through a soft landing and gentle adjustment’. The writer goes on to say this is not the time for lies and platitudes but for the truth and serious measures. Probably right. If optimistic.

Here’s a conundrum for my more politically wise reader[s]. Yesterday I read, firstly, that the EU is responsible for 80% of the legislation passed in the UK and that, secondly, it accounts for less than 10%. The first figure comes from the Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan, and the second from the [self-confessedly ‘Blairist’] Prospect magazine. OK, they obviously can’t both be right but the real question is how an earth can they both be serious numbers when the gap is so large? Is one or both of them nonsense? Or are they both just spin figures from different ends of the political spectrum? Is it even possible to come up with a sensible number? I think we should be told.

Last week I was disparaging about the outfits being worn by the women I saw on Lime Street station in Liverpool, returning from Ladies’ Day at Aintree. I was even more ungallant a day or so later, when I pointed out that most of the women pictured in the UK and Spanish press were clearly not only badly dressed but also overweight. Strange to relate, both of these observations featured in the column of a [female] British writer this morning – “Ladies' day? They were just tarts and trollops”. That's the view of someone forced to share a train compartment with a boisterous bunch heading for Aintree race course last week. It is a kill-joy attitude I cannot share. The women of the North West were a welcome source of gaiety for the nation as they paraded for cameras in a startling mix of baby doll nighties, red carpet regalia, and mother-of-the-bride outfits given a youthful twist of hooker chic. (Did any of them actually look in the mirror before leaving the house?). But what struck me even more forcibly than their attire was their physique. These were young women, supposedly in their prime, and yet, more carthorse than filly in appearance, they were proof of a looming health crisis. The excess poundage is a consequence of sedentary lifestyles and a poor diet but, most of all, of the dramatic rise in alcohol consumption that is hitting women hardest. Truth to tell, the obsession on the part of young British women to act as badly as young men is one of the most depressing aspects of UK society. Hard to see how this trend will be reversed.

Equally depressing is the knowledge that official surveillance – my theme of the moment – is not only widespread but also growing relentlessly. Today comes the news that many UK councils are using anti-terrorist legislation to survey their citizens for such petty offences as dog fouling, under-age smoking and breeches of planning regulations. As I’ve said before, it’s a long way from Spain’s over-lax approach on such matters to practices more usually associated with those of a police state. But the truly worrying thing is that, here in Spain, there’s actually some evidence that the authorities are shifting from one extreme to the other, rather than finding some happy compromise. But perhaps I’m catastrophising. Must go and lie down.