Saturday, January 31, 2009

I mentioned a while ago I wasn’t convinced that, with the Spanish economy in free-fall, President Zapatero would continue to get away with his masterly inactivity and his Gordon Brown-like claim that everything was all the fault of the Americans. Who used to be nasty people when George Bush was in charge of them but who are lovely folk now that Barrack Obama is at the helm. Except for the bankers, of course. Well, needless to say, he now has an 8% lead over the opposition PP party. However, in this he might just have been helped by an internecine struggle for power taking place in the latter. And by the fact that the biggest circulation right-of-centre party newspaper – and the Catholic Church’s radio channel – are relentlessly fierce critics of the party’s leader.

With regional elections coming up in both the Basque Country and Galicia in March, PP bigwigs in both regions are reported to be pulling their hair out at the price that’s being paid for this internal dance-of-death. And it’s widely expected here that, despite rocketing unemployment, etc., etc., the socialist PSOE party will end up with a higher percentage of the vote than four years ago. However, it’s not expected to achieve an absolute majority and so we’ll have another four years of a coalition of them and the BNG nationalist party. So, the only interesting question left open is whether the latter will keep its hands on certain key ministries despite its electoral support reducing for the 3rd or 4th election in succession. With all that implies.

My impression is that, down in Andalucia, David Jackson is a tad sceptical about the investigations announced at national and regional level into over-billing by all the country’s electricity suppliers this month. Reader Trevor suggests blind eyes have been turned to these abuses in compensation for a government refusal to allow unit prices increases at the level demanded by the companies. And who’s to say he’s wrong. But, if David is right that there’ve been estimates 200% above what they should have been, then I appear to have got off lightly with a mere 56%.

One takes for granted that the winter fashion for Pontevedra’s women will include denim jeans in some form or other. And so it is this year - the required combination being skinny jeans tucked into boots with a flat heel. A quick survey this lunchtime, suggests that somewhere between 80 and 90% of women below 40 here are now wearing this uniform. So ubiquitous is it that I felt like rushing up to the few women still in boots with stiletto heels to tell them that, although they looked a lot sexier, they were risking opprobrium and banishment from the city. Especially because they looked a lot sexier, I guess.

You may recall that Ryan was banished to the garden at night after he’d deposited what I think is known by some as a flight of starlings on the wall of my hall-cum-porch. Well, I relented last night and let him sleep inside. Big mistake. Which I first appreciated with my nose as I came out of the bedroom.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Today’s good news is that it will soon be possible to download 120 or so of the best books in Spanish for only 5 quid each. Or about an equal number of euros this week. Perhaps fewer next week.

On the other side of the ledger, here’s a report on the what some see as widespread fraud on the part of Spain’s electricity companies. Having now looked in detail at my own January bill, I can confirm that, firstly, there is an estimated reading and that, secondly, this is at least 50% above the pro rata number of units of last year’s Dec-Feb bill. So, is this really fraud or just incompetence? This is a question that’s often asked here and, for the majority of my sceptical Spanish friends, there’s only one answer when considering the activities of “thieves in white gloves”. As it happens, I recently read that electricity companies are among the most profitable here. So I guess, like the banks, they can employ the country’s best brains and dedicate them to the core business challenge of devising sharp schemes to screw captive customers. Of course, it probably helps your bottom line not to need to have Marketing, Public Relations or Customer Service departments. And I don’t suppose it costs that much to have an Obfuscation department to construct the multi-element bills that make it hard for customers to fathom out what’s going on. I must buy some shares.

But perhaps the best news of the day is that we can now dismiss all the negative reports about the British pound as hysteria. Or so says this chap. Let’s hope he’s right. But, even if he isn’t, it puts me in a better mood to face this weekend’s forecasted rain, after ten days of the stuff already.

Finally, it’s reported that Spain’s annual inflation has now fallen to 0.8%, from something like 4.5% only a few months ago. But I’m not sure whether this ranks as good news or bad news, as some now see the spectre of deflation stalking the land. And this may be worse than inflation.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

There was a ninth Spanish element to our experience at the Caixa Galicia film show the other night but I kept it back as it had nothing to do with the national tendency to ignore both rules and the interests of strangers. The room of around 100 seats was set up in a horseshoe of three sections, each of them with its own large TV screen. When we arrived, there was only one person in each section but, fifteen minutes later when the film started, most of the 17 people were concentrated in just one of the sections. And the majority of latecomers also found their way – in the dark – to this side of the horseshoe. The reason for this is that – in absolute contrast to the Brits – the Spanish will always gravitate to where there are already people standing, sitting or – in the case of the beach – lying. I believe they do this without thinking and I guess it’s a reflection of their immense sociability. But it’s a bit of a bloody nuisance in a restaurant when you’re the first two diners and the next couple or foursome to enter automatically sit at the table right next to yours, depriving you of the peace and quiet which, as a Brit, you were rather hoping for.

In a superb BBC podcast on the history of history I listened to today, one of the contributors said it was a thing of marvel that, of 100 fiercely independent cities in ancient Greece, 30 of them managed to get together to defeat the invading Persians. God know why but I suddenly thought of modern Spain.

Anyway, the cost of renting properties in Spanish cities has fallen by 7% in the last year, though not here in Galicia, where it’s actually gone up by 8%. I’m mystified as to why this should be so but – given the number of flat blocks springing up all over the capital city, I wasn’t surprised to read that rates have declined in the Pontevedra province. Meaning, of course, they must have risen by more than 8% in the other three provinces of the region.

On a day when it’s reported that the IMF expects Britain’s recession to be worse than anywhere else, it’s good news that The Times’ financial pundit insists the ‘more-flexible’ Anglo-Saxon economies will climb out of the slough of despond quicker than others. The bad news is that he has an appalling record for accuracy with his forecasts. Still, this doesn’t necessarily mean he’s wrong and several commentators have pointed out, for example, it’s mistaken to say the UK has no manufacturing businesses surviving from the Thatcher era and so is woefully dependent on the devastated financial sector.

Spain’s Consumers’ Union confirms that I’m not the only person in the country to have received an inordinately high electricity bill this month. One suggestion is that we’ve all had [excessive] estimates of consumption now that billing has become monthly, on top of a 3.5% increase in the unit price. But, as a letter in one of papers pointed out a couple of days ago, this goes nowhere near explaining increases of up to 100%. The Consumers’ Union complains that the electricity companies have provided insufficient information but my preferred word would be ‘nil’. Which, I’m afraid, is par for the course. And my guess is it’ll be decades, rather than merely years, before competition means that consumers are treated as people who have a choice.

Talking of electricity . . . There were massive power cuts throughout Galicia during the recent storms and some poor folk are still without power three or four days later. It got me thinking it would be more appealing for the current administration to promise that every home in the region would have a fixed phone and uninterrupted electricity throughout the year by 2013, rather than a GDP equivalent to the EU average. But I guess this would be to admit that, after four years of them being in power, there are still parts of rural Galicia more akin to the Third World than to Western Europe.

Finally, I was amused to read that “Colchester Council has started charging for sacks given out for recycling garden waste after these were spotted being used as saddlebags on a donkey in Spain.” This sort of entrepreneurship is surely what the British economy needs right now.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

You couldn’t make it up . . . Recycling might be adding to global warming. Of course, this expert could be wrong. Some of them are.

On the subject of the recession-drive flouting of EU rules by desperate national governments, a British columnist writes today:- “Many in Brussels understand that Sarkozy or Berlusconi can hardly be stopped from helping Fiat, Renault or Airbus. Voters may believe these very large employers are hardly less deserving than banks. Besides, this is a global economy. Europe says it must respond if America is bailing out its car companies in and distorting competition. But there are undeniable abuses. It is incredible to stretch the argument, as Sarkozy has done, to subsidising newspapers.” Maybe so but I doubt it’s the last incredible thing we’ll see in the next 12 to 24 months. And the outcome is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, as the columnist adds, “It’s very hard to see when the authority of Brussels will be restored.” Not that it ever seems to have had very much here in Spain.

Rather more locally, you’ll all be wanting to know what happened down at the Caixa Galicia film showing last night . . . Well, it took place in a room separated from the lobby-cum-bar by thick curtains - the function of which is to block off both the noise from the bar and the distraction of a large TV screen on the wall in the lobby. The first Spanish element of the evening was a young woman on the door [i. e. curtains] handing out tickets for a free event. When I asked her why, she replied ‘For accounting purposes.” The second Spanish element was that, with fifteen minutes to go, there were 5 of us occupying the 100 or so seats. The third was that another 15 arrived in the last 5 minutes. The fourth was that a further 17 arrived in the 20 minutes after the film had started, each of them parting the curtains and most of them leaving them open. The fifth was that the woman on the door/curtains made no attempt to either stop or give tickets to the latecomers, making a mockery of both her function and her response to my question. She was also pretty relaxed about closing the curtains and removing from our peripheral view the flickering TV in the lobby. The sixth was two of the latecomers having their compulsory loud chat with their friend in the seat behind us before they got down to watching the film. The seventh was the woman who came in 15 minutes late and left 45 seconds later, leaving the curtains apart both times. And the eighth was the chap who got up and left after 25 minutes. So, all in all, an almost surrealistic demonstration of Spanish norms. Which may leave you wondering whether we’re so desperate for culture here that we’re prepared to endure countless irritations. To which, of course, the answer is Yes. Or maybe we’re just easily annoyed.

I wonder how many years it takes to get fully accustomed to Spanish individualismo. About which I read yesterday that the writer Ortega y Gasset was writing and complaining more than a hundred years ago. Though probably more philosophically than I do.

And, of course, it’s possible such things don’t happen in more sophisticated places like Madrid and Barcelona. Or Vigo, even. Though Pontevedra certainly considers itself to be pretty sophisticated, I gauge. But everything’s relative, as I’ve told my daughters a hundred times or more.

Which reminds me – The UK Daily Telegraph has farmed out its sub-editing challenge to a ‘cost-effective’ service down in Australia. Whose employees don’t seem to know that the word ‘superceding’ doesn’t exist. And who can’t afford a spell-check program. They must be cheap.

Finally, some readers might like to know that Ryan last night decorated a wall and a door of my porch with one of his sweet-smelling farts. He will be sleeping outside from now on and I assure you it will be no use dog-lovers – or even Ryan-lovers – writing in to seek indulgence on my part. Enough is enough.

PS. I’ve just seen a reference in the Daily Telegraph to “the Spainish police”. These Aussies should get off their island more.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A columnist in the Voz de Galicia was expressing outrage the other day about the ludicrous nature of the promises being made by our politicians a couple of months ahead of our regional elections in March. Like, I guess, the incumbent President guaranteeing that per capita income here would hit the EU average by 2013, regardless of an extended recession. It’s possible that our politicos have taken note of the fact that the national President, Sr Zapatero, still has a pretty positive rating among the populace despite not fulfilling his promise to deliver ‘full employment’ in 2008. Unless, of course, he was working to a different definition from the rest of us.

Said President Z was on the radio last night, answering questions and fielding brickbats from listeners. Audience numbers peaked at 11.15pm, which tells you a lot about the mad Spanish timetable.

Corruption is in the news both in Spain and in Britain. Here, some statistics have been issued about the massive increase in town-hall corruption in recent years and how the authorities are struggling to deal with people who’ve come to regard themselves as immune to criminal sanction. Over in the UK, the papers are dominated by allegations that four Labour members of the House of Lords have been on the take. The Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan, claims Brussels could show Westminster – and probably Marbella – a thing or two in this area and asks why this is headline news in the UK but not on the Continent. Or as he puts it . . . “Why does no one care? Partly, of course, because EU institutions are remote. But partly, too, because people expect Brussels to be sleazy. Stories of Euro-corruption elicit resignation rather than outrage. [British] People want to respect our Westminster Parliament, so its imperfections, whether in the Commons or now in the Lords, prompt anger and disappointment. Where Brussels is concerned, however, the anger has long since given way to scorn, the disappointment to contempt. In truth, we gave up on the Euro-racket long ago. ” I have to say I'm not sure scorn and contempt are the predominant emotions here in Spain.

Some readers will know that, when submitting a comment to a Google blog, you used to have to type up a string of random letters. Recently, though, the task has been made easier because the letters now make an almost-word. Two I had to type up this morning were lutoseot and panulthi. Inspired by the book The Deeper Meaning of Liff, I propose a new web page for alternative definitions of these. For example, lutoseot might be “A thoughtless drunkard wrecking a game being played by others.” While panulthi could be “The last piece of bread to come out of the oven of an evening.”

Finally, I’ve now started to give Ryan the tablet which will allegedly make his faeces and his farts smell better. I haven’t checked the former during the day but I can say the effect as regards the latter seems to have more to do with the qualities of frequency and volume than with that of odour. But we press on. Some of us with pegs on our noses.

Monday, January 26, 2009

I feel a little better today, if only because the rain has let up and some British columnists are beginning to query the view that the UK is going down the toilet pan. Some even think the government’s policies are now right for the crisis, even if badly received because they were overshadowed by the news of the appalling losses in the Royal Bank of Scotland. Or the Royal Bank of British Taxpayers, as it should now be called. Other commentators insist it’s an exaggeration to say that private individuals and companies in Britain have vastly increased their debt burden. The truth is “The really dramatic increase in debt burdens has taken place within the financial sector, meaning that the necessary unwinding of balance sheets can take place primarily within this sector without restricting lending to the ‘real' economy.” So that’s alright then. The credit crunch is virtually over. We can all sleep easier now.

I guess we all know that language and pronunciation change over time but it struck me today that these three have all taken place within my own lifetime:-
Spanish – Throughout Spain [I’m told] the double L is no longer pronounced as LY but only as a Y
French – The R sound [I’m told] is no longer pronounced gutturally as it was by Edith Piaf in Je ne regrette rien.
English: No one under 40 pronounces hospital, battle, total, beetle, etc. like folk of my generation.
Anyone got any more?

I promised to give you an opinion on the humorous magazine El Extinto I picked up in Madrid last week. Well, if you’re around 14 and are likely to find funny a cartoon in which the characters are male and female genitalia and an anus, then this is certainly the rag for you. Otherwise, probably not. Though I did learn that jodido and jodiendo are not the same thing.

One of the things I’ve moaned about over the years is the practice of [some] Spaniards to arrive up to 45 minutes late for a performance you’re watching. Checking the time of the film down at the CaixaGalicia cultural centre tomorrow night, I noticed that the leaflet warned no one will be allowed in after the film has started. Well, we will see.

I started on Hugh Thomas’s Rivers of Gold today, about the Spanish conquest of South America. Turning to the index, I was saddened to find no reference to Christopher Columbus’s birth here in my barrio of Poio, outside Pontevedra. There is mention that one of his ships was called the Gallega but this is not enough to restore my confidence in the accuracy of the work. And I will now read its 600-odd pages with a degree of scepticism.

I went up to our house in the hills yesterday, to see whether any of the oak trees which frame it had been brought down onto the roof by the weekend’s gales. Happily not. So I took the opportunity to have another go at removing the trillions of leaves from the gutters. My last attempt, a couple of weeks ago, had been thwarted by the fact they were stuck in solid ice. This time, though, there was only water, albeit freezing bloody cold water. So I was rather relieved when, first, a hail storm and, then, lashing rain forced me down from the ladder and into my car for the return trip to Poio. Not much sun in Sunday.

Which is all a neat[?] lead-in to an announcement that we’re letting our this wonderful place April to September. So, if you’re thinking about a holiday in Galicia or want a base from which to search for a property of your own, write to me on colindavies@terra.es for a copy of the details I’m about to write up.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

I made the mistake at lunchtime of picking up the Business Section of El Pais. The front cover contained a pound symbol shattered into pieces. Inside, the main article was headlined “The end of the British exception”, with the by-line “The UK is reeling at the collapse of its financial system and its currency”. A couple of pages further on there was “A black week for the Spanish economy”. And then there were the graphs! But at least there was some relief afforded by a second article on Britain headlined “The resurrection (and death?) of the Prime Minister”.

But, ironically, my spirits really perked up when I opened the main paper and alighted on an article about the misery experienced in Spain in trying to do anything by internet or phone. And about the appalling way companies here contemptuously take advantage of their captive customers. This is not a new theme for me, of course, but it was nice to find I’m not a lone [foreign] voice crying in the wilderness. You can read the whole litany here but I’ll just quote this instance of what one’s up against. Referring to his attempt to stop a Banco Santander employee going through an advertising spiel before attending to his request, the author says her response was “Until I’ve finished I can’t validate your card”. Does this happen anywhere else? Or is Spain, in this area at least, really different? And will it actually get worse during the dark days ahead?

But back to the UK . . . I’ve commented in the past on the particularly British form of corruption enshrined in the ability of its feather-bedding bureaucrats to expand their empires and to award themselves ever-higher salaries and pensions. Which are funded, at the local level, by soaring municipal taxes. So I wasn’t surprised to read this morning that “Last year the number of ‘middle managers’ in Britain's local authorities rose by a staggering 22 %.” And that “Birmingham City Council alone has more than 1,000 officials earning over £50,000 a year. All over Britain senior council officials are now earning salaries which 10 years ago would have seemed unthinkable.” When on earth will British taxpayers revolt against this? If not during a recession, then the answer must surely be Never. As the columnist wrote – “Future historians will doubtless find it highly significant that just when Britain's economy was about to collapse, an already hopelessly bloated public sector was expanding faster than ever. One of the more dramatic changes in British life over the past two decades has been how the officials who run our local authorities have become separated from the communities they used to serve. Floating free of political control, they have become a new privileged class, able to dictate their own salaries and extend their own empires, paid for by a public to whom they are no longer accountable.”

So, who says there’s no convergence between the UK and the EU and that Britain is an unworthy member? Imitation is, after all, reputed to be the sincerest form of flattery.

In case you haven't noticed - I'm not in a good mood this Atlantic-Blanket-afflicted Sunday. But tomorrow is another day. And the agents of the manufacturers of my boiler may well provide the solution to its temperamentalness that I've been seeking for a mere 8 years. Hope springs eternal. And at least they answer my emails.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I’ve seen some Atlantic storms here but perhaps not one in which the winds were as strong as last night’s. I counted at least ten abandoned umbrellas as I walked into town for dinner. Worse, having stopped briefly to pick up a roof tile from my front lawn on the way out, I managed to get my car at exactly the right spot to meet a huge rubbish container sent flying by a strong gust. So, my offside wing mirror is now hanging from its electrical cables down the side of the car. But I’m consoling myself with the thought that it could have been a telegraph pole through the windscreen. Or a roof tile as I was emerging from the front door. I’ll try to maintain these thoughts as I pay 200 euros for the fitting of a replacement mirror. Not to mention the memory of the amusement arising from one of my friends suggesting at dinner that I sue the local council for having dangerously mobile contenadores.

January is a month when a lot of bills come in. The Spanish phrase is ‘La cuesta de enero” – The January uphill struggle. Or, if you like, The January hump. Either way, not a good time for the electricity company to move from billing every two months to every month. But, hey, it’s a monopoly so why worry about customers’ concerns? What’s the point of having captive customers, if you can’t take advantage of them? Maybe it looked like a good idea when energy prices were soaring but the government was forcing you to keep you price increases minimal. But it looks very mean-spirited now.

Gordon Brown is said to have a hand tremor. This is a side-effect of lithium, an old-fashioned remedy for depression, still used when nothing else works. So, is this the reason for his increasingly bizarre performance? And are the odds on him topping himself reducing? Which is not a nice question. But, then, neither is How deep will the British depression be? Or, How much more is going to be lopped off my pension by currency devaluation?

To cheer myself up, I took a look at this video of a bear-skinned British guardsman clouting a Bulgarian kid imitating his marching up and down. Amusing but I suspect it’s a hoax.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The British economy is now is such a parlous state I wonder how long it will be before there are calls for a ‘national’ government, comprising at least the two main parties. This would present the Conservative opposition with something of a dilemma, I suspect. They’d not want to be seen as ‘unpatriotic’ in resisting this but, less than two years away from a general election, neither would they want to be drawn into copping some of the blame for the mistakes of the last decade and the next twelve months. If it ever happens, it will be fascinating to watch.

Meanwhile, the pound continues its downwards progress from a mere ‘competitive devaluation’ to a full-blown run on the currency. For an insight into the reasons why, click here.

In the Byzantine world of Spanish regional-national politics, something deeply odd is taking place in the Madrid Autonomous Community. The President of the latter – who seems to be at constant war with the same-party mayor of Madrid city – is now accused of setting up a special service to spy on one of her same-party colleagues who wasn’t doing her bidding around political control of the regional savings bank, Caja Madrid. At least, I think that’s the situation but you’d need a degree in Spanish politics to really understand it all. Anyway, the hapless President of the right-of-centre PP party – there are a lot of presidents in Spain – has now initiated an investigation into the claims about the behaviour of the Madrid region president. With whom there’ve been sharp clashes in the past. This may be unfair but, taken with the fact that Spain’s judges are about to go on strike, this rather gives the impression that neither government nor opposition are doing their jobs and that no one in this fun-loving country is terribly concerned about its serious economic plight. Perhaps they all think that the EU 7th cavalry will always be there to ride to the rescue. I mean, if France and Germany can bend the rules and remain good members, why not Spain?

And, of course, the Spanish might be right. This article endorses reader Moscow’s view that exit of the EU would be extremely difficult, if not downright impossible. As the author says, “The costs imposed on country leaving the euro would be overwhelming. The markets would take fright and demand a far higher premium for holding the government's debts.” However, the writer adds the rider that “If the situation continues to worsen, electorates may ultimately demand nothing less.” This, of course, is because they don’t understand economics. But are very aware that economic expertise didn’t prevent the current global malaise. And that for every economic forecast, there’s at least another one round the corner. Then there’s the credibility of politicians. About which it’s probably best to say little.

A man from Barcelona is suing his British employer for racial discrimination, claiming his boss poked fun at him using quotations from Fawlty Towers. American readers might find it strange to see the word ‘race’ used for discrete European peoples but it’s certainly possible, I believe, for an Irishman to win a case in the British courts based on the telling of traditional scurrilous English jokes about their neighbours. Though I’m not sure a Belgian would succeed in a French court. Or a Canadian in either a French or an American court.

It comes to something when an Italian newspaper openly claims your country is happily harbouring its most corrupt nationals. But, sadly, La Repubblica says a large part of the construction along the Costa del Sol was carried out, with the full knowledge of local politicians, by companies linked to the mafia. Allegedly, Spain is the favoured destination of the Naples Camorra because it is a ‘more tolerant state, not afflicted by homicides or anti-mafia vigilance’. Or, as the paper puts it, ‘An Eden for organised crime.’ So, not much change since Noel Coward labelled the Costa del Sol ‘A sunny place for shady people’. Except he didn’t. It was the Riviera he was talking about. But he could have done.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Second post of the day . . .

The Duchess of Alba is said to be the richest woman in Spain. She’s in her eighties and has had enough expensive cosmetic surgery to leave her with a characteristic perma-stare. Though what accounts for her odd voice, God alone knows. Anyway, she’s upset her children by taking up with a man who, though considerably her junior, loves her deeply for what she is. I mention all this because I’ve read that she’s just been in for a bit of brain surgery and I’m wondering whether she knew anything about it.

The EU parliament has been treated to a "hard-hitting condemnation of Spain’s urban planning practices, weak property rights, and unresponsive legal system”. Click here if you want to know about the rather predictable reaction of Spanish MEPs from both major parties. Interestingly, this report coincides with a survey which suggests the British dream of buying property in the south of Spain has not been much affected by ‘scare stories’ in the UK media. Which must be music to the ears of many bureaucrats, developers, estate agents, lawyers and assorted crooks down there. Some of which are the same people. Or at least related.

This last week has seen two quotes from Spanish female singers which left me rather quizzical . .
Niña Pastori – Flamenco is suffering because gypsies are no longer poor.
Concha Buika – Galicia is one of the most African places in Spain.

Another thing I’d appreciate enlightenment on is when it is that Spanish uses capital letters, outside the obvious ones I mean. Tonight I saw that not only Government and State merited this treatment but also the Market. And Labour and Capital?

As I’ve noted a couple of times, Galicia has three small airports for a population of 3 million. They seem to spend a good deal of time and effort competing with each other. Not far south of us, Portugal has a truly international airport outside Oporto and this is growing far more rapidly than the three Galician facilities combined. There’s probably a lesson to be drawn from this but no one here gives any impression of understanding what it is. Too busy fighting their own corner, perhaps.

Which reminds me – A woman down in Pontevedra city was recently arrested for repeatedly scratching her neighbours’ cars. For parking outside her garage would be my guess.
I’ve woken very early today and decided to post this polemic, in addition to the one I wrote late last night and the usual one I will post this evening. So, if you have any interest in Ryan’s progress, don’t be fooled into missing yesterday’s post. Of course, if you have an RSS feed such as Google Reader, this is unlikely . . .

I’ve been known to say that, although the Spanish are an affable, sociable and, indeed, charming people, life here can be irritatingly devoid of the little courtesies I take for granted from my own culture. So, imagine my surprise to read today that “The courtesy of everyday social exchanges in America can be startling to visiting Britons.” And that “According to a UK survey last month, our own standards are plummeting.” There are things worse than an economic crisis. Maybe I should be considering the USA for when things get truly intolerable in Europe. Especially now that there's a saint running the place.

Speaking of financial crises . . . Each passing day now sees another nail in the coffin of Britain’s economy and a further reduction in the chances of me winning my bet with reader Moscow that the pound will bounce back to 1.25 against the euro by the end of 2009. I do, though, get the impression there’s rather more acceptance and commentary about Britain’s dire situation in the UK media than there is here in Spain in respect of her own similar predicament. Or even worse plight, if the real Jeremiads are right and Spain is forced out of the eurozone. Here’s one such British commentary, calling into question Gordon Brown’s sanity. And this from a left-of-centre paper. Here's another – from the other side of the political divide - in which the writer answers my question about the missing 37 billion pounds handed over to the banks by Mr B. Yes, it is stuck in their vaults, helping to clean up their dirty balance sheets. So, not terribly productive. Francis Bacon said a few hundred years ago that money is like shit - no good unless you spread it. In the same way, cash needs to flow around an economy as blood does round the body. At the moment, everything that Mr Brown injects into the corpus/corpse of the British economy seems to end up filling just the left foot.

Of course, no balance sheet is filthier than that of UK plc, thanks to the off-balance-sheet PFI financing scheme that Mr Brown has been so keen on. And which now looks like an even bigger negative than it has done over the last ten years. Perhaps this is why one of the world’s savviest investors is encouraging everyone to get shot of all their pounds. As if all of us could!

Not all of the bankers whose greed and profligacy has created the mess we’re in have retired from the scene with millions in the bank. Or, more likely, under their mattresses. Several of them have devastated their families by killing themselves. The latest is the ex-star of the Irish financial scene, Patrick Rocca. I rather doubt that Gordon Brown will be taking this route. Or even resigning. But if he does decide to top himself, perhaps he could do us all a favour and shoot the hapless Mr Blair on his way out. This is about the only chance they have of forcing history to be kind to them. What a disaster the New Labour government of commercially inexperienced but City-and-money-loving ex-socialists has been. Except, of course, for the several hundred thousand overpaid new civil servants it has employed and who, along with their colleagues, now enjoy job protection and the prospect of a handsome pension. Albeit in very devalued pounds.

Talk about moral hazard!

PS. If you think this is gratutiously nasty, bear in mind I have 30-40 insect bites on my neck. A savage mosquito? Or a flea from the night train?

PPS. I knew Ryan was clever for a dog. But I didn't realise he was reading Bacon.

PPS. Thank God! A report that insists Britain is not bankrupt. At least, not yet.

PPPS: Oh dear. I've now read it and it says Spain is in a worse plight than the UK. I wonder how much a green card costs . . .

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is there no end to modern plagiarism? Within an hour of me writing of the “UK banking corpus/corpse” last night, this headline appeared in The Times – “A desperate attempt to revive a corpse - The second bailout shows that the Government has acted as imprudently as the banks themselves.”

Well, believe it or not, I did go back to the vet’s clinic. And, worse, I was fleeced again. I appreciate this doesn’t put me in a good light so let me explain . . . The vet had called me every day for over a week to solicitously enquire about Ryan’s health. When I said yesterday that he was still - shall we say - rather liquid, she asked me to call in to pick up a prescription for another antibiotic. Arriving at the clinic, I asked the receptionist for this but, not having it, she went off to talk to the vet. The latter emerged with the prescription and two packs of pills which looked to me like free samples from the manufacturers. So I took these and bid them farewell, whereupon the vet said I needed to cough up 20 euros and promptly disappeared. The receptionist offered me a plastic bag but, resisting the temptation to tell her where to shove it, I politely declined, paid up and stepped over the threshold I’d vowed never to cross again. The new antibiotic is, of course, the one I asked for ten days ago and for which I’ve now paid 165 euros. I’m in the wrong business. But at least one of the new products will make Ryan’s faeces and farts smell nicer. So, not a complete loss.

But the good news is that the engineer came today to fix my washing machine, just as the charming young lady in the shop had promised yesterday. He didn’t actually know anything about the diagram of the leaking hose that I’d given her, but he did have one in his van so all ended well. And, at 48 euros, it was only a third of the cost of a sick dog.

Dining at one of my favourite tapas bars last night, I was told by the owner that the Spanish word for the big set of bellows hanging from his ceiling is el fuelle: that the word for the chap who works them is el follador; and that the verb is follar. Which all came as news to me. And might just come as a surprise to some Spanish readers as well.

I tried to get some train times tonight on the web page of Spain’s national carrier, RENFE. But I was prevented by the warning that their security certificate was untrustworthy. Which can’t help internet bookings, I wouldn’t have thought.

Finally, for all fellow pedants . . . The Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez, is quoted as saying “We are disappointed and frustrated at the amount of points we have dropped at home this season.” Showing just why his English teacher should be hung, drawn and quartered. By any number of executioners.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Some months ago Scotland’s First Minister made exactly the same boast as the Spanish President, viz. that his country’s banks were “among the most stable financial institutions in the world.” Well, at least events haven’t overtaken both of these assertions and President Zapatero still has the right to repeat the claim. Though this might amount to another of his favoured hostages to fortune as we await the 2008 results of Spanish banks that some say are being delayed because they aren’t what they were cracked up to be. Even so, I doubt that events will have overtaken words in the Spanish case quite so spectacularly as they did in the Caledonian case. There goes Scottish independence in 2010. Not that it had much chance anyway.

I’m confused as to how the French government can be offering subsidies to the country’s car makers, provided they keep jobs in France. Perhaps the EU has relaxed its laws on this. Or maybe France is once again leading the way in disregarding basic EU principles that have suddenly become incompatible with her self-interest. Or maybe I was just plain wrong to think state handouts were now forbidden as being prejudicial to fair competition.

Near term, it looks as if the UK might lack the cash to make any hand-outs, even if there were industries left to get them and even if the government wanted to legally or illegally help these. The head of a think tank called Work Foundation has suggested Britain is on the verge of bankruptcy and close to needing a loan from the IMF. Meanwhile, it seems to be the consensus that the 37 billion pounds recently given to British banks succeeded in stopping the complete collapse of the banking system but failed to solve the credit crisis. So another humungous sum is apparently required. OK, but this still leaves the question – If cash isn’t flowing around the financial corpus [corpse?], where is the 37 billion that was doled out a few weeks ago? Sitting in the vaults? Being paid out in bonuses? It would be nice to know. Especially if you're a British taxpayer. And the unwitting owner of shares in several of said banks.

As for Spain, click here if you want a balanced local view on how things are going here. The author endorses my comment of yesterday that the government appears to be quite clueless. Perhaps the cabinet sat down a few months ago and said “Well, we successfully lied our way through the general election last March, so why don’t we try the same thing ahead of the Basque and Galician general elections this coming March. Or let’s just whistle.” Sadly, though, events such as the S&P downgrading of Spain’s credit rating means that masterly inactivity is not really a viable option now. Especially as the natives are showing signs of getting increasingly restless. And that was before the EU announced that the government’s latest economic forecasts were so much wet paper!

Here in Galicia, yesterday’s papers had what I guess we could call the Monday Litany. 21 years old. BMW. 140 horsepower. Curve. Reasons unknown. Excessive speed. No seat belts. Another six young people dead. Obviously, the most depressing day of the year was harder to take for some than for others.

Talking of driving, I’m encouraged to see it’s not only in my barrio that this sort of thing takes place.

I thought I'd leave you with a smile . . .

Monday, January 19, 2009

They say that today, the 19th of January, is the most depressing day of the year. Well, I’ve returned from the excitement of Madrid, it’s pouring with rain and my central heating boiler won’t even do me the courtesy of switching on, never mind firing up and then summarily shutting down on a whim. So maybe they’re right.

On a wider front, the European Commission has certainly done its bit for depression by announcing that economic performances this year – both inside and outside the eurozone – will be far worse than it predicted as recently as November. Both the UK and Spain are among the worst performers and are forecast to suffer very significant contractions after the end of their respective property booms.

A leading British businessman has said that “There are no quick, miracle cures for a recession. There is, I fear, a real risk that politicians, in seeking an overnight cure, will overmedicate the economy, creating more problems than they solve.” I doubt there’s much chance President Zapatero will be falling into this trap. After all, his government only recently recognised there is a recession to cure. And since then has given the impression of having little idea how to deal with it. However, it has ventured the view that recovery will start in 2010, though the more-pessimistic EC puts this at 2011. Others are even less optimistic, feeling that the European Central Bank is proving to be slow and indecisive. Perhaps because it has so many members’ competing interests to weigh in the balance.

To get back to more important things . . . Yesterday was the feast day of St Antón, the patron saint of animals. In Madrid, a vast array of these are brought to a church dedicated to him to be blessed. As it happens, my daughter and I caught the tail end [sorry] of this as we set off on an evening paseo. It would, though, have been far more interesting to catch the ceremony which takes place down in Mijas in Andalucia, where women throw pebbles at the genitals of a statue of the saint in order to increase their fertility. Honest.

Passing a music school this evening, I noticed there were four cars parked in a forbidden zone outside it, all empty but with their indicator lights flashing. I guess this was meant to suggest “I’m only going to be parked here for a while. Please don’t tow me away.” It wouldn’t work in, say, the UK but it might do here. After eight years, I really should know.

Finally, my daughter has introduced me to a magazine called El Extintor – “A humorous magazine for the serious”. I will now see whether it makes me laugh and let you know.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Catalan savings bank, La Caixa, has a new cultural centre in the heart of Madrid – El Forum. And an impressive place it is. I do wonder why Spain depends on its banks for such places but this is by the by. I enjoyed the Estruscan exhibition on the first floor yesterday but my elder daughter suggested I didn’t waste my time climbing to the second to see the contemporary Chinese art. So I didn’t. And I was surprised and impressed to see that all the Caixa’s phone numbers in Madrid are local numbers. With the exception of the one you need to call to sign up to be a volunteer for one altruistic association or another. For some reason, this is one of the now ubiquitous premium rate numbers. Perhaps voluntary service is only for rich folk.

There’s been a lot of fuss in the UK about Prince Charles calling an Asian polo-playing friend ‘Sooty’. My suspicion is that most Spaniards would argue that, as the guy is not white – making the term accurate - and because he says he doesn’t mind, then there’s nothing to get uptight about and the whole affair is just another example of Anglo-Saxon political correctness gone mad. Or even inverse racism. But a British columnist makes the right point in writing that the days are long gone when one could buy a jacket that was “unselfconsciously called nigger brown”. As she says - “Such words were truly not a sign of racism. They were simply signs of an entirely different and ethnocentric world view. And, although political correctness has led to some disastrous extremes, it has at its roots a belief in courtesy, in good manners and in avoiding unnecessary offence.” Which is the point many Spaniards give the impression of simply not grasping. Leading to the accusations of racism which so infuriate them. To them it matters only that the words – ‘Just a joke’ - were not intended to cause offence. Even if they did. So, not just ethnocentric but self-centric too.

Finally . . . Telefónica has full-page ads in today’s papers, boasting of a market capitalisation of 105 something or others, putting it between Electricité Francais and Coca Cola. You might think such a successful company would be able to give you a rural phone line in days rather than years. But, if so, you’d be wrong. On the other hand, you’d be right not to be very surprised at the claim from the Spanish Association of Internet Users that the ADSL service we get here is the slowest and most expensive in Europe. This accolade has to go to some country, of course, but it’s hard to see why it has to be Spain.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Spanish government is finally coming clean about the state of the economic wasteland facing the country. Against the backcloth of commentary and developments elsewhere – such as the downgrading of the country’s credit rating - it could hardly do otherwise. Perhaps it’ll now move on to serious solutions – whatever these might be in a country grown rich and complacent on the back of an economic motor – construction – that has quite simply vanished. The initial step in this direction seems to be the Economics minister distancing himself from the President’s fairyland suggestion that all Spain’s regions would be receiving more money under his new financing scheme. Thus confirming the recently-expressed pessimism of readers of the Voz de Galicia that this would never actually happen in their region at least.

There’s a photo of the last get-together of the presidents of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions in today’s El Pais. Only one of these is a woman, which is an interesting contrast with the more-than-50% female national cabinet. It rather raises the question of where real power lies in this de facto federal state. Which could well get even harder to govern than usual in the difficult two to five years ahead.

Reader Moscow confirms that he views the EU as a solution to Spain’s woes and a spur to essential structural reform. So it seems apt for me to make a few quotations from the chapter headed The Discovery of Europe that I read this morning in the book I recently cited – The Disinherited, by Henry Kamen. . . .
- By the end of the 16th century many elite Spaniards, weary of the economic disaster, political collapse and intellectual isolation of their country, were pinning their hopes on a new and promising horizon, namely Europe.
- Many generations later, the writer José Ortega y Gasset, who liked succinct phrases, coined one that stated: ‘Spain is the problem and Europe is the solution.’ It was a fantasy vision that political leaders would persist in nurturing from the 17th century until today.
- The essentially love-hate relationship with the rest of the continent had its origins many generations before but began in earnest only in December 1700, when the crown passed [from the Hapsburgs to the Bourbons].
- Spain entered upon a political system that split the country down the middle, intensified internal conflicts, made exile into a permanent reality of cultural life and converted half of the political elite into opponents of the monarchy.

Having seen the issue of Europe do much the same to the UK in the last 20 years, I'll be an interested observer of what the next decade brings to Spain. I guess the question is - Once the measures that Moscow and I agree are necessary start to bite, will the relationship turn from the greatest love the EU has ever known – and which it handsomely paid for – to one of unremitting hate?

Or will the 'temporary' departure of Greece, Italy or Ireland from the eurozone offer a too-tempting escape route from harsh realties born of the collapse of castles made from sand?

Vamos a ver, I guess.

Friday, January 16, 2009

This weekend sees the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the forerunner of Dunkirk – the battle of Elviña [La Coruña] in 1809 - when retreating British troops temporarily left the Peninsular War at the forceful request of the pursuing French. Without, of course, their commander, Sir John More, whose grave and the maintenance thereof provide a continuing link between the UK and this north western tip of Galicia.

In a more recent battle, the president of Real Madrid FC has conceded defeat in a campaign to stay in power which seems to have been marked by some serious manipulation of the voting process on his part. At the inevitable press conference, he shed tears of pain but I suspect these were easily outnumbered by those of joy from the many supporters who’d have happily seen him strung him up with piano wire. Football is a serious business here and Real Madrid are a long way behind Barca in the league rankings. And possibly no one now believes the [ex] president’s claims that Ronaldo is on the verge of leaving Manchester United to join them and turn their season round. Over in that city, ‘Mister’ Ferguson is probably smiling too.

Referring to the second chance which Ireland has to get things right, one of the country’s best columnists makes this surprising admission:-"That's it. I'm voting for Lisbon next time. Not because I like the EU. I don't. I despise its corruption, its moral laziness, its military torpor, its great glutinous bureaucracy and its fundamental disrespect for democracy. Its many failings will, in due course, spell the end of European civilisation. But at least, if we vote for Lisbon, we shall be further drawn into the great maw of the EU, and for all its loathsome vices, this means we will be spared another layer of self-government. In time, we might become a directly administered province of Brussels. It'll be horrible, of course, but it won't be as horrible as what we've got now." The interesting thing about this quote is that it seems to encompass both my views about the essential nature of the EU and reader Moscow’s view that, whatever this might be, the institution is necessary as – my words – a straitjacket in which to force countries like Spain to get their act together. Or, as one British MEP puts it:- “Support for the EU is often a product of pessimism, of despair at the perceived failure of national institutions.” Or, as I recently put it - Any port in a storm. Especially if you’re a small Icelandic craft which is slowly sinking. But, mark my words, it will all end in tears . . .

Finally, I leave you with the news from the Voz de Galicia that 50% of Spaniards dislike the notion of living in a multiracial society. Which certainly merits further research. Meanwhile, the good news is that Spain’s young people are rather more favourably inclined towards el mestizaje than those over 55.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A question for any statistician among you:- You are in a sleeping compartment on a train. There are three of you. One of the other two snores like a speared pig and the other sniffs and coughs around every three minutes. What are the chances of you:- 1. Getting much sleep? And 2. Being equable when you get up? Additionally, what are the chances of your mood improving when some inconsiderate bastard spends the entire last 45 minutes of the journey in the compartment’s only toilet? Finally – What are the odds on this person being a woman applying her make-up?

Of course, any non-statistician can have a go at this question - Why on earth did I say I looked forward to travelling on a train?

Another day, another abandoned speedboat washed up on the rocks of the Galician coast. This time after a chase involving a police helicopter which resulted in the narcos leaving almost 4 tonnes of cocaine aboard. I wonder if the shares of speedboat companies in Galicia are bucking current market trends.

There’s an almighty public row taking place between the Ministress of Development and Iberia over who is responsible for the appalling delays visited on travellers at Madrid airport over the past week or so. Indeed, the former has said she’ll be taking legal action against the latter, and/or summoning them to answer to a parliamentary committee. If so, this would be a first for a publicly listed company. Meanwhile, Iberia has taken out full-page ads in the national newspapers referring to the work-to-rule strike of their pilots, admitting their service hasn't been at its customary high level and offering an apology to all concerned. I have no personal experience of the airline but my impression is the reference to high quality service may cause one or two hollow laughs. Or at least wry smiles.

Talking of strikes – Spain’s judges say they’re so fed up with the treatment they’re getting from the government that they plan to drop quills, as it were, some time later this year. Which will do absolutely nothing at all for the reputation of the country’s infamously slow tribunals.

Finally, it seems no organisation in Spain can resist the temptation to sell good building land near the sea. Up in Galicia, the Roman Catholic church will be getting 14 million euros for a plot which happens to be within the 500 metre legal limit. The excuse given by an Episcopal spokespriest is that there are already some houses between the planned properties and the Galician main. It sometimes seems in Spain that the problem is not that there are too few laws but that there are too many. One for you, one for me and one for that Archbishop over there. Or maybe I’m just confused by the niceties of the law.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Responding to the demonstration against property abuses, the leading light in the Spanish association of constructors dismissed negative UK press reports as “a work of fiction”. In other words, like every politician and businessman in Spain, he’s telling the truth and everyone else is lying. Not content with this, he moved on to the sophistry of suggesting there can’t have been any skulduggery because no one has taken a case to the [infamously slow] Spanish courts. The problem is - as I think Oscar Wilde said - that this is worse than criminal; it’s stupid. Being both fuel for the media fire and prejudicial to the interests of Spain. It may play well in Almería but not where the money comes from. However, it takes a perspective wider than that of a Spanish constructor to understand this. No wonder one hears even Spaniards despair of this country at times.

On a lighter note – I was sipping a Rioja in a new bar last night when some familiar sound drew my eyes to the TV in the corner. There was a group of odd folk in strange black garb, prancing around and hitting each other’s sticks. The legend said it was a traditional British folk dance. So I'm guessing they were Satanic Morris dancers.

It must be good to be a civil servant anywhere in the world when times are tough. I say this because the Voz de Galicia tells us that some 30 Xunta members will be off to the Havana Book Fair shortly, at a cost of 51,000 euros for the flights alone. But at least the long stretches in the air will allow for plenty of reading.

Most drivers in Spain are, of course, as good and as sensible as those elsewhere but we do seem to have a higher percentage here – though perhaps only in Galicia – of the insanely reckless. Like the 18 year old just done for travelling at 216kph in an 80kph area. He excuse was that he’d just got the car of his dreams – a high-powered sports model, naturally – and wanted to show his friends what it could do. If you're asking how an 18 year old can afford such an expensive car – or even just the insurance – you should know this is something that’s often asked around here. As it happens, I took my morning coffee behind a mother who was underwriting a loan agreement for her teenage son and I’m pretty sure it was for a car. As the representative from the loan company was one of those Spanish women who thinks the entire café should hear every word she says, I suppose I could have listened in, to be sure. But I had better things to do.

Talking of driving – The head of the Traffic Department in Galicia has called for more respect for the rules and pointed out that a mere 10% of pedestrians mown down are on zebra crossings at the time. If I understand his logic, he'd like this to be 100%. I guess he'll move on to drivers when he's whipped the pedestrians into shape.

Galicia now has around 96,000 foreigners living here. Real ones, I mean. Not those from other regions of Spain. This is a whopping 76,000 more than 10 years ago. For those interested, here are the numbers. From which you can see there are even more Chinese here than Brits. But the really remarkable number is that for the Rumanians – which is 80% up on a year ago. And this is before they became entitled to live here as of 1 January. All numbers are in thousands:-
Portuguese – 17.1
Brazilians – 10.5
Colombians – 8.4
Argentineans – 6.4
Rumanians – 5.0
Uruguayans – 4.8
Moroccans – 4.3
Venezuelans – 4.2
Peruvians – 2.8
Dominicans – 2.7
Cubans – 2.1
France - 1.7
China - 1.6
UK - 1.5

Finally, I booked this evening for a future trip on the night train to Madrid. I would have done this this morning, when I first when to the station. But they told me they only sell advance tickets after 3pm - forcing me to ask whether customer service is actually going backwards in Spain.

In contrast to flying, I actually look forward to the train journey. Not that it’s ever proved as romantic as it’s made out to be. So far, at least.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When you read something like this about Spain’s rapidly deteriorating state finances and then you read that Sr Zapatero says he’s resolved the ‘sudoku’ challenge of regional finance by promising every region more money via a combination of the main fund and one or more of three new ones he’s just invented, you begin to wonder whether he’s living in the same world as the rest of us. Or just thinks the Spanish electorate is stupid. Oh, hang on. We got the national answer to this last March. And will probably get it again here in Galicia this coming March.

Of course, I can’t resist quoting this extract from the above article - As we say in English, it never rains but it pours - and just to confirm the validity of the old adage we learn today that Spanish prosecutors are currently investigating Banco Santander's loss of more than 2.3 billion euros of its clients' money by investing with alleged swindler Bernard Madoff. Just what Spain and its badly mauled banking system needed at this moment in time - a crisis of confidence in the professional judgement of Emilio Botin.

When it comes to the law and its application, Spain can be a very confusing country. There’s been a statute for 20 years now forbidding construction within a certain distance of the sea. I think it used to be 50 metres and has recently been increased to 500 or more. Need I say that it’s been honoured more in the breach than the observance? But recently there’s been a lot of talk about enforcing it, even to the extent of knocking down huge illegal buildings. To date, though, the only demolition in Spain everyone’s aware of is that of the house of a British couple in Almería, miles away from the sea. Anyway, my point is – if the law is now to be enforced, why has the Galician Xunta authorised the cutting down of half a forest so that a huge block of flats can be built on the island of Arousa within 20 metres of the sea? And why does the Vice Secretary of the socialist PSOE party own the flat with the best view? I fear we will never know.

Having had to deal with the consequences of a my dog’s stomach upset this morning, I went to the vet’s and asked for some antibiotics. “Oh, no.” they said, in horror. “We’ll have to see whether he has a fever or anything.” So I took him in this evening, whereupon – without any discussion or request on my part – they went to work and then, twenty minutes later, presented me with a bill for 143 euros for lab tests and eight tins of special food. And the prescription? Why, antibiotics, of course. Costing all of 2 euros at the nearby pharmacy. So, yet another example of the standard Spanish business strategy of First trap your customer however you can and then skin him as often as possible. And the special food? Well, Ryan is refusing to eat it, of course. Even if he is partial to the filthy water of pools up in the forest. Anyway, you certainly need to have your wits about you in this country. Which I manifestly didn’t this evening. I wonder if they’ll ever notice that I never set foot in their clinic again. Even if Ryan begs me to take him for another painful finger up his backside. Which is somewhat less than likely.

And I wonder, if I were Spanish, would I have kicked up a fuss and refused to pay.

Finally, here’s something about a truly admirable young Spaniard . . .

Monday, January 12, 2009

Spain’s population has grown by more than 10% in the last few years, mostly as a result of pretty uncontrolled immigration necessary to provide labour for the construction boom. With this over, the government has tried to bribe people to go home by offering them lump sum payments equivalent, I think, to two years’ dole. There were said to be 100,000 people targeted, with an expectation that 20,000 would take up the offer. In fact, only 800 have so far leaped at the chance to lose their residence status and work permits. So not a huge success.

Those Czechs are real cards! If you don’t believe me, click here.

Here’s a report from someone who attended the demonstration against Andalucian property abuses on Friday. And, even more interesting, here’s an overview from the man behind it all, Lenox Napier. It would be nice to think someone important in Spain was pondering his words but I rather doubt it. Incidentally, reports of the numbers demonstrating vary from 200 to 2,000, with the lower one coming from the El País on-line report I cited the other day. My guess is they didn’t attend but called a local official who felt it best to downplay things. In official terminology, he would be known by that frequent Spanish epithet - ‘a liar’.

I may think their service is poor but there's no doubting the capacity of Spanish banks to make money. Two of them - Banco Santandar and the BBVA - are reported to be among the top four earners in the world - the others being HSBC and Citibank. As it happens, I have experience of both of the latter. And it was infinitely less irritating than that with the BBVA. But, if Spanish customers are happy, who am I to moan?

The Spanish president was in Galicia over the weekend, bolstering the profile of the local socialist party in advance of our March regional elections. He promised us the AVE high-speed train will definitely be here by 2012 and that his [central] government will help promote the Galician language. But, after the farce of the last 12 months, quite why anyone would believe a word he says is utterly beyond me.

I learn from Google Alerts that this part of Spain is known as the Costa de Marisco – The Seafood Coast. This may well be so but I have to say this is the first time I’ve heard it in eight years. Did I mention that Google Alerts never cites my blog?

And talking of our coast, I read today that yet another speedboat has been abandoned in some cove or other. A six-engined job, with the power of 300 horses, we’re told. They must have money to burn, these drug smugglers.

If you have a problem with hiccups, click here. And if you want to belong to a loose association of people with a common interest in Galicia, click here.

Finally, I accidentally zapped into the Euro News channel this morning, where I was relieved to hear that – though the EU can’t do much in Gaza or on the Russia-Ukraine border – it’s achieving singular success in containing the continent-wide problem of the grey squirrel. For this we need a superstate?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Well, El País had jumped on my Sarkozy bandwagon, in the form of an article from British columnist Timothy Gorton Ash. TGA labels the petite Frenchman the President Emperor and accuses him of thinking he’s indispensable to Europe. But his main point is that Europe is failing to achieve a single voice over such things as the events in Gaza and the little problem with Russian gas. Instead, he says, Europe is seen in Washington and Peking as incoherent, hypocritical and irritating. But, above all, impotent. It reminded me of an article in the Voz de Galicia a day or so ago in which the writer said that the successors to Europe’s visionaries were the mediocrities of Brown, Merkel and, of course, Sarkozy. I suppose this might just be because it’s easier to dream than to solve tough problems when interests conflict. Especially when economies are declining and not booming.

One British paper at least – the Sunday Telegraph – did cover Friday’s demonstration in Andalucia. And in terms which surely won’t help the image of Spain with its million or so readers. There was even a mention of corruption. But I particularly like the response of the regional head of planning who said his hands are tied because he has to “work within the framework of the law." Which would surely make him pretty unique down there. And it does leave one wondering why huge blocks of illegal flats on beachfronts are still standing, when private houses in the hills can be summarily demolished. Perhaps they don’t have big enough machines.

Here’s the answer to the copyleft conundrum. Not Spanglish at all, it seems.

Finally, a few more Ponters pix:-

1. A defensive fossa/fosa [I guess] which has been unearthed by the old city walls. One side is of large smooth stones and the other of a rougher construction that I associate with the Middle Ages. So, did they dig a defensive ditch behind the original Roman walls and then erect another wall? Perhaps we will know when the new museum finally opens.

2. This is the third or fourth occupant of this place in the old quarter. In recent years, I mean. It’s called a ‘coffee and music club’ but my partner says the combination of ‘club’ and the colour pink is decidedly suspicious. You may not believe this but this hadn't occurred to me.

3. And here’s the city’s first rent-a-bike pick-up point. I’ll be interested to see how this scheme develops. Will we now have adults as well as kids racing towards us on the pavement?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

I read that Blu-ray has won the HD war but is now facing death because of the threat from the downloading or streaming of HD format films direct from the internet. This is disturbing as I don’t even know what Blu-ray is. It’s a fast world. Either that or I am increasingly out of touch.

Well, I couldn’t find any articles in the print media on the demonstration down in Andalucia yesterday. Not even in El Mundo, which you might think would relish having a stick with which to beat both central and regional socialist administrations. But snow has reduced Madrid to complete chaos so there are obviously far more important things with which to fill newspaper pages. But I did find this article in the on-line edition of El País. Apart from the opening loaded sentence, it seems quite fair. Though somehow the word ‘corruption’ doesn’t make an appearance. That said, I guess the inferences are clear. At least from the comments of disaffected Brits they quote.

Talking of words . . . Who knows what the Spanglish ‘copyleft’ means? I certainly don’t.

Addressing the question of why the Tories in the UK are making only a slightly better fist of pinning the blame for the country’s economic plight on the government than the PP party is doing in Spain, a British columnist has this to say about Mr Brown’s predecessor:- “Still mesmerised by Tony Blair, the Tories have failed to notice that Mr Blair's reputation is gradually fading, his legacy in tatters, and the last thing that the British electorate wants is a return to the slick and dishonest politics of Mr Blair's new Labour Mark I, or a Prime Minister who reminds them of him.” I do hope I live long enough to see whether I’ve been right to say – for years now – that history [or History, as it’s called in Spain] will be very unkind to New Labour in general and Mr Blair in particular. And to become an even bigger embarrassment to my daughters than I was when they were young.

Meanwhile, I’ve just taken delivery of ten books from Amazon, three of which happen to be on Spain’s history/History but only one on Britain’s. Anyway, it got me thinking about the Spanish government’s trumpeted campaign against bureaucracy. Unless things have changed, in the UK, the postperson rings your bell and then hands you the Amazon delivery. And that’s it. Here, you take your box, put it down and then fill in a form with your ID number, your surname and your signature. At least, it used to be a form but today it was a little black box, on the screen of which I had to scribble all these details with a snazzy stylus. This is impressively hi-tech but it still leaves the question – Why? What is it about Spain that makes it necessary for there to be more formalities than in the UK? And what happens in the USA? Or France. Or Holland, etc. BTW – The Spanish postperson never checks the accuracy of my details and signature. Which is just as well.

As for the books themselves . . . Well, there are ten of them and I finally plumped for Henry Kamen’s “The Disinherited – The exiles who created Spanish culture” to tackle first. This promises to be a fascinating read and I will have to resist the temptation to make regular quotes. Like this one in the Preface:- “In Spain, the rejection of outside culture is a persistent tradition that can still be found in the Spanish mind. It has its origins in a folk memory stretching back nearly five centuries and firmly rejects all that is associated with foreign civilisation as tainted.” Even more interesting is the point that, in all Europe, only Spain has a tradition of consolidating its culture via a policy of exclusion, rather than one of offering shelter. I feel almost insulted not to have been exiled . . .

Friday, January 09, 2009

As someone who’s on record as saying years ago that Spain’s economic boom was phoney and that it would end in copious tears, I can’t claim to be at all surprised that the Spanish government is claiming December’s economic data was ‘unimaginable’ only six months ago. Or that the developments we’re now witnessing are light years away from the predictions made by the government both before and after the general elections, only nine months ago. What does surprise me is that President Zapatero and his colleagues don’t appear to be copping too much blame for the increasingly dire situation - perhaps because the main right-of-centre paper [El Mundo] is far more interested in attacking the leader of the right-wing Opposition than the left-wing government which has managed the economy over the last four years or so.

So, how bad are things? Well my [useless] market research sample of one suggests in Pontevedra they’re polling along pretty much as usual. As far as I know, none of my neighbours have been made redundant. And, while the boom may be over, vast blocks of new flats - started 2 to 5 years ago - continue to rise all over the city. Elsewhere in Spain, though, things seem to be very different, particularly in those parts of the country reliant on money from Brits, the new poor of Europe. On this, here’s an article describing what’s happening down south. Addressing Spain as a whole, the [arrogant, obsessively eurosceptic Anglo?] author writes:- “When historians begin to assess damage from the credit crunch, Spain will surely be singled out as a classic study of what can go wrong inside a monetary union when the policy requirements of its members become hopelessly misaligned. It is simply not possible to pursue the best interests of every participant when some nations are running trade and fiscal surpluses while others clock up huge deficits. Ten years after it was launched, the euro is propelling Spain towards disaster.” Strong stuff. But, then, if deflation really does hit us, it surely will be a disaster and there’s no knowing what will result. Particularly as regards social unrest. Given regional/tribal tensions, Spain is difficult to run at the best of times so I don’t envy Sr Zapatero the challenges of the next two or three years. No wonder he no longer looks like the relatively wrinkle-free ‘Bambi’ of a couple of years ago. Truth to tell, though, he probably ain’t seen nothing yet. And it may be a bit of hubris to be letting it known that he’ll be happy to stand for a third term in 2012. Assuming he hasn’t had a fatal heart attack.

As for Brits who are already property owners in Spain – or thought they were – today sees the big demonstration down in Andalucia against the infamous property abuses the construction boom brought with it. And tomorrow is the day I assess the Spanish press for reports on the campaign by people whose money Spain seems to now need more than ever.

Meanwhile . . . Interesting to read that Britain may be moving from individual garbage bins to the far-more-sensible Spanish model of large communal containers. But will they be emptied every night, as they are here? I suspect not. Anyway, go to the end of the article for a potted history of British rubbish collection over the last 712 years.

Two customer service tales to finish with today . . .

An English friend who returned to the UK last year called his Spanish bank this week to chat about how the fall in the pound had hit him and about the possibility of some sort of arrangement that would suit both parties. At the end of his sob story, the bank employee replied baldly “And?”. “Well”, he repeated, “I have a problem with the mortgage payments.” “That’s your problem, not ours” she replied. As he said, he really should have known. But one forgets. Perhaps the banks will review their policies when the foreclosures have turned them into estate agents with a full inventory and no customers. Or perhaps they won’t.

My partner decided to have a neck massage today. The girl who gave it was very pleasant and efficient but clearly thought there was nothing odd about this little conversation:-
Oh, I see in your leaflet that you do foot massage as well. I think I’d like one of those one day.
Yes, well, we don’t actually offer that yet.
But it’s in the leaflet with a quoted price.
Yes but the girl who’ll do it hasn’t been trained yet.
So, when will she be?
Well, she’s hoping to fit it in this year.

I guess if the downturn is as bad as feared, she might just be able to find the time, untroubled by difficult customers asking for services that are advertised but unavailable.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

I see the newspaper ABC has echoed my comments about Sarkozy’s role in the Middle East. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what’s going on if the objective of peace is furthered. But ABC suggests that Sarkozy running an initiative parallel to the - rather less publicised - one led by the Czech president in his capacity as head of the EU – is confusing everyone and is, therefore, counterproductive. As the paper points out, it certainly raises the question of whether there is a unified EU stance. And allows the cynics to say that even two European initiatives don’t amount to a row of beans when there’s no US involvement.

But back here in Spain the key question of the moment is whether the Ministress of Defence was right to appear at an annual military event in a trouser suit rather than the dress demanded by protocol. The most asinine comment has been that soldiers can be arrested for being improperly dressed. Personally, I thought she looked pretty good. But not as fetching as the lovely Leticia in her silk bodice and long skirt. Which may or may not the correct description.

Talking of clothes . . . I read that Amy Whitehouse is in negotiations with the Fred Perry company about a label under her name Presumably the jeans won’t be so much pre-washed as pre-stained. And will they, I wonder, drop the line if she succumbs to an overdose.

In his New Year address, the president of the Galician Xunta gave thanks that we have two languages here, Spanish and Galician. Nothing untoward in that, you might think. But a columnist in the Voz de Galicia points out that it’s a bit of a [pre-election] cheek when he’s spent the last four years acting as if we only had one, Galician. And has only recently gone so far as to accuse his political opponents of mounting a campaign to get rid of the local language. It’s enough to make one a tad cynical.

In France, the government is removing ads from the public TV channels during peak viewing hours. Here, the government is in trouble with Brussels for turning a blind eye to regular infringement of the rules about how many minutes per hour are permitted. So, I guess it’ll be a while before we have ad-free evenings here. Or even before they stop switching to ads a mere five minutes after a film starts.

After the latest batch of economic data, the question on [almost] everybody’s lips here is – Is Spain heading for the nightmare of deflation? I haven’t the faintest idea but I can tell you that, if you think I’m negative and pessimistic, this is definitely one site you should stay away from . .

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Spanish government says it wants to reduce bureaucracy in the interests of improving efficiency and productivity and so it’s bringing in a number of appropriate measures. I naturally wish them well but have my doubts it will involve any reductions of personnel in the midst of a recession. Madrid also says it would like the regional governments to follow suit, which I suspect is a rather pious hope. Especially as this announcement coincides with an article in our main local paper which, although giving thanks that Galicia’s drug barons are nowhere near as powerful as those of Sicily, expressed concern that widespread clientelism made the region inefficient, undemocratic and uncompetitive. But I’m sure all this will change after our imminent elections.

I may, of course, be wrong about President Sarkozy still acting as the head of the EU but I thought it was instructive he had the EU flag as well as the French flag behind him at his press conference yesterday. We may need him here soon. Someone arrived at my blog today searching under Invasion of bananas in Galicia.

A letter-writer in El País reports that Telefónica charged her for an ADSL maintenance service when she didn’t have ADSL. They assured her it was a mistake, that they’d refund her the charge and that it wouldn’t happen again. Needless to say, they didn’t and it did. And so she had to go through the usual calvario to get things sorted. She asked rhetorically just how many millions of people in Spain are getting these ‘mistakes’. Well, quite a lot, would be my guess. Perhaps the government of Spain could give some lessons in efficiency to one of the country’s largest and – need I say – most profitable companies. Or if Telefónica want to see how things are done properly, they could contact Brittany Ferries, who’ve just taken 30 seconds on the phone to sort out a problem with my payment details. And who didn’t ask me for my ID number, my address, my date of birth and my grandparents’ maiden and married names. And who offered a cheap phone line for the purpose.

Here’s the latest picture of the houses being built above mine and which may well be finished and occupied within five years. This is to reassure those who were unimpressed with the thickness of the brick walls, as it shows the granite facing being superimposed on these. The good news is that this process makes the building slightly more aesthetically pleasing. The bad news is that the machine which noisily cuts and shapes the granite slabs for eight hours a day has now reached my end of the site.

Finally, tonight is forecast to be the coldest of the winter so far in Spain, with temperatures up in the valley through which Sir John Moore led his retreating army to La Coruña predicted to be around minus 10. It’s also windy and long-standing readers will know this is when my central heating boiler gives up the ghost. Thanks to this, I might tonight be feeling more sympathy with the British troops who froze to death exactly 200 years ago than would normally be the case.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

I touched [again!] on nationalism yesterday. I’ve since read that, although all 17 of Spain’s ‘Autonomous Communities’ have representative offices in Brussels, only 4 of them have set these up further afield – for example in the USA, France, Germany and the UK. These four are the usual suspects of the Basque Country, Cataluña and Galicia plus the Canary Islands, whose nationalist aspirations are unknown to me. Each would-be nation has different location priorities but a big one for Galicia is Argentina. This surely reflects mass emigration to that country, rather than the fact that hundreds of thousands of Argentineans can vote in Galician elections. Usually just after the party in power has channelled considerable sums of money through the office in Buenos Aires. But I guess this is just a coincidence.

Talking of politics, I liked this comment in one of today’s British papers – “Oddly, while so much of the modern political class has become steadily more obsessed with status, salary, perks, position and preferment, those involved have declaimed their moral credentials ever louder as if in compensation for their other failings. There is now a huge oversupply of extremely bossy individuals elected to local government, the devolved institutions, the British Commons and the European parliament, who are certain they know what is best for us and can justify their endless interference as being always in the public interest and by extension an obvious moral good.”

For one reason and another, the Spanish government is taking on increased debt. This is getting more and more expensive, possibly reflecting concern about the country’s economic fundamentals. Madrid is now offering a bond with a return 85 basis points above those of Germany[3.78% v. 2.93%]. A spread which may widen, of course, if Germany deals better with the recession and its consequences. Which seems to be widely forecast. Meanwhile, official inflation here has fallen to 1.5%, against the 4 to 5% increases announced this week by the government and quasi-government service providers. And compared with the minimum of 2% being demanded for the unions for pay increases. Naturally enough, talk of strikes is in the air. So a tough year ahead. But, so far, Sr Zapatero looks like successfully talking his way through it, a la Tony Blair. Helped by an Opposition which doesn’t seem to be able to get its act together at either national or regional level. Of which we will surely see the evidence in the Basque and Galician elections on March 1.

I didn’t go to Pontevedra’s horse-led procession parade in honour of the Three Kings last night. Experience suggests that, if it’s dry, you run the risk of getting killed in the stampede of adults fighting for the sweets chucked by the riders or, if it’s wet, having both eyes poked out by aggressive umbrellas. But I did have a Three Kings experience in the middle of the day, when three cars drove past me in the pedestrian quarter with their horns blaring loudly and some strangely-dressed coves hurling sweets out of the windows. Very Spanish, I thought.

On this theme, there was a lovely topical cartoon in one of the papers yesterday. It showed the three kings, labelled as Melchor, Gaspar and Vaspagar[You are going to pay]. The first two were in standard Magi attire but the last was dressed in modern clothes and was carrying a briefcase with the title of Cobrador do FRAC on it. I don’t know what this means but, as the chap was fat and sporting a top hat, I guessed he might be some sort of American. I don’t suppose it’s this, even though the nationality fits. This seems more likely. Debt enforcers.

Finally, I was interested yesterday to see the Spanish word damnificados used to describe those poor souls enduring long delays at Madrid airport. It seemed most appropriate for an experience in somewhere equivalent to one of the seven circles of Hell.

Monday, January 05, 2009

It seems no one’s told the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy that he ceased to be President of the EU at the end of last year. Either that or the Commission has decided to neutralise the eurosceptic new president from the Czech Republic by simply ignoring him and having Sarkozy act as if he were still in charge. It’s hard to see this sort of thing happening in any democratic state. Other than Russia, of course.

Tutored by the Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown seems to be doing an excellent job in convincing the British public that everything is the fault of the Americans and that the Opposition are a bunch of cruel bastards who’d let everyone in the country go to the wall. Mind you, opinion polls here suggest President Zapatero is having even more success with this strategy in Spain. Possibly because there’s more anti-American sentiment here than anywhere else in Europe and so any politician criticising the USA is kicking at a wide-open door. But, as regards the UK at least, there’s evidence that the Bank of England – and therefore the government - knew exactly what risks were being run by those who controlled the British economy. In particular the astonishing levels of personal and corporate debt that many of us thought unsustainable. Click here for an interesting insight. Or here for a prediction that the UK recession will be far worse than the British government is admitting. I fear the pound has further to fall before it bounces back. Unless the euro-zone’s performance over the next year or so is even worse. Which is not really something to wish for, even if you’re living on the Continent and dependant on a UK pension.

I occasionally express more sympathy than I used to with nationalist parties, seeing them as part of the universal nation-oriented zeitgeist. And hard to counter in a democratic framework. An ex British ambassador goes as far as to assert that ethnic and nationalist rivalry is not only ‘as old as sin’ but also ‘as inextinguishable’ “For here” he says “is the paradox of the modern world. Money, people, culture, business and electronic information cross porous frontiers in ever-increasing volume. But as national boundaries dissolve in cyberspace, so everywhere the sense of nationhood and national interest strengthens. Five minutes in Beijing, Washington, Tehran or Moscow will tell you that.” Or Santiago de Compostela even.

Incidentally, I often question whether the EU doesn’t run counter to this zeitgeist. In contrast, the author asks:- “What is the European Union if not the 21st-century arena for the intense and competitive prosecution of the national interest by its 27 member states?” A nice question, as we ex-lawyers say.

One treads with trepidation in the minefield of Israeli-Palestine affairs but here’s a thought-provoking article from a sad rabbi. Would that his recipe for lasting peace were feasible.

My border collie, Ryan, is coming up for 15, which is quite old by canine standards. Although he shows few signs of advanced age, it’s pretty clear either that he’s now hard of hearing or that he’s smart enough to give a convincing impression of deafness. Either way, as he’s been ignoring my calls and whistles recently, today I lashed out 9 euros on a special high frequency whistle. Results so far suggest either I should have done some research about which end of the sound spectrum is lost first or that the bugger is even more fly than I thought.

Finally, here’s a decent article on northern Spain from the New Zealand Herald. I got it via Google’s Alert service, which - incidentally - continues to fail to pick up my bog.