Wednesday, September 30, 2009

I see President Zapatero “brought some glamour” to the Labour party annual conference in the UK. Where he allegedly gave Gordon Brown some advice on winning elections. If he went on to give him suggestions on how to deal with a recession, then every street in Britain could soon look like this . . .

Talking of our friend Señor Z, I regularly say I wouldn’t want his challenge of running this fissiparous country. And now there are even fewer reasons for wanting to be in his shoes. For, apart from the fact that the powerful PRISA media group is gunning for him, it’s beginning to look like the Czechs may kibosh the Lisbon Constitution-disguised-as-a-Treaty just as Spain takes over the running of the EU in January. I’m almost beginning to feel sorry for the man. And two Goth daughters as well!

It’s a commonplace statement in Spain these days that young women smokers far outnumber the young men. Sadly, the legions who think it’s glamorous, sophisticated and appetite-suppressing seem ever younger. But I must say I was a little surprised to see the postwoman dragging on a cigarette this morning as she handed over my mail as I was leaving the house.

However, things could get worse. For I may have experienced my first true Spanish chavette. For which the local word is marula and the more-aggression-denoting national word is perhaps macarra. Anyway, I was standing at a zebra crossing when she, naturally, drove straight past me, with her radio blasting from her open front windows. Which may or may not have been as black as all the others. But I caught up with her at the bottom of the hill, where she was shouting obscenities at the hapless trainee driver – a sister – trying to pluck up enough courage to manoeuvre her coach out onto the roundabout. The cursing proving ineffective, our female friend then initiated a chorus of angry horn blasts. I do hope this isn’t another sign of the changing times here. I can get this experience any day in the UK.

Presumably as a result of a dispute with his neighbours, a house-seller in nearby Sanxenxo has put up a sign saying he’ll only take offers from gypsies. A few years ago, I joked to my neighbours that I’d happily accept from a group of them a price higher than anything I could get for my house from a family from one of the two nearby settlements. But none of them saw the funny side of this. Even though a gypsy family could well have been quieter than Toni.

Well, I read my first Twitter message today. But only because someone arrived at my blog because of it. So, many thanks Graham Hunt (I believe) for your very kind comment. And welcome to the three new Followers of this blog of the last week or so.

Publishing Note

Today’s additions to Galicia: The Switzerland of Spain . . .

Chapter 4: The Salve Regina
Chapter 6 : Santiago
Chapter 7 : Architecture
Chapter 16: Santiago de Compostela
Chapter 21 : Vigo and Tuy [Tui]
Chapter 22 : Orense [Ourense]

Frankly, unless you’re a pious Catholic, I wouldn’t bother with Chapter 4. Likewise, unless you’re very keen on buildings, you might want to give Chapter 7 a miss. However, if you’re a Galician nationalist, both are compulsory reading as source material for future boasts about the ancient Kingdom of Galicia. Or Lusitania anyway. That said, if you’re a true nationalist, you’ll already have read the book as Galicia Inédita, despite it being in Castellano. Incidentally, this is another example of the Spanish custom of changing titles for no apparent reason.

If you read Chapter 21, you’ll quickly note Ms Meakin has rather more to say about tiny Tui than about pretty-large Vigo. I’m guessing this is because the latter doesn’t have a basilica or cathedral to get flushed about.

Finally, I’d just like to say the prehistoric rock drawings Ms Meakin mentions towards the end of the Pontevedra chapter are only a couple of hundred metres from my house. Though you’d be hard pushed to find the pine wood she talks about. It’s all bloody eucalyptus trees now.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Devil is in the detail. Here’s the 19 and 20th century history of Spain encapsulated in the name of the main square in a village near Toledo where in 1838 George Borrow sold copies of the Protestant New Testament for a fraction of their cost:-
c. 1814 onwards: Plaza de la Constitución
???? - 1866: Plaza Real
1866 -1931: Plaza de la Constitución
1931-1939: Plaza de la República
1939 -????: Plaza del Generalísimo
???? – Now: Plaza Mayor
So . . . Liberal; Monarchist; Liberal; Republican; Dictatorial; and Democratic. Small wonder Spain’s a fascinating place.

By the way, the writer who supplied these details (Tom Burns Marañon) endorses my suspicion that - wonderfully entertaining as it is - The Bible in Spain is “an ingenious mixture of fabulous and true stories”. “In it”, says TBM, “Borrow, like most writers of the time, mixed his real experiences with fabricated episodes and invented personalities.” Exactly as I’d concluded. And more evidence of why Miguel de Unamuno regarded it as a novel. Click here if you want to find out for yourself. And here for the George Borrow Society.

One of the funny things about old George is that he was far more at home with Spain’s lower classes than with the upper classes (whom he detested) and even the middle classes. In contrast, it seems Gordon Brown has just discovered the existence and importance of the British middle classes. Coincidentally, about nine months ahead of a general election. And with his party’s poll ratings falling through the floor. Here’s a (big) bit of one commentator’s take on this development:- For 12 years now the folk in the middle, who make up the bulk of the nation's voters, volunteers, wealth creators, and civilising influences, have been on the receiving end of an egregious, slow-motion Labour rip-off. With one hand Labour has taken our money, and with the other slapped on the cuffs. Some of us were too distracted by the wonder of ever-climbing property values to notice the soaring tax bills and collapsing services. In an act of strategic cheek that defies even his knack for political jaw-droppers, Brown has concluded that the middle classes matter after all. His words are worth reproducing . . ."It's precisely because I care about the squeezed middle that I have promoted mortgage support, childcare subsidies and tax credits, making Britain's mainstream majority – and their values of fairness, responsibility and accountability – Labour's number one priority. It is not just the poor and the vulnerable who want the security of decent public service, it's the middle class too. It is this insight that now informs my thinking right across my Government's policy agenda." Quite why it has taken Mr Brown more than a decade to work out that the middle classes might have needs must be added to all the other baffling questions that flock to his leadership. The idea that we have been his "number one priority" is risible, coming from a man whose career was built on concern for Africa's starving millions, class war, and brooding resentment at Tony Blair's easy relationship with aspirational Middle England. You can, if you want, read it all here. Meanwhile, though, it’s interesting to speculate on whether – having just decided to hammer them with increased taxes - President Zapatero will undergo a similar Pauline conversion to Gordon Brown’s ahead of the next general election in three years’ time. Given his record of lies and bribes before the last one, I feel fairly safe in predicting that – borrowing levels permitting – he certainly will. Power corrupts even well-intentioned socialists. Especially those who have difficulty with numbers.

I haven’t mentioned being nearly killed on a zebra crossing for a while. So, to make up for this, here’s a relevant news item. For what it’s worth, my feeling is that drivers here in Pontevedra are getting more courteous. Or more aware of the crazy Englishman who’s likely to walk out in front of their car.

And still on the subject of driving locally . . . I take the utmost care when going down and coming up the hill to my house. This is because the main users of the parquet infantile recently installed are gypsy kids from the two nearby permanent settlements. And because I occasionally read of summary justice handed out by irate gypsy parents more concerned with retribution than culpability.

Finally . . . In a recent BBC podcast, someone used the word ‘problemetising’. Twice. Much as I love how English works and develops, this sort of thing is sometimes hard to take. But I guess my grandchildren will all be using it daily. Should either of my daughters ever get round to giving me any.

Publishing Note

Today’s additions to Galicia: The Switzerland of Spain . . .

Chapter 3: The First Golden Age
Chapter 6: Pilgrims to Santiago
Chapter 14: Emigration
Chapter 15: Rosalía de Castro

I recommend the chapter on Emigration, if you can’t manage them all. But, if you’ve got poetry in your soul, Chapter 15 is a must. Given how Ms Meakin approaches even the most mundane Galician subject, it’s inevitable she goes a little overboard for our famous poet. Have a hanky nearby.

Monday, September 28, 2009

I’ve returned to a Pontevedra enjoying a wonderful Indian summer. Which, by the way, prompts me to tell you I learned today that the Spanish equivalent of Luketide is el verano/veranito de San Miguel. When the weather gets a little warmer. Thanks, I believe, to the Gulf Stream. And from which we get the word ‘lukewarm’.

Reader Sierra has correctly pointed out that Galicia – or at least the Rías Baixas – bucked the Spanish trend this summer. While most of the rest of the country had a hotter season than average, ours was noticeably cooler. Though no wetter, I suspect. And certainly not cold.

Well, two of my 2009 forecasts seem to be heading West. After a short period or rises as far as 1.17 to the euro – in the direction of my prediction of 1.25 by the year end – the pound has now fallen back to 1.09. Or around parity in most exchange places. And I suspect my forecast of 2018 for the commissioning of the AVE high-speed train here in Galicia won’t now be achieved. If they couldn’t keep things on track during the good times, they’re hardly likely to do so during a recession-cum-depression.

Which reminds me . . . The question of the moment seems to be whether the Spanish economy will follow the Italian route over the next decade. Especially under another three years of the Zapatero administration. Which would only point up his hubris of a couple of years ago, when he boasted that Spaniards were already richer than the Italians and would overtake the French and even the Germans by 2012. With things as they are now, he’ll be lucky to get them past the free-falling British.

I’ve held off mentioning it but El País has been banging on for what seems like ever about rampant corruption in the opposition PP party. You wonder why they bother as, as far as I can tell, no one here cares a jot about it. And it’s unlikely to change voting intentions. Meanwhile, of course, the essence of the PP response is that government ministers and senior legal officials are all liars who’ve set up the PP for political purposes. But I don’t suppose anyone believes this either. Or is expected to. It’s just how the game is played.

Finally . . . Galicia: The Switzerland of Spain – I’ve published a few more chapters. Click the link to read about:-
Chapter 1 – Ancient Galicia
Chapter 2 - The Geography of Galicia
Chapter 5 – The language of Galicia
Chapter 8 – La Coruña
Chapter 20 – Pontevedra
Chapter 24 – Betanzos and Ferrol

The text available on the internet is full of errors. I’ve corrected many but can be reached at by anyone who wants to tell me of the ones I’ve missed. Even Latin and Greek scholars. But not Galicians who want Gallego to be spelled like Portuguese. Believe me, they exist.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

I mentioned the other day how extraordinarily quiet it was in Extremadura. This was even true of a place where there were six flat screen TVs on the walls. Mind you, this was in the Basilica in Guadalupe, when there was no Mass on.

And a few weeks ago I cited a book on Galicia written in the early years of the 20th century by an Englishwoman called Annette Meakin. It’s called “Galicia: The Switzerland of Spain”. Which is the first thing she gets wrong. For me, the Basque Country – or even Cantabria – have a much better claim to this title than Galicia. But, anyway, I’ve begun to publish re-formatted chapters on my Galicia web page, here. Additional chapters will be posted as quickly as I can do them. Ms Deakin was nothing if not enthusiastic and comprehensive about this part of Spain and you’ll find her an informative – if not totally captivating – read. She’s rather effusive and at least slightly OTT about almost everything. And she makes a number of tendentious comments, of which this is certainly one – “All who have studied Galicia are unanimous in their opinion that she contains more relics of the past and more trophies of antiquity than any other part of the Peninsula.” But, who knows, she might be right. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to see why she appeals to Galician nationalists.

But back to modern Spain . . . Although he seems sceptical of the views of super-pessimists on the Spanish economy, I’m not sure Charles Butler of IBEX Salad ranks as an optimist. But he’s certainly a realist. Here he is again on the subject of Spanish statistics and what might lie behind them.

Walking round the superb walls of Ávila last Friday morning, I came across three metal plaques paying tribute to the respective contributions to their construction of Christians, Jews and Mudéjars (Muslims). All very nice and ecumenical. However, although I may have missed it, I didn’t see any reference to the fact that two of these groups were given little choice in the matter. In other words, the walls were built with slave labour. It seems it’ll be a while before Spain succumbs to the modern plague of apologising for things which happened hundreds of years ago. Understandably, perhaps. For where would they stop once they got started? And then there’s the bullfights. And the goats still being chucked off church towers . . .

Finally . . . I regularly download podcasts from both the BBC and Radio España. It may or may not be significant that, for comfortable listening, I always have to increase the volume of the former but reduce the volume of the latter.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Alter almost two weeks away, confirming that Spain is a magnificent country peopled by lovely folk, I’ll be heading back to humdrum life on Monday. My first task will be to get hold of a plumber who’ll not only visit the house but then come back to me with an estimate for replacing my boiler. And then, even more importantly, turn up to do this before the winter sets in. I’ve been engaged on this challenge for over three months now and figure I’ve got a max of two more before conceding defeat this year. Which is not promising. Recession? What recession?

But I wouldn’t want to give the impression it’s been all failure. One of the three plumbers I contacted did come to the house, looked at my existing boiler and promised an estimate. But that was two months ago. And summer is well over now.

All of which reminds me . . . Next year will be one of decisions for me. After ten years here, I’ll be entitled to Spanish nationality. Will I take it? Or will I move on to somewhere else, the most obvious choice being south west France? Perhaps I should use the interim twelve months to check if they have reliable plumbers there.

I mentioned a week or two ago that the traffic police might have set up the cheekiest-yet speed trap near an exit from the A52 near Ourense. Driving later from Salamanca to Cáceres I actually took a decision reflecting this increased - revenue driven - hassling of motorists. I was in no hurry and wanted to drive on the national road, through the numerous villages and towns along the very scenic route. In the end, I decided to forego this pleasure and to drive at only 100km on the autovia between the cities. I felt I was less likely to fall foul of the police this way. I mention this as a prelude to making the point that life wasn’t like this in Spain nine years ago. It’s one of the several major and minor changes making life here more like it is in other European countries, changing the net balance in the process. And I figure that, if one's to suffer these slings and arrows, one might as well do it where people are efficient and the cuisine is a lot better. And perhaps the French aren’t as bad as they say. Maybe I’ll rent for a while to find out.

Meanwhile, though, I hear the weather this last week in Pontevedra has been even warmer than in Extremadura, Castile and Madrid. As in early spring, there’s been a week of temperatures in the low 30s. On the whole, though, I agree with those who say this summer in the Rias Baixas has been cooler than usual. I know this because I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of times I’ve worn shorts to walk Ryan or short-sleeved shirts to go into town. Which is as good a bit of research as any.

Which reminds me . . . My daughter has posted more Extremadura fotos – including one of Ryan - on Facebook. If this works, you can see the 9 new ones here, along with the old ones.

And, finally, here’s one of mine – The fish’n’chip shop in Guadelupe. Honest.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Writing in 1940, George Orwell said “National characteristics are not easy to pin down, and when pinned down they often turn out to be trivialities or have no connection with one another. Spaniards are cruel to animals, Italians can do nothing without making a deafening noise, the Chinese are addicted to gambling . . . the English are not gifted artistically. Obviously such things don’t matter in themselves.” I happened to read this just after seeing this news item, which will do nothing – 70 years later – to rid the Spanish of their reputation for cruelty to animals. The truth is that - as my experience of walking Ryan in the streets of several cities this week shows – there are many animal lovers in Spain. But, like drivers here, they are betrayed by the appreciable percentage of macho imbeciles who make the headlines. But, then, the Spanish believe that every English youth is an ooligan. So I guess it cuts both ways.

In the same article – the famous The Lion and the Unicorn - Orwell goes on to say that “Nearly every Englishman of working class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly.” I wonder what the Spanish excuse is. For they never do. Only this week I heard on the radio of a town’s fiesta based on a TV game called, allegedly, Grand Pricks. Which is a thought to conjure with.

Someone has said you’re nothing in Spain if you can’t claim noble blood. I thought of this when reading the plaques outside all the magnificent Extremaduran and Castillian palaces this week. It’s apparently compulsory for these to give you the (boring) details of the ‘lineages’ (lineajes) of the families who built and lived in them over the centuries.

This emphasis on provenance from a ‘good family’ is certainly as visible in Galicia as it might be elsewhere. And yet countries are as much hives of inconsistency as people. For one of the things I love about Spain is that a street sweeper and a hotel chambermaid will greet you and talk to you – and why not? – as an equal. This, I guess, is the Spanish personal pride that Borrow and others have written about. But how does this square with the alleged Spanish disdain for manual labour? Is it simply that once can abhor the work but value the worker?

Finally . . .The Spanish economy. I did say things were getting worse by the hour. And now we’re told our recession will morph into the worst depression here since the 1930s. And that recovery is further off than previously forecast. Or is this just the super-pessimists at work again? Who knows. All we can do is cross our fingers and, in this pseudo-Catholic country, do a bit of pointless praying. Meanwhile, President Zapatero – reading from the Gordon Brown book on Socialist Responses to an Economic Downturn - continues to tell us it’ll all be over by Christmas and that nothing’s necessary beyond a bit of belt-tightening and the raising of taxes. Meanwhile, the euro continues to rise against the currency of Spain’s key foreign tourists – the stay-at-home Brits. Oh dear. Will we really pass through the next five years without any social unrest? Right now, as the writer correctly puts it, “An odd calm prevails across the Iberian peninsular. There are no street riots, even though youth unemployment has reached 38%.” Can this last?

Given that “The root cause of Spain's trouble is that it joined monetary union before its economy was ready” it wouldn’t be surprising to see the emergence of some antipathy towards the EU here. But this is conspicuous by its total absence. As the writer says – “There is a near total backing for European Monetary Union in Spain. . . . Membership of the EU and the euro is inextricably linked in Spain's collective mind to the country's re-emergence as a modern, dynamic European power, after the stultifying isolation of the Franco dictatorship. It would take a major trauma to test that bond.” A civil war perhaps. Or just a unilateral declaration of independence by Cataluña. Or even Galicia. Just joking. About Galicia, I mean.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Well, nothing did go wrong in Extremadura. Apart from me taking a wrong turn out of Guadalupe. Which I naturally blamed on my co-pilot. And which is why we’re returning to Madrid via Ávila instead of Toledo. Which we’ve both seen before anyway.

Earlier today I spent a jaw-slackening half-hour moving between rooms of increasing baroque splendour in the museum of the monastery and basilica of Guadalupe. There’s a couple of Goyas, a few El Grecos, an ivory statue by Michaelangelo and a whole raft of portraits by Zurbarán. And tons of gold and silver. Two observations were inescapable. Firstly, man has an immense talent for creativity in stone, metal, wood, and paint. And, secondly, the Catholic Church has a preposterous amount of wealth. Lying very idle.

Given everything I’ve written over the years, I was never going to be very surprised to read that bank charges in Spain are second only to those in Italy. Or so the EU Commission says. The spokesperson for the banking industry here has given the standard Spanish response to criticism – “It’s a filthy lie. And your mother’s a whore.” Well , almost.

The other bit of news that didn’t astonish me this week was that the black economy here – said to be more than 20% of the total – has grown by 30% since the start of the recession. And, of course, I’m not the only one to think it will grow even faster once VAT is increased by 2 percentage points. This is another field in which Spain is second only to Italy, I believe.

But the incredibly good news – at the start of the judicial year – is that the courts are going to root out corruption here in Spain. Once, I guess, the appalling backlog in the system has been eliminated.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My daughter and I continue to be enchanted by Extremadura. Tonight we’re in the Parador in Guadalupe, an even more appealing watering hole than its charming sister in Mérida. Cheek by jowl with the enormous basilica and monastery, it boasts a lovely patio-cum-orangery-cum-quadrangle and a delightful garden, alongside a large pool. And thanks to my daughter being youthful enough (at 32!) to get the young persons’ discount, none of it's as expensive as you might think. But that’s a secret I’d ask you to keep to yourself. We don’t want the riff-raff in. As it is, there was a couple on a Harley-Davidson at the place in Mérida this morning . . .

One odd thing about Extremedura is the absence of roadside brothels. Or ‘clubs’ as they’re usually signposted - in garish pink neon. I haven’t been looking for one, of course. If I had, I doubt it would’ve taken me three days to realise there aren’t any. Or none visible, anyway. I assume they do exist and that they’re just more discreet down here.

One thing the Extremeños certainly are is pleasant and helpful. Or is that two things? Anyway, I know I’ve said this before but it bears repeating. The hotel in Trujillo even found the card from my camera I’d left there two nights ago. And the brochures we’ve just been given in Guadalupe – in excellent English – are quite amazing. Plus, if you want them in Spanish, that’s what you get. Not Catalán, Basque or Gallego. If things continue like this, I’ll be writing testimonials for the Junta! Something must surely go awry before we head back towards Castile tomorrow. I’ve never been so positive for so long.

Which reminds me . . . If you see a sign outside a bakery in Salamanca that says “We have bread today" (Hoy hay pan), walk quickly away. It must be the worst stuff in the world, even in a decent restaurant. Happily, this is another area where Extremadura scores. I think I'm finally beginning to see why Galician bread is much prized.

Talking about Salamanca . . . There were a number of interestingly-named side chapels in the ‘new’ cathedral there. Our Lady of the Head (Cabeza) being one. And Our Lady of Desagravios being another. I think I’ve only ever seen this word on a tax form before, meaning something like non-taxable allowance. The dictionary has ‘reparation’, ‘satisfaction’, ‘compensation’ and ‘vengeance’. So, I like to look upon her as Our Lady of Just Desserts.

There are two Cathedrals side-by-side in Salamanca. If anything, the old one is even more impressive than the new one. It’s well worth the 4.50 entrance fee. As I kept telling myself after I’d realised I’d already seen it during a weekend trip a couple of months ago.

Finally . . . I can’t help noticing that none of Spain’s numerous Virgins are ugly and fat. This is in sharp contrast to the even more numerous male saints, who are invariably old and unappealing. I appreciate that only a small minority of the statues and pictures of the Virgin Mary show Jesus suckling at her bare breast but, even so, is it too far fetched to see these flattering portrayals as a form of (very) soft porn? Probably not the first time someone’s had this thought. At least not without being burned at the stake shortly after confessing it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Among many positives, there is one negative about Extremadura – the tap water is dreadful, tasting as brackish as anything I fancy American cowboys used to have to drink. This was the case in both Caceres and Alcántara but seems less true of Trujillo. Anyway, I wasn’t surprised to see an article in today’s local paper headlined – According to the latest analysis, the water is improving in smell and taste, albeit slowly.

It’s my experience that every Spaniard you meet – especially estate agents/realtors – is the most honest person on the planet but everyone they know is not to be trusted. So, as you’d expect, this is a country in which conspiracy theories flourish. And so it is with the El País attack on the economic management of Sr Zapatero, the man with eleven syllables in his name but apparently without any idea of even how to spell economics. The widespread view is that the paper was driven by government decisions on pay-for-view TV which went against the interests of the PIRSA Group which owns it. It all rather reminds me of something George Borrow wrote, along the lines that there never was a Spanish calumny that wouldn’t collapse under the weight of its own preposterousness. Or I’ve just checked . . . “But when did a calumnious report ever fall to the ground in Spain by the weight of its own absurdity?”

As for said mismanaged economy, the fascinating thing is that the bad news just keeps getting worse. I doubt there are any optimists around right now, just pessimists and super-pessimists. Among the latter ranks Edward Hugh, who here comments on the implications of what’s said to a total of three million unsold properties in the country, either finished or in process.

And here’s Edward on my recent theme of the forces working to loosen Sr Z’s grip on power. If you can’t face it all, here’s the nub . . . Certainly all the early warning signs are there, and no one can watch Spanish television news, or listen to the radio here without becoming immediately aware that something has now changed, and that he who was once all powerful is now, himself, in his turn steadily being subjected to that big squeeze of which he was, in an earlier epoch, such an admirable exponent himself. Basically I have no doubt that, whether the coup de grace comes later or sooner, Zapatero is now on his way out, and the only real outstanding question I have is whether he will in the end go before Christmas (the start of Spain's EU Presidency) or after June (when it finishes). The decision is I suppose in the hands of the Spanish people, and it is just a question of how much more unemployment they are willing to stomach before those inevitable "casserolades" start to break out.

Finally, if this works, here are the photos taken so far on the trip by my daughter, Faye. Including an (unflattering) one of me. That should stop all the contacts via Tagged.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Second post of the day. Scroll down if you missed the first. Which was actually yesterday’s.

Another lovely day in Estremadura, driving first north from Alcántara and then south-east to Trujillo. The first leg of the journey was to give my daughter the chance to see fighting bulls being bred in placid pastures but, sadly, we were rather more successful with pigs. The second leg of the trip took us through a beautiful national park teeming with vultures and deer and – once we’d left the park behind - was rather more successful in the bull stakes. The evening was spent in the magnificent Conquistador town of Trujillo, where we finished off the day with a plate of Iberian ham and a couple of glasses of the local red wine. And, yes, it was again in a Plaza Mayor but sometimes this really can be a valid option.

Alcántara is a small place of huge charm and we stayed in the centre of town, in the Casa Rural Nasencia. As with everyone we’ve met in Estremadura, the owners were welcoming, charming and considerate. As I said yesterday, they really do try harder down here. And everywhere and everyone is so quiet! Does this perhaps reflect Portuguese influence? Either way, it’s not just the humans. I don’t think we’ve heard a barking dog in three days.

But, finally, back to Galicia . . . I’m currently reading a book about Galicia written in 1907 by an Englishwoman called Annette Meakin. This was cited to me by a reader who’s a Galician Nationalist and it’s not terribly surprising that he rates it highly. For, apart from buying into all the Catholic tosh around the myth of St James of Santiago, she seems bent on reproducing and endorsing every laudatory comment ever made about both Galicia and the Galician language over the past two thousand years. If she has even a small sceptical bone in her body, she shows no sign of it. I will return to this subject but I thought I’d just reproduce these two paragraphs, read this evening;-

The province of Coruña — or La Coruña, as it is usually called — covers 7,902 square kilometres, and its population in the year 1905 amounted to 683,915 souls. Coruña is the dampest province in the whole of Spain, and it has more misty days in the year than any other part ; but, on the other hand, it is never troubled with those dry hot winds that cross to Spain from Africa : it is decidedly healthy, and its women and children have very beautiful complexions.

We left Southampton just before midnight on January 10, boarding the Hamburg-American liner of 11,000 tons, the Konig Fredrick August, with the aid of a steam tender. . . Many of the best boats running between Europe and South America are German, and there is no doubt that Germany has begun to take, during recent years, a very lively interest in the development of Argentina and her sister Republics. Germans are wresting from the hands of enervated and self-satisfied Englishmen the trade of which we once thought we had the monopoly by divine right, and it is chiefly by German vessels that Spaniards are emigrating in shoals from their native land to Buenos Ayres, to Uruguay, and to Chile. I do not think I entered a single town in Galicia upon the walls of which I did not see placards denoting the speedy departure of some German liner from Europe to South America.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday evening

My daughter and I are staying tonight in the Estremadura town of Alcántara. This is high on 14th -16th century splendour but low on wi-fi cafés. So this Sunday blog is probably coming to you on Monday. And there may be another one later.

I alluded yesterday to the lack of precision and consistency when it comes to numbers in Spain. And, just by chance, Charles Butler of Ibex Salad made this comment in his own blog yesterday:- “The Spanish Ministry of Housing releases a wide variety of property-related statistics. Many of their studies, particularly those that claim to represent price levels, are useless beyond description.”. I rest my case.

I forgot to check the fashions in Cáceres yesterday but, by pure coincidence, while we were sitting having dinner in Plaza Mayor, my daughter pointed to a passing young lady and said she was the fifth she’d seen in half an hour strutting her stuff in shorts and high heels. So, a national fashion, then. Not just a Pontevedra fad.

At a more serious level, President Zapatero has used the occasion of a PSOE conference to obtain the support of closed party ranks, to assure us he won’t bow to ‘powerful forces’ - meaning the PIRSA media group - and to insist that his government will continue to implement policies which maintain social cohesion. In other words, if the ship is to go down, it will be very much a socialist ship. Which is all very commendable but is it really what Spain needs right now? Meanwhile, though, Señor Z may or may not be encouraged by the endorsement he’s received from the right-of-centre El Mundo paper for his ‘courageous’ decision to break the PSOE’s traditional links with the PIRSA group.

I’ve now checked and confirmed that - at the invitation of a friend - I joined Tagged in 2007 and that I’d received not a single contact until last week. When I was besieged by a number of women of varying morality. I assume, therefore, that Tagged has initiated some sort of strategic shift, which may or may not pass the test of time. Or the legal authorities in the USA.

And now a couple of unsolicited testimonials . . .

1. The Barceló hotel chain. On the evidence of the staff and facilities of their place in Cáceres, they are one of Spain’s better operators, and

2. The Turismo in Alcántara. This is open on Sundays and ‘manned’ by a very charming and helpful lady. They try harder, it seems, in Estremadura.

Finally . . . here’s a couple of pictures of my 15 year old dog, Ryan, doing what he enjoys most:-

1. Avoiding the attention of a small child


2. Swimming after a stick.

I hope I’m just as sprightly when I am, like him, in my 90s.

And here’s one of my elder daughter doing what she does best – contemplating which artistic photo to take . . .

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The annual meeting of the George Borrow Society broke up this morning. Sadly, the members hadn’t been advised that Spain is the noisiest country in the world. So some of them came without earplugs and therefore lost another night’s sleep last night. On Tuesday this had been because it was the last night of a big fiesta but last night it was just the usual Friday binge drinking (the botellón) to the crack of dawn and beyond. This is when Spanish youth demonstrates it can drink to the max while showing consideration for others to the min. But at least they aren’t violent.

Someone - possibly me - appears to have signed me up to a social network site called Tagged. Or maybe it’s one of those sites for finding a partner. For suddenly I’m being deluged with the names and fotos of women who would like to know me. Given my age and location, it’s a bit of a surprise that Michelle is 20 and lives in Madrid and Helen is 19 and lives in Derbyshire in the UK. Both of them appear to have little money to spend on clothes. So, given their ages, I assume they’re students.

Which reminds me . . . 1. There’s a leaflet here in the university library which I guess is aimed at male students, as the headline is If you pay, you are complicit. And 2. The El País pictures of public sex in Barcelona and the media articles that have followed it have at least led to the beginnings of a public debate about prostitution here. The majority view seems to be that it should be ‘regulated’ but not prohibited. A minor political party of the Left has proposed a ban on the explicit ads that fill pages and pages of the national and regional papers but the media seems remarkably antipathetic towards this measure. My guess it it’s the most that will actually happen. Eventually.

Despite the fact they usually come with two decimal points, it’s essential to be circumspect with numbers and statistics in Spain. When I joined the autovía for Cáceres this morning, it was signposted as being 201 km away. After another kilometre, this had risen to 206. And over the next two hours it varied from 193 to 205, or a spread of 12km. Likewise Plasencia came in with a min of 116 and a max of 123. Now, as the object of travelling is to enjoy oneself rather than to cover the ground in the smallest amount of time possible, this lack of consistency may not be much to worry about. This is certainly the attitude taken by me, who does have a lot of time, and by most Spaniards. Who think they have a lot of time because they regard it as elastic. On the one hand, I admire this pragmatic Spanish attitude and feel the lack of precision and accuracy doesn’t really matter very much. But, on the other hand, can you imagine there being a German export industry for high quality goods if this was the attitude there? And doesn’t Spain need to export its way out of its current mire?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Just south of Salamanca is a tiny village called Los Arapiles. The name should resonate rather more than it does. For it was here – at the battle of ‘Salamanca’ in 1812 that Wellington threw his English, Irish, Portuguese and Spanish troops at a French army that had fatally opened a gap in its line - in the mistaken belief that the British were in retreat.

This picture is taken from the exact spot on which Wellington was standing when he was advised of the French error and instantaneously realised – it’s claimed – that the day would be his. The British forces were amassed on and around the hill of the left (Arapil Chico) and the French troops on and around the hill on the right (Arapil Grande). I don’t know but I’d guess this site is one of the few in the world which looks almost exactly as it did when the battle took place. Quite eerie really. Especially as you can walk every square metre of it, if you want. And even hunt for button and buckles and musket balls. Though not electronically.

The Borrow Society visited the battlefield this morning and was given a superb account of the battle by a young Spaniard who's made it his life’s work to have something done in respect of the battlefield. He’s finally had a good exposition centre built in the village but still struggles to get the tourism authorities in nearby Salamanca to include it in their brochures. And the local villagers are said to be more bemused than impressed by interest in their fields.

This is a photo of the medallion of Wellington erected in their Plaza Mayor by the grateful citizens of Salamanca. Surprisingly, there’s also one of Franco not far away.

And here are the library and study of Miguel Unamuno. I should perhaps have made it clear yesterday that the Spanish Grammar on his shelves is in English, not Spanish.

And, finally, here’s the first church in Salamanca encountered by George Borrow as he entered the city through the gate at the end of the road from Madrid.

The interesting thing about this church is that it’s one of several in Spain built and consecrated to St Thomas a Becket within a few years of his murder in Canterbury cathedral in 1170. Despite being a Protestant, Borrow might well have appreciated this.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The George Borrow Society this morning has the pleasure of a private guided tour of the Unamuno museum in here in Salamanca. It was no great surprise to find he had copies of Borrow’s works in English on his library shelves. But I was rather taken aback to see there a tome entitled “Spanish Grammar”. However the highlight of the morning was the gentlemen who began translating the speech of the Society’s President from English into English. And, once the good-natured laughter had died down – proceeded to do it again. I felt it would have been worthy of a sketch by Monty Python but wouldn’t go so far as a fellow member’s comment that it would be particularly amusing if the speaker were American and the translator British.

Walking Salamanca’s pavements (sidewalks!) is as much a joy as ever but crossing the roads is the same nightmare it is in most Spanish cities at the moment, as the government tries to stimulate a more-than-flagging economy via a raft of public works.

And, on this subject, for those of a sound constitution, here and here are Edward Hugh’s latest commentaries on said economy. Yesterday’s El País returned to its attack on the Spanish President, Señor Zapatero, for his mismanagement of the country during both the good times and the bad times. They must be seriously worried he’s going to lose the Left the next election; for the inevitable conclusion is the paper – and the media empire behind it – is trying to provoke a palace coup.

And talking of palaces, I see that the lovely Letitia is in Salamanca this afternoon. I’m keeping a space in my diary early evening for when she responds to my invitation to a tapa or two at my favourite place. I know she’s a faithful reader. One of the anonymous Followers, in fact.

Finally . . . I’ve managed to access Prospect magazine at last. So here’s the article on public contributions to radio and TV news programs.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I heard an interesting theory on a BBC podcast yesterday - The English like people who are rude because, being so self-effacing and hypocritical themselves, they think anyone who says or writes nasty things must be telling the truth.

And so . . . on to George Borrow, the author of – inter alia – “The Bible in Spain”, his own account of his incident-packed travels through Spain in the 1830s, trying to sell the Protestant Bible in a country which then regarded ‘Catholic’ as synonymous with ‘Christian’. As I think I’ve said, I’m down in Salamanca this week attending the annual conference of the George Borrow Society, where everyone is being very Barrovian. Even the Spanish, Dutch and Japanese members. Not just the eccentric Brits.

One of Spain’s most famous writers of the early 20th century, Miguel de Unamuno, was a great fan of Borrow’s. Unamuno was a severe critic of “foreign writers who converted his beloved Spain into an excuse for trite clichés and social reflections which he regarded as completely insignificant because of their trivial content.” But enough about me. Borrow’s book he regarded as “the last great picaresque novel”. And a pretty accurate description of the Spanish and their ways. Particularly of those wielding power.

Another foreign writer – the Irishman Walter Starkie – said of Borrow that “In Spain, he interested himself in simple folk and, thanks to his profound humanity, was able to understand the complex character of the Spanish and the gypsies. Often he was insincere; he acted with excess; and he liked to give himself an air of mystery. But he was always willing to confront both the unexpected and the infinite variety of possible circumstances. And all of this gives a touch of magic to many pages of ‘The Bible in Spain’” Which is a comment with which I'd wholly agree, while suspending judgement on whether everything Borrow relates actually happened to him. Perhaps this why Unamuno saw the book as a novel, rather than a travelogue or a treatise on Spain in general and the gypsies in particular. If this tempts you to take a look at the book, click here and scroll down until you hit the right bit. You might find other stuff on the page of interest as well.

On to higher matters . . . I forgot to look yesterday – head in the Barrovian clouds – but I have checked today and can advise that the young ladies of Salamanca are not going in for the combination of short shorts and high heels so prevalent in Pontevedra. Perhaps this is because we’re nowhere near a beach. Or because jeans are de rigueur in this university city.

Finally, I was pleased to read an amusing article in Prospect magazine this month criticising the modern plague of banal viewer comments on TV news channels. As the writer said, “I’m not interested in what the public has to say. Not even the public is interested in what the public has to say. We want expert opinion.” When my password is working again, I’ll post the reference of the article. But it’s chastening to note that it was written before the lead item on Sky News earlier this week was that some American actress has posted a Twitter comment on the death of some American actor. God preserve us from this endless trivialisation.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I sometimes wonder how business is done in Spain. Last night and this morning, I spent at least an hour trying to get in touch with 3 dog kennels near Salamanca, so I could board Ryan for the next 4 nights. I won’t bore you with the details but I failed to get through on both the fixed and mobile lines and never got a reply to my emails. Mind you, I was trying before 10 this morning. You may ask why I left things so late but, hey, this is Spain and some of it rubs off.

Actually, one of the places eventually called me on my mobile at 11 and made up for the inefficiency of last night and this morning by advising me they wouldn’t take Ryan as his jabs weren’t bang up to-date. Which is just the sort of law-abidingness and efficiency I’m not used to and don’t welcome.

But, anyway, the day got much better and, after a beautiful drive down through the hills of Galicia and the plains of Castile, I’m now sitting in the magnificent library of the beautiful city of Salamanca. If you ever want your heart and spirits lifted, this is a place to visit. Even if you don’t know where to find the place that serves some of the best tapas in Spain. And which I’ll only reveal for a fee.

I’m now so paranoid about speeding fines I’m wondering whether I didn’t today see the best ever speed trap. As we approached the A52 exit for Ribadavia, the two lanes reduced to one and there was a quick succession of 100, 80, 60 and 40 signs in about 100 metres. At the end of all this was a traffic cop writing something in his little black book as we passed him. Whereupon the road immediately opened up again. Can they really be so blatant?

I guess I’ll soon know but, meanwhile . . . anyone living near Salamanca got a spare shed?

Monday, September 14, 2009

I touched yesterday on fraudulent demands for money. I see today that my electricity company has again overestimated my consumption last month by 40-50%. You’d think they’d notice they’re having to repay me each time they actually read the meter, wouldn’t you? I certainly have.

Which reminds me . . . We were all recently told – after a fashion – that we’re now free to change our electricity suppliers. My guess is that uptake was less than 5%. Possibly even less than 1%. If there’s one thing that’s efficient in Spain – especially when it comes to obfuscation and obstruction - it’s the cartels providing life’s basic commodities here. No wonder I read in today’s papers that the ‘technological chasm’ which exists between here and other large European economies is about to get bigger because of under-investment in high speed telecommunications.

It’s reported that almost no new housing starts are now being made in Spain. With an overhang of a million or more properties lying unsold on the market, this is understandable. Especially as the banks are nervous about lending money for construction. But, given the long lead times on completing buildings here, it should make sense for things to pick up in a year or so’s time, so that new properties can come on stream when the pipeline empties in 2013-14. But one would be rash to bet on this happening. So the almost certain outcome will be a shortage of new properties in four year’s time – at least in some parts of the country – and another surge in prices. Hey, ho. Back to the merry-go-round.

As I’m off on a long trip tomorrow, I checked my tyres tonight. The pressure in each of them had risen since I last checked, meaning they were over-inflated by 10%. This is not much by Spanish tyre-shop standards but, in this case, the people responsible are the mechanics in the Rover dealership. I wonder if they’re even aware what the manufacturer’s recommendations are. Or perhaps it’s an article of faith here that tyres must be over-inflated as Spanish roads are different.

Finally . . . I didn’t make the Galician-German sausage-and-beer fiesta in the hills on Saturday. And I also decided to give the Poio tripe fiesta a miss on Sunday. Am now thinking of initiating the Fiesta de Sopa de Patatas in my own parish as of next weekend. Any takers?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I can’t say I’ve experienced it myself but it’s said that, here in Spain, members of the medical profession still see themselves as close to God and brook little discussion about their diagnoses and prognoses. My elder daughter certainly came up against this when trying to get treatment for an under-active thyroid a couple of years or so ago. But, anyway, I mention this because the wife of my neighbour, Nice-but-Noisy Toni, is a GP and yesterday presented me with one of the upsides of being treated with great respect – several kilos of potatoes and a dozen eggs offered as tributes by grateful patients from the hills. This is kind of her but, living alone, I’d find it hard to consume all of this before it went off. So I’ve just spent an hour or so making enough soup to last me until after Christmas. Assuming I have a bowl a day. Actually, being pretty tasteless, it could last a great deal longer.

This article has made me feel a lot better about my car and the cowboys running the Rover company when it was made in 2004. Not. I would say it was enough to turn me against capitalism but, of course, it isn’t. As with the author of this interesting article, my problem is with its offshoot, consumerism, and not with capitalism itself.

If, like me, you were daft enough to buy a property in Spain during the last year or so, you’ll now be waiting nervously for a letter from the tax authorities accusing you, the seller and the public notary (a state employee) of being liars and cheats and demanding that you, the buyer, hand over a considerable sum in addition to the staggering 7% of the price you’ve already paid. As the author of this article explains, this is because the age-old process of under-stating the price adopted by a percentage of buyers and sellers to mitigate the tax bite is now being used to justify hitting all buyers – however innocent – for extra tax. This, of course, is little more than state larceny and it’s at times like this one wonders whether one isn't living in the Third World, rather than in Western Europe. And it does little to encourage even the honest citizen to abide by the tax rules. But desperate times, desperate measures. Stuff the rule of law.

And now we hear that petrol taxes are to rise significantly and that our value added tax is to rise by 2 percentage points, or 12.5%. Which should do a great deal for economic growth. What price the state’s tax revenues actually decrease, as Spaniards decide to be as dishonest as their government thinks they are?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Twelve days in and September – flu apart – is living up to its reputation as my favourite month. The tourists – such as we have here in Pontevedra – have all gone but the sun hasn’t. In fact the weather has been superb, with just enough closeness (bochorno) to give us all something to moan about. In this, the Galicians are exactly the same as the weather-obsessed and never-happy Brits.

Which sort of reminds me . . . the young women of Pontevedra appear to be making up for what they consider to be a lost summer by sporting en masse a fashion for very high heels and extremely short shorts, at either end of long, brown legs. Whether this is local or national I will be checking when I’m again in Salamanca next week. And then in Caceres, Badajoz, Trujillo and Mérida. However in the latter four places, I’ll be delegating the challenge to my elder daughter, Faye. Honest.

Reader Ointe – the sort of Galician nationalist with whom one can have a reasonable dialogue – has kindly sent me a reference to a book on Galicia written in 1907 by a British lady. I’ll probably return to this but here’s a few paragraphs on Vigo to be going on with . . .

Our train hugged the shore of the ría, winding and curving with the water's edge till we came into the station of Vigo.

Vigo is the most modern town in Galicia ; it owes its rapid development to its geographical situation and to its bay and harbour, famed for being among the finest in the world. Some forty years ago [1870] Vigo was a tiny village, known as Vigo de Cangas. Cangas, situated on the opposite bank of the ría, is still nothing but a village with a few scattered houses, and it seems incredible that Vigo was, so short a time ago, one of its dependent hamlets.

The climate of Vigo is reputed to be the finest in Spain ; its soil produces almost every kind of vegetable and fruit in the greatest abundance, and much earlier than they can be grown in other parts of Galicia, The principal industry of the town is fishing, in connection with which there are numerous factories for salting and preserving fish.

Vigo is a port of the first rank ; it has three submarine cables, and is a naval station for the British fleets. There are some forty-five young Englishmen employed at Vigo in connection with the cables laid by the British Government. I am told that a number of them have become Roman Catholics in order to be able to marry Spanish ladies. The English at Vigo publish a newspaper in their native tongue for circulation amongst themselves. At present Coruña can boast of having greater commercial importance than Vigo, but from its more favourable situation Vigo is bound in time to take the lead.

In this, of course, the lady turned out to be prescient.

By the way, as I’ve previously noted, the rail trip from Pontevedra to Vigo along the bay is as glorious now as it was back in 1907. An absolute joy. Even though - or perhaps because - the train travels at much the same speed as it did back then.

But, sadly, Vigo's English-language newspaper is long gone.

Friday, September 11, 2009

My elder daughter has just returned from her month of tango in Buenos Aires. On the way out, Iberia upped them to First Class. On the way back, they sat them right at the rear of the plane and, when the food ran out, told them the problem was that the continuous turbulence had stopped many people from falling asleep. So, in effect, the restaurant was ‘overbooked’. Now, that’s service in a crisis. I wonder if they got to keep their plastic cutlery in compensation.

My friend, Jon, was on the ferry from Cangas to Vigo this morning and was approached by a young lady from an organisation protesting against threatened closure. She asked him whether he spoke Castellano and, getting an affirmative, then gave him a brochure entirely in Gallego. Such is life in Galicia these days. But it could have been worse; it might have been an audio tape. At least the languages read similarly.

And I received a note this afternoon saying that a gas company had called to check the safety of my set-up and, as I’d been out, asking me to phone them on the number written below. Which wasn’t, of course. I thought the scribble said the company was called Tey-Casa but it turned out to be Tey-Caga. Which I’d thought was Telefónica’s nickname.

As the driver of a 5 year old Rover which appears to be falling to pieces around me, I’m not enamoured of the four guys who stripped down the company and sold it to the Chinese, after pocketing around 10 million quid each. They are, it seems, to be banned from being directors for a few years. Which should really hurt them. But not quite as much as a public garrotting.

I’ve just posted George Borrow´s book on Spanish gypsies – The Zincali – to my Galicia web page. To me, it’s a fascinating read, though I appreciate it won’t have universal appeal. These Guttenberg Press free books are a bugger to get into modern format and this one has been even more difficult than usual. So I do hope at least one of you enjoys it. Even if you didn’t get to the end of M Rocca’s memoirs of the War of Independence.

Finally . . . If you’re near Pontevedra tomorrow, there’s a fiesta of Galician-German sausages and beer at Bora, on the old Ourense road. Time for me to check out the rumours about Nazi refugees still living in our ex-fascist hills . . .

Finally, finally . . . A warm welcome to Mark, who's being detained at the pleasure of Her Majesty's NHS. And to Holly, who I finally figured out was the previous Follower to join.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

It’s said to be a feature of Spanish society that there are many young people here working in jobs well below their level of education. One such is the waitress in my regular wifi café who is a philology graduate from Santiago university and who today brought me a couple of books on Galician rural society. So it’s to her I owe the fact I now know rather more about witches (meigas and bruxas) and spells than I did yesterday. I hadn’t been aware, for example, that you can identify the witches in a village by asking the priest to leave the missal open at the end of Mass on Palm Sunday. In which case the unfortunate sorceresses will be rooted to their pews, unable to leave the church until the book is closed. And, should I have any problems arising from a curse on my cattle, I can deal with these by putting a pair of male underpants on the horns of one of the beasts and encouraging it to run around the field. It promises to be an interesting few days reading.

Hitherto this week – and ahead of a meeting of the George Borrow Society in Salamanca next week – my preference has been for his book on Spanish gypsies, entitled Zincali. Old George was quite a linguist and included not only the gypsy language but also Spanish and Basque in his very extensive repertoire. I’ve commented before that, in his book "The Bible in Spain", he made it clear he didn’t much care for the Andalucians. So I can’t say I was very surprised to read this last night:- When we consider the character of the Andalusians in general, we shall find little to surprise us in their predilection for the Gitanos. They are an indolent frivolous people, fond of dancing and song, and sensual amusements. They live under the most glorious sun and benign heaven in Europe, and their country is by nature rich and fertile, yet in no province of Spain is there more beggary and misery; the greater part of the land being uncultivated, and producing nothing but thorns and brushwood, affording in itself a striking emblem of the moral state of its inhabitants. Of course, what GB wrote in 1840 is not true of Andalucia now. At least as regards the cultivation of the land. As for the Andalucians themselves, I really don’t know whether they’ve moved on or not. Perhaps not, if the unemployment statistics are to be believed. Which many claim they aren’t. And I fancy the industrious Catalans and Basques – and not a few Castilians – would admit to a similar view of Andalucians even now. Hence the demands that they keep more of the money they generate.

George, by the way, thought even less of the gypsies than of the Andalucians. A conclusion that really does seem to have been based on spending a great deal of time among them. I will be posting a web reference to the whole book soon, where you can check this out for yourself.

As I’ve said a few times, there’s a confused and confusing take on prostitution here in Spain. This appears to be a case in point. It would, I think, be interesting to see the charge sheet.

Finally . . . A Cade Footnote. Those of you who read the Comments will know there’s either a multiple-personality individual or group of folk who feel obliged to react provocatively to much of what I (and other readers) write. He/she/they come and go and the evidence for the existence of a group is that readership shoots up whenever there’s a contribution. I’ve long ceased to have any interest in what Cade writes and don’t in any way feel obliged to respond. Which, of course, is an irritant to him/her/them. So much so that today resort was had to what purports to be helpful medical advice. Which I find touching. Perhaps he, she or they is/are human after all. Or just truly desperate.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

It isn’t just raining bad data on Spain’s economic plight; it’s deluging the stuff. The front-page headline of today’s El País is “Spain’s loss of competitiveness complicates her recovery”. Which may well be worth shouting from the rooftops but is not exactly news. At least not to those who’ve been warning of it for several years.

El Mundo also majors on the theme, highlighting (like El País) depressing elements from two recent reports on national competitiveness and the ease of doing business in 183 countries around the world. Spain doesn’t do well in either of these and, when it comes to contracting staff ranks at a lowly 157. Coincidentally, I was talking only yesterday to a Spanish entrepreneur who spelled out to me the costs of giving anyone a ‘permanent’ contract here. It was enough to leave me very content I no longer face such challenges

And then there’s education . . . and the fact that in Europe only Portugal has greater ‘scholastic failure’. Which I think is the drop-out rate. Altogether, exactly the sort of news one needs when coming back from a long summer vacation, during which you’ve tried to convince yourself things aren't as bad as they seemed in June and that it’s really very significant that consumer optimism is slowly rising.

No wonder there’s a widespread view that the country needs a leader more competent than Señor Zapatero. It may not deserve it, but it certainly needs it. It’s a shame, perhaps, that fascism is out of fashion.

But, anyway, to lighten our day, the Madrid correspondent of the Guardian has addressed the issue of public whoring in Barcelona. You can read his article here but I should add that Tom of The Bad Rash says it’s rubbish to suggest prostitution was once confined to the port area.

Referring to the debacle of the release of the Libyan man who was possibly behind the Lockerbie bombing, a British commentator writes “There is no surer mark of a government in meltdown than that it loses the ability to lie properly.” This is meant to apply to Mr Brown and his Labour government in the UK but I suspect it’s equally true of our Sr Zapatero and his Socialist administration here in Spain. Or, if it isn’t now, it soon will be. Though not for lack of practice.

I may, over the years, have given the impression I’m unimpressed with the fact that just about the only sauce you get with Galician food is one made of olive oil and paprika. Very aptly, this is denoted on menus by the phrase a la gallega. Well, I think the nadir was reached yesterday when I tried an item new to me - Lacón en fiambre. This turned out to be slices of tasteless – and possibly raw - cold bacon, swimming in a small pool of olive oil into which paprika had been so liberally sprinkled much of it had failed to dissolve. If this is an example of the sort of on-the-cheap creativity inspired by the economic crisis, I think I’ll stay home and eat spam until it’s over.

Finally . . . On one of the containers near my house, there’s an advert for beagle puppies. I had fun with two questions when I saw it this morning:- 1. How do most Spaniards pronounce ‘beagle’? and 2. What do they taste like a la gallega?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Since the early 60s, the invariable response to the statement that you come from Liverpool has been either “Oh, where the Beatles come from?” or “Great football team!”. The former is agreeable as it’s then possible for a man of my age to get away with claiming to have been on close terms with the Fab Four. The latter, though, is rather disagreeable when you’re not a supporter of Liverpool FC, but of ‘the other’ Premiership team based in the city. Over 40 years I’ve become inured to this exchange in possibly as many countries around the world. So, imagine my shock when the response of a young local taxi driver last week was a blank stare of dis-recognition. Unless it was my strange pronunciation, he seemed to be totally unaware of the existence of the Beatles. And, when I asked him if he followed football at all, he said not and that he preferred American Football. Which isn’t football at all, of course. So, all in all, quite a strange young man. Possibly unique. He certainly will be if he still doesn’t know the Beatles after this week’s latest attempt to make everyone buy every one of their records yet again.

If you feel ready for more on the Spanish economy, here’s an insight into what it is that isn’t happening and why it should be.

And, if you have a mobile phone and are really gullible, here’s a more useful insight for you.

Monday, September 07, 2009

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that the Sunday Business section of the left-of-centre El País had weighed into the socialist government around its (mis)management of both the boom and the bust. Well, the paper returned to the charge yesterday and essentially accused the government of serial incompetence. It’s commonplace here to suggest that the right-of-centre paper, El Mundo, regularly attacks the Leader of the conservative Opposition because it favours a more right-wing candidate (Esperanza Aguirre, Presidenta of Madrid) but I don’t recall reading that the media empire behind El País favours someone other than Señor Zapatero as President. Charles Butler comments on the development here and repeats his prediction that Señor Z. will not serve out this term of office. Interesting times.

I don’t know if I’m just emerging from a case of swine flu but I certainly hope so. For I’ve just read today that a bout of normal – ‘seasonal’ – flu affords no immunity at all against either the bird or the porcine variety. This is because of the new non-human elements, which account for its rapid spread. The upshot of this is that, if I’ve only had normal flu, then I could well be laid low again with swine flu within a matter of weeks. Days even. Which is a nice prospect. But, hey, I’ve lost some surplus weight. And I’m not dead. Why, I can even almost walk upstairs without breaking sweat.

When I was 18 and doing Voluntary Service in the Seychelles – well, someone had to – I learnt to strum a few songs on a cheap guitar. One of them was a sad ditty about an unmarried woman, called Take Her Out of Pity, by the Kingston Trio. Which is as painful as it sounds. I hadn’t heard it for more than 40 years when it came on Spanish radio tonight, rendering me very nostalgic and melancholic. Which I attribute to the blasted flu. And since I’m too weak to be creative, here it is . . .

I had a sister Sally, she was younger than I am.
Had so many sweethearts, she had to deny them.
But as for sister Sarah, you know she hasn't many.
And if you knew her heart, she'd be grateful for any.

Come a lands man, a pins man, a tinker or a tailor;
A doctor, a lawyer, soldier, or sailor.
A rich man, a poor man, a fool or a witty,
don't let her die an old maid but take her out of pity.

I had a sister Sally, she was ugly and misshapen.
By the time she was sixteen years old she was taken.
By the time she was eighteen, a son and a daughter.
Sarah's almost twenty-nine, never had an offer.

She never would be scoldin'. She never would be jealous.
Her husband would have money to go to the alehouse.
He'd be there a-spendin'. She'd be home a-savin' and
I leave it up to you if she is not worth havin'.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Here's the missing text from yesterday's post . . . .

A ritual one regularly sees in bars in Spain is that of the loud but polite argument between two men, each of whom is insisting on paying for the drinks. This can take several minutes but is usually peaceably resolved, in accordance with principles with which I’m not familiar. As George Borrow put it in his 1840 book on Spanish gypsies:- On such occasions in Spain it is considered as a species of privilege to be allowed to pay, which is an honour generally claimed by the principal man of the party.

Sometimes, though, things can go awry. And here is Borrow again on one of these:- Whilst speaking of the Gitanos of Granada, we cannot pass by in silence a tragedy which occurred in this town some fifteen years ago. We allude to the murder of Pindamonas by Pepe Conde. Both these individuals were Gitanos; the latter was a celebrated contrabandista, of whom many remarkable tales are told. On one occasion, having committed some enormous crime, he fled over to Barbary and turned Moor, and was employed by the Moorish emperor in his wars, in company with the other renegade Spaniards. After the lapse of some years, when his crime was nearly forgotten, he returned to Granada, where he followed his old occupations of contrabandista and chalan. Pindamonas was a Gitano of considerable wealth, and was considered as the most respectable of the race at Granada, amongst whom he possessed considerable influence. Between this man and Pepe Conde there existed a jealousy, especially on the part of the latter, who, being a man of proud untameable spirit, could not well brook a superior amongst his own people. It chanced one day that Pindamonas and other Gitanos, amongst whom was Pepe Conde, were in a coffee-house. After they had all partaken of some refreshment, they called for the reckoning, the amount of which Pindamonas insisted on discharging. Pepe Conde did not fail to take umbrage at the attempt of Pindamonas, which he considered as an undue assumption of superiority, and put in his own claim; but Pindamonas insisted, and at last flung down the money on the table, whereupon Pepe Conde instantly unclasped one of those terrible Manchegan knives which are generally carried by the contrabandistas, and with a frightful gash opened the abdomen of Pindamonas, who presently expired.

Incidentally, there never seems to be much argument when I offer to pay for drinks. I’m trying hard to convince myself this is out of respect for my age and sagacity.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Well, the flu didn’t peak yesterday and I didn’t get to go to the medieval fair today with my friends from Vigo. Instead, I stayed at home nursing a throat that turned water into glass shards as it went down. And rescuing a magpie from my chimney.

But the day wasn’t entirely wasted. For I learned that, if you put a microwave-suitable plastic top on a dish of stew and then switch on both the microwave and the convection oven, you get a sort of plastic fondue on top of your stew.

Well, there was going to be something else now but there's a problem of incompatibiity between my laptop and my notebook and the rest of the text is just jibberish on my USB pen.

Not my day.

Friday, September 04, 2009

There was panic in Marbella this week when a shark was seen close to the shore. I’d have thought they’d be inured to sharks down there. Albeit from landward.

For those with a good stomach, here’s Edward Hugh’s latest downbeat commentary of the Spanish economy. Grim reading. But, of course, he may be wrong and Sr. Zapatero might be right that the good times are just around the corner. Little though there is in the latter’s track record to justify any optimism.

The good news is that there is a Spanish banking consumer watchdog – ADICAE – and that it is “highly credible, independent and respected in Spain.” I wonder why we don’t hear more about its work. Perhaps Spanish customers don’t complain as much as the miserable guiris.

Even better news is that deaths on Spanish roads this summer were well down on last year and, in fact, the lowest for nearly 50 years. Just imagine the pain and grief avoided.

I’ve asked regularly over the years when the British taxpayers would finally revolt against the corrupt feather-bedding which results in their humungous municipal taxes. Well, something has finally happened. But the action has come not from any taxpayers but from one of the very councils. You can read about it here but this comment captures the justifiable tone of disbelief . . “You may be feeling disorientated, overcome by a surreal sensation, on hearing such extraordinary, unprecedented views. They are the almost forgotten, forcibly extinguished voice of sanity which most people had thought forever excised from British politics.”

You’ll have to forgive me if this post is below par but I’m laid up with flu. Whether A, B, C or Z or even porcine, I don’t know but it’s a bugger living alone when you’re ill and you have to get up to make the whisky toddies yourself. Or would be if I hadn’t left the bottle in my house in the hills.

It may be because I’m reading Borrow on gypsies but I take the view that I’ve been brought low by a curse from Cade. This was reinforced this morning then we had none of his usual inanities in the Comments, convincing me he’d decided to eschew these in favour of a potion from a Galician bruxa. Or meiga. I can never remember which is the good witch and which the bad.

As for the flu itself, I’m hoping it’s peaked today as I have visitors for the Medieval Fair tomorrow. I’ve actually had two sweaty, restless nights and woke this morning in the middle of a dream in which I was inventing a slogan for the Andalucian Tourist Board. Believe it or believe it not, this was Andalucia is like peanuts. Very Moorish. A very strange thing the overnight mind. Or what Steinbeck once called “The committee of sleep”.

All of which reminds me . . . I went to find someone at the Pontevedra Council Turismo offices yesterday. She wasn’t there but I was able to pick up a 92 page glossy brochure promoting events in the EU-manufacutred region of The Atlantic Axis. Which comprises North Portugal and South Galicia. So that makes two people who’ve now read this. Cade and me. Well worth the outlay.

Finally . . . Welcome to Follower number 30. I had thought I’d cracked this but I’m afraid I’m not sure what your name is. I guess I could produce a list in the hope that the total climbs to 31. Delirious now. So had better stop.

PS. Having realised - guess how - that Tony was well and truly back from the sea, I called him and asked him to deposit a bottle of whisky at my front gate. Which he did. Good man, Tony. I'll have nothing said against him.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

They said on the news this morning that Michael Jackson would finally be laid to rest today. I rather doubt it.

There’s an almighty – and entertaining - spat taking place at the moment between macro and micro commentators on the Spanish economy in general and the banking sector in particular. If you have a serious interest in these, then you really should read this and the references cited therein. Though, if you are serious, you’ll probably already know about it. And, if you’re really serious, you may well be able to understand it. I am with those whom I think are saying that the emperor has no clothes and all is not what it seems in the balance sheets of Spanish banks. By which I don’t mean the cajas/caixas quasi-banks. Who don’t, I believe, bother to give us any balance sheets. But this is possibly because, though I may not fully understand the counter-arguments of the macroists to the criticisms of the microists, their response is beautifully constructed.

Speaking to a British teacher earlier this week, I asked when term started. “Thursday. But I’d rather not think about it”. Putting the same question to a Spanish teacher friend elicited the response – “Dunno. Some time this month. I guess they’ll let me know.” Spanish teachers complain, of course, of how much more difficult their lives are than twenty years ago. But, compared with their UK colleagues, I’d hazard a guess they enjoy a gilded existence.

I wouldn’t want to be responsible for you polling into Pontevedra on Sunday to find only the debris of our medieval fair (Feira Franca). So I should stress that it starts on Friday evening and continues until late Saturday. If you do come to town, you’ll find it an even bigger mess than I’ve previously described. The cause appears to be a mixture of archaeological digs, normal dilatoriness in carrying out obras and a rise in pretty pointless works aimed at keeping down the rate of increase in the unemployment figures. The compensations are:- 1. Things are even worse in Vigo, and 2. The mess probably won’t interfere with your enjoyment. And perhaps it will make the place look even more medieval than you expected.

It’s taken me a lot longer than expected but I’ve finally posted the Memoirs of M. Rocca to my Galicia page. Click here, if interested. Reading these, it’s clear that Rocca was an admirer of both Lord Wellington, on the one hand, and Spanish spirit, pride and character, on the other. It’s also obvious that no one involved in the planning of the American involvement in Vietnam ever read the memoirs. Nor, indeed, any foreign power which contemplated going into Afghanistan.

My current reading – and next posting – is George Borrow’s treatise on the gypsies in Spain – Zincali. And I leave you today with a longish appetite whetter:-
Gitano, or Egyptians, is the name by which the Gypsies have been most generally known in Spain but various other names are applied to them; for example, New Castilians, Germans, and Flemings [Flamencos]; the first of which titles probably originated after the name of Gitano had begun to be considered a term of reproach and infamy. They may have thus designated themselves from an unwillingness to utter, when speaking of themselves, the detested expression ‘Gitano,’ a word which seldom escapes their mouths; or it may have been applied to them first by the Spaniards as a term less calculated to wound their feelings and to beget a spirit of animosity than the other; but, however it might have originated, New Castilian, in course of time, became a term of little less infamy than Gitano.

That they were called Germans, may be accounted for, either by the supposition that their generic name of Rommany was misunderstood and mispronounced by the Spaniards or from the fact of their having passed through Germany in their way to the south, and bearing passports and letters of safety from the various German states. The title of Flemings, by which at the present day they are known in various parts of Spain, would probably never have been bestowed upon them but from the circumstance of their having been designated or believed to be Germans, - as German and Fleming are considered by the ignorant as synonymous terms.

Amongst themselves they have three words to distinguish them and their race in general: Zincalo, Romano, and Chai; They likewise call themselves ‘Cales’ by which indeed they are tolerably well known by the Spaniards, and which is merely the plural termination of the compound word Zincalo, and signifies, The black men. Chai is a modification of the word Chal, which, by the Gitanos of Estremadura, is applied to Egypt, and in many parts of Spain is equivalent to ‘Heaven,’ and which is perhaps a modification of ‘Cheros,’ the word for heaven in other dialects of the Gypsy language. Thus Chai may denote, The men of Egypt, or, The sons of Heaven. It is, however, right to observe, that amongst the Gitanos, the word Chai has frequently no other signification than the simple one of ‘children.’

It is impossible to state for certainty the exact year of their first appearance in Spain; but it is reasonable to presume that it was early in the fifteenth century; as in the year 1417 numerous bands entered France from the north-east of Europe, and speedily spread themselves over the greatest part of that country.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Just a quick follow-up to yesterday’s paragraph on prostitution in Spain. The Catalan government says the responsibility for the very public activities featured in the El País article lies firmly at the door of the Ministry of the Interior. As the Libyan scandal is currently showing, that’s the best thing about having both national and regional governments – you can pass the buck endlessly between yourselves, taking credit for everything and blame for nothing.

Dipping into the past again - Here’s a British soldier’s account I’ve just read of tribes people up in the Afghan mountains sometime in the 19th century:- I have been told that no great feast is ever given without two or three persons being stabbed. Among the men jealousy is a rage that nothing but the sight of blood can appease. These mountaineers are almost universally smugglers: they sometimes unite in pretty large troops from different villages, under the most famous of their chiefs, and they go down into the plains where they disperse to sell their goods, when they often resist troops sent in pursuit of them. They have always been famous for the dexterity with which they elude the watchfulness of the numerous excise officers under the crown; they know the most hidden caverns, the most rocky defiles, and the narrowest passes. While the men are constantly occupied with this kind of smuggling war, their wives remain at home among the mountains, and do not shrink from undertaking the most laborious employments. They carry heavy burdens with ease, and boast of the superior strength given them by habit; they have been seen wrestling together and striving who should lift the heaviest stones. When they come down to Kabul, they are easily distinguished by their gigantic size, their robust limbs, and their looks which are at once full of wonder and boldness. They are fond of dressing in the finest stuffs and veils, which they obtain by smuggling, and which form a curious contrast with their dark sun-burnt complexions and the coarseness of their features . . . . The very day on which we left Kabul, the mountaineers entered it by day-break, shouting with joy and discharging their pieces exultingly in the streets. The inhabitants of each village arrived together marching without order, and followed by their wives, only distinguishable from the men by their dress, their greater stature, and their coarser manners.

Actually, it’s not Afghanistan; it’s Andalucia. And it’s not Kabul but Ronda. It’s our old friend M. Rocca again, possibly getting a little fanciful about his 1809 adventures down south. And being rather rude about Andalucian women.

Talking of odd women . . . Here, at last, are a couple of photos of the Plymouth revellers a week or so ago. The first one was taken early in the evening, before we all got a little merry and took our breasts out.

And this is my old Frank doing what he does best – playing piano in a Plymouth pub he claims was Francis Drake’s local.

Apropos nothing at all . . . A couple of days after I got back to Spain, I received a Friends Reunited message from my first flame. Guess what city she turns out to live in.

Finally . . . I’d just like to briefly express my appreciation of and admiration for the Galician nationalists who use this blog to rail against Spanish imperialism. After all, how painful it must be to know that more than 85% of your fellow Galicians think you’re a bad joke. So that you’re forced to wage your campaign against Madrid in a blog written in an even more hegemonistic language than Spanish. And which is read mostly by people who don’t even have a vote with which to influence matters. What dedication to your cause it shows to see this as something other than a complete and utter waste of your time. I take my hat off to you all. The future is yours. If neither the past nor the present.

Footnote re Comments: If you read these, you'll know that some cretin is impersonating me there. I'd hope you could tell by the Americanisms and the poor English that it's not really me. I can't be bothered to delet the messages so, if you want to be sure of authorship, click the name. I imagine this 'Colin' is one of the group of imbeciles who call themselves Cade. But, of course, there is no profile offered when you click the name. Small minds.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Prostitution is a difficult issue and different countries take different approaches. In Italy, it seems, provided you’re rich and powerful enough, consorting with high class whores can actually increase your popularity. At least if you’ve seen 72 summers. And, here in Spain, I rather doubt any male ever lost respect for admitting he preferred to ejaculate into a fee-charging stranger than into anyone or anything else. In the UK, prostitution is a ‘grey area’; whereas here in Spain it’s rather more of a vivid pink hue. This being the colour of the neon-lit signs which advertise the thousands of ‘clubs’ that line the country’s principal roads. And about which no one at all – certainly not the government or the Catholic Church – seems to give a tinker’s cuss. But at least we get the occasional tut of disapproval from a TV station, via a “gritty” documentary about Spain’s disproportionately vast and massively exploitative sex industry. Or an article like that in today’s El Pais, which provides pictures so graphic they’d surely be seen as pornographic in most other countries. Here in this more robust culture, though, they probably rank with gore, entrails and splattered brains in their capacity to increase readership. Personally, I’d prefer the lovely Letitia. Or even Princess Di. As a readership lure, I mean. Not as a five-minute consort.

Crossing the be-trenched Alameda in Pontevedra this morning, I had to give way to a young woman whose shoes had the highest heels and the pointiest toes I’ve ever seen. Below the slinkiest-possible dress. And she was even carrying what my mother used to call an ‘evening bag’. Since it was only 10.40 in the morning, her elegant sexiness struck me as rather incongruous. But, as she was heading for the headquarters of the Provincial government, I guessed she was going - possibly a tad over-dressed - for a job interview. However, when I later read the El País article and realised that the compulsory civil-servant coffee break had been imminent, I began to wonder. I’ve heard rumours that salaries are not being paid by the cash-strapped councils. Can they really be making payments in kind?

Anyway, next weekend both the Alameda and the entire old quarter of Pontevedra will be given over to our last fiesta of the summer – the Feira Franca. Or Medieval Fair. If you pay us a visit, you’d be forgiven for thinking this event is decades, if not centuries, old. But, in truth, it was initiated only 9 years ago, to become what is now one of the year’s pre-eminent ways to have fun without chucking any goats or donkeys off church steeples. Well worth a visit if you’re anywhere near. Even if you’re a nervous quadruped. After this, you’ll have to wait until the end of October, for the Seafood Festival in O Grove. When the sun may shine or the rain may pour. But the percebes will still taste like salty rubber. And cost you a prince’s ransom.

Finally . . . The Voz de Galicia yesterday took up the theme of the region’s three under-performing airports and asked why they’d all been outstripped by Oporto’s in the last 5 years of so. Then it answered its own question with this list of six gaping deficiencies:-
1. Long term planning
2. Stable management with shared objectives, undiluted by political/localist in-fighting
3. A commercial outlook
4. An international vision
5. Concentration on low-cost flights, and
6. Effective marketing to the target clientele.

Well, quite. And, if this sort of rank failure is a national rather than just a regional feature, then it does leave one worrying about how Spain will drag itself up by its bootstraps once her deep recession is finally over. In more than a year’s time. And in a much-changed and ever-more competitive world. Worse to come before then, though.