Sunday, January 31, 2010

The business section of El País this morning was naturally preoccupied with the depressing economic news in general and the unemployment data in particular. You know things are bad when the paper – in search of something positive to write – says that the total probably won’t reach 5 million and could well peak at 19% instead of the worst case scenario of 20%. I say ‘worst case’ but I seem to recall Edward Hugh going as high as 25%. El País admits, though, that Spain’s unemployment looks like staying above 10% for at least 8 years. But this could come down to 5, if the government got its act together. So, 8 it is then. Or perhaps 10.

Well, our friend Ambrose (or his sub-editor) doesn’t mince his words today – “Germany faces a terrible dilemma. Either Europe's paymaster agrees to underwrite a Greek bail-out and drops its vehement opposition to a de facto EU economic government, treasury, and debt union, or the euro will start to unravel, and with it Germany's strategic investment in the post-war order.” In the text that follows this summary, Ambrose touches on the unusual possibility of Germany being the first country to leave the European monetary union, not Greece. And he highlights the problems of what he calls the Lutheran-Latin clash. And asks “How much more tightening can Spain endure before Catalan, Basque, and Galician separatism rocks the Spanish state?”. Well, I can’t speak for Catalunia or the Basque Country but I’d stake my life on Galician separatists not rocking the boat before Hell freezes over. There aren’t enough of them to rock a matchstick, never mind a boat. But the good news is that Ambrose repeats my point that the Germans might just be indulging in a little Teutonic brinksmanship. Good job, then, that it’s Greece and not Poland.

If there is to be any rioting in Spain – or at least a few street protests – they’re likely to be in response to the proposal from a desperate government that the pension age be increased from 65 to 67. The unions have certainly – and predictably – seen it as a call to arms. So we will see.

Interesting to see that the depleted ranks of those who subscribe to the anthropogenic global warming faith have an important new acolyte – one Osama Bin Laden. A man, you would have thought, who had enough things to worry about. On this subject, here’s Christopher Booker with another insight into how the science has been put together. By idiots, apparently.

Finally . . .I mentioned the other day that the Spanish timetable can be beyond belief, citing the example of my daughter’s tango class starting around midnight. Well, someone called me at 4.17 this morning. Unfortunately, I’d hadn’t switched my mobile phone off. Happily, I’d left it downstairs. Annoyingly, I don’t recognise the number.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The latest data on the Spanish economy was all over the papers today. And it doesn’t make for happy reading. President Zapatero (or Zapollyanna) will surely have to change his tune. Before the election (and the height of the recession) we had “Let the good times roll”. More recently, we’ve had “There are good times just around the corner”. Ad nauseum. So, it’ll be interesting to see what we get next. “Non, je ne regrette rien”?

While we wait, here’s Edward Hugh on the subject.

I related what I called a Spanish tale yesterday. Well, here’s another one . . . On Thursday evening I was called by a woman who said she ran a sound studio and needed an English voice for some ads urgently required by a client. Could I come in the next morning? OK, I said. How about 11? She demurred and asked me to come in at 9.30 (the equivalent of 7.30 in the UK). There was four hours work to do and everything needed to be sent to the client by Friday evening. So I agreed. A couple of hours later, she called me to say it was all off, as the client hadn’t sent through the translations. She was sorry but could I come in sometime anyway for a voice test that they could keep on file. OK, I said. How about 11 tomorrow for this? Better not, she said, as she might have to go to the bank. Perhaps I could call sometime and make an appointment. OK, I said.

So, what makes this a Spanish tale? Well, firstly, it doesn’t ring true. Secondly, I can’t begin to figure out what’s really going on. And, thirdly, I’m not going to spend any time thinking about it. Nor am I going to waste time calling to make an appointment for the voice test. Que será, será.

Finally . . . It continues to be hard to believe we’re living through deflationary times in this beleaguered economy. Inflation rose in January and is now again higher than the EU average. Will this year finally see some sign of unrest among the populace? I suspect not. The worst affected - apart from the immigrants who always have the option of leaving - are Spain's young people. And their parents are perpetually accommodating.

Friday, January 29, 2010

I mentioned the property and non-development business(es) yesterday. Here’s Mark Stucklin on this subject. The sector, he says, is tottering on the verge of bankruptcy. Adding that “It is far from out of the woods. And the longer the problem drags on, the more damage it does to the Spanish economy."

Meanwhile, just as we all (including Edward Hugh) were coming round to the view that the EU would go to any financial lengths to protect the political project of a European Union, the Germans appear to have thrown a large spanner in the works by indicating there are limits, after all. Of course, it could all be brinkmanship. As Edward puts it:- “There are reports that Berlin is deliberately bringing the crisis to a head, hoping to lance the boil early and force the Club Med
states to reform before it is too late. If so, this is a risky strategy. German banks have huge exposure to Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese debt.”. Interesting times.

When I first came to Spain, I used to check the mail box religiously every morning to see if my magazines had arrived from the UK. But then I learned to manage my expectations – essential to survival in Spain – and ceased doing this. But I realised today I’m now operating at the other extreme: I deliberately don’t check my box until the day after mail has arrived. This is because it’s delivered between 11 and 1, when I am downtown. When I get back at 2.30, I refrain from checking in case there’s something there that will disturb not only my siesta but also the entire rest of my day. What I’m talking about, of course, is yet another speeding fine from the agents of the State Larceny Department, previously known as El Tráfico. At least if I get a fine notification early the next morning, I can go to the bank and pay the bloody thing. And get the anger out of my system. And nothing is more certain in life than I will get another one. Especially as the limit on the steep hill up to my house has just been reduced to 30kph. Or 19mph. Which compels permanent 2nd gear. Great for the car and the environment. But I look forward to infuriating the cars behind me.

Finally . . . A little Spanish tale. In my regular wi-fi café this morning, I spent 15 minutes trying to get a connection, with the computer telling me I had one but not opening any pages. So, I went to the counter and asked for the password, in case it had changed. Fifteen minutes of more failed endeavours later, I stopped a passing waitress and asked her if the password was correct. “Yes”, she said. “But you won’t get a connection because we’ve turned it off. Too many people living near the café are getting free access.” At lunch with a an English friend, he told me it was my own fault for asking the wrong question at the counter. And he was probably right. A question of expectations again.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

It seems Spain is coming in for a hard time at the Davos jamboree, where there’s more concern about our economy than the Spanish government would probably care to admit. One of the more critical commentators has said Spain is now a threat to the stability of its neighbours. Oh, dear.

Meanwhile, back home the banks took a hiding yesterday as the stock market digested news about increased bad debt provisions by the banks in respect of loans to property developers who are still in the property business but not the development business. I had to smile at the chutzpah of the spokesman who said “The indigestion caused by the development bubble is going to be more serious than forecast”. Well, certainly more serious than anything admitted by the government. But, then, that wouldn’t be very difficult as their line has always been that Spain has the most stable banking system in the world. If so, God help us.

Despite the recession and the bleak news which surrounds it, a survey reveals that Spain’s young people maintain the traditional view here that one works to live, not lives to work. Which is, of course, a lot easier if you stay with your parents until your mid 30s and don’t pay for a thing. I wonder if they’re in for a rude shock, as unemployment continues to rise and now exceeds 4 million. For many of them, perhaps, there won’t be the luxury of choice.

I was impressed – and amused – to see one of my undergraduate colleagues – Elizabeth Wilmshurst - getting her revenge on Jack Straw by knifing him with a wonderful throwaway line at the Iraq War Enquiry in the UK. But I was surprised to see her photo featuring in El País. I hope this doesn’t sound ungallant but she looks a lot better now than she did 40 years ago. Which is not something anyone ever says about me. Except when they’re falling over laughing at my 1971 wedding photos. I think it’s the hair and the flares.

Life in Spain . . . I sent a message to my elder daughter in Madrid at 11 last night, asking her to call me when she could. I awoke this morning to a message timed at 2.28AM, saying she’d just got home from her tango class. Which must have started at midnight, as I was hitting the hay.

Finally . . . There was an item in today’s local papers about the mayor of O Grove being arrested for leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident. The police found him at home in what’s called an inebriated condition. I wonder if this is the same chap I mentioned yesterday. Or just a relative.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It being a beautiful day today, I decided to motor 20km to Caldas de Reís (Kings’Springs) to make some hotel bookings for the camino I’m doing with friends in June. And a typically Spanish experience it turned out to be. The preferred place was closed for the winter. As was the back-up. And also the Tourist Information office. But I did have a nice chat about Caldas with the town librarian – once she’d returned from lunch to re-start work at 5pm. And I was able to caste my eye over the town’s lovely church. And also to inspect the (proper) pilgrims’ refuge a few kilometres south of the town. Or at least the outside, as this too was closed. So not a complete waste of three hours. As it happens, we won’t be availing ourselves of the refuge’s communal facilities this time round but I might one day. And it looked very clean from the road.

Driving back, I was amused to hear a chap on the radio calling in to say it was no surprise to him the UK was coming out of recession. The British were slaves. First cousins to the Chinese. Worked long hours for low wages. And the old-age pension was only a scandalously low 300 euros a month . . . Well, I believe he was woefully wrong about the minimum pension, at least, but why let facts stand in the way of a good rant? I usually don’t.

Actually, there’s naturally concern here that Spain’s is the only major economy still in recession. And forecast to stay there until at least the end of 2010. The IMF has upped their growth forecasts for everyone else, it seems, but not for Spain. Rather depressing really.

Which reminds me that one of the regularly-cited structural problems in this economy is the two-tier labour market - comprising one segment on well-paid, ‘permanent’ contracts which are hard to terminate, and another segment on low-paid, temporary contracts which are, well, rather impermanent. During Spain’s phoney boom, the proportion of the latter increased significantly, possibly reflecting the fact most of the labour was provided by the millions of immigrants who came here after 2000, just after me. And guess which workers have been laid off since the ridiculous property bubble burst? In contrast, I heard today that the proportion of short-term contracts in the UK has been reducing over the last decade. No doubt some economist could tell us whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for the prospects of long-term British growth, now that the economy has – just about – emerged from the recession. Or is it all rather subordinate to the impact of a basement-price pound?

I wrote yesterday of the problems Madrid has with recalcitrant regional governments. But Spanish localism – and the tradition of powerful political barons – is such that much the same thing happens at a regional level Even within the same party. So it is that the Presidenta of the Madrid community, as I said yesterday, acts rather like a law unto herself and is even suspected of conspiring against the President of her own PP party. As if this weren’t enough for him, said gentleman has just decided to (try to) take firm action against one of the Galician urban barons who finds it difficult to toe the line of the Xunta run by the party of which he’s a leading light. The Spanish term for the membership of a political party is, I think, la militancia. Which strikes me as particularly apt. In the same (or reverse?) way it seems only right that the Spanish word discusión is best translated as ‘argument’. Or ‘shouting match’, even. It’s a robust business, politics in Spain. Venezuela’s Chavez would do well here.

Finally . . . I was amused to read today that in the port of O Grove along our coast – where my two ex-stepsons were born – the police have decided to shelve the investigation into the disappearance of 12 kilos of cocaine from their own lock-up. “It would be impossible to determine the author of the crime”, they claim. And I’m sure they’re right. And possibly not very wise. This is a town, by the way, where a few years ago the mayor was returned to power while serving a jail sentence for drug smuggling. He’d done a lot for the place, it was felt. Even if he was a bit of a rogue. But, Vaya!, there's the tradition of la picaresca to maintain!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A couple of years or so ago, the Spanish government introduced new benefits for family carers. Or, rather, they introduced a scheme and then, as far as I can make out, left the regional governments to get on with implementing it. Or not, in some cases. As with the anti-smoking laws of 2006. And, presumably the tougher anti-smoking laws of ‘sometime this year’. Now, you might think the most nationalistic regions would be the worst at sticking two fingers up at Madrid; but the prize for being the most contrary must, it seems, go the Madrid region, which surrounds the capital city. Whether this is a political issue or a financial issue - or the former dressed up as the latter – I really can’t say. But it does make you wonder just how governable the increasingly pluralist Spanish state is.

And then there’s the infamous land abuse laws and practices which President Zapatero this week implied were really something we couldn’t expect him to do anything about, no matter how much Brussels threatened sanctions, if not. So, sometimes Madrid proposes and the regions dispose. And sometimes it’s the other way round. Either way, important things fall down between huge cracks. And yet there are still some apparently sane people who aspire to be President. Must be the perks.

In more than nine years here, I can’t recall a single shopkeeper ever saying to me “No, I’m sorry. We don’t have that. Can I order you one?” The conversation normally runs:-
Do you have one of these?
Can you order me one?
Yes. (Takes a number you know will never be called).
(Wait a few seconds)
So, when is it likely to be in?
Try in a week or so.

And still on customer service . . . A Dutch friend tells me an American friend of his asserts it takes an average of three visits to your bank here to get something done. Well, this was certainly my experience with one of the two banks I mentioned last week. And the information promised at the second visit still wasn’t available. I like to think they drew a lesson from my decision not to place money with them. But I rather doubt it. I felt sorry for the young lady, who did her best but was let down, she implied, by regional management. Who may be a bit too far from the coalface. At least when it comes to impatient Anglo clients.

But some positive customer service news . . . Given my unhappy dealings with the Spanish subsidiary of Carrefour over the years, I wasn’t looking forward to asking them today if they could give me a copy of the bill for an item on my credit card statement. But they were pleasant and ran off a copy within a couple of minutes. Of course, today’s technology makes this very easy but I was still as impressed as I was pleasantly surprised.

Sometimes you wonder if what you’re reading in Spain can really be true. It’s been said that cheating at exams is a way of student life here but it was still breathtaking to see Sevilla university were planning to soften their attitude to this and allow examinees caught in flagrante delicto to stay on and take their exams again. Again, perhaps it was a finance-driven decision but, anyway, they’ve now seen sense and reversed it. It’s one thing to condone skulduggery but another to do it officially. They say , of course, their announcement was ‘misinterpreted’.

Finally . . . Some friends of mine last night told me I pronounce the local place names with a Gallego accent. Which means, if José is right, that I must be that most miserable of creatures – a dyed-in-the-wool Spanish nationalist who speaks like a Galician nationalist.

Monday, January 25, 2010

There’s a great deal of news in the Spanish media at the moment about the challenge of dealing with the immigrants – legal and illegal – who came to Spain in the boom years of 2000 to 2005 and who are now surplus to requirements. Just to put things in perspective, Spain’s population grew during this period from 40.2m to 46.7m. Of the additional 6.5m souls, 4.8m were immigrants. It’s quite hard to believe no one realised this might cause a headache or two once the phoney boom was over but this is certainly the impression once gets.

I touched yesterday on the subject of property abuses down in the badlands of Andalucia. Today comes the news that sales along the Costa de Sol are 99% down on those of the peak year of 2005. Of course, the pound has fallen a lot since then but one can’t help wondering about the impact of all the adverse publicity in the UK. Not that you’d know much about the scandalous treatment of foreign purchasers from the Spanish media.

I feel it’d be a dereliction of my duty not to report the establishment of the Kingdom of New Galicia. I came across this by accident this morning and was disappointed to see it’s located in Mexico and not Spain. I wonder if it will end up fighting for a seat at the United Nations with the future nation of Galiza...

Another day, another report of a woeful approach to critical statistics by the climate warming ‘community’. This one comes under the rubric “More Himalayan Howlers” and can be read here. What with both the scientists and the politicians making a pig’s ear of just about everything in this area, what hope has the world got? Whatever the truth is. Looks increasingly like the only real option open to us is Wait and See.

Anyway, to cheer some of you up, here’s an interesting insight into football(soccer) in the Basque Country.

Finally . . . I was impressed to see that the winners of the Mr and Miss Pontevedra competitions at the weekend were not only boy and girlfriend but also both students of Technical Industrial Engineering. Which is presumably how they met. Also nice to see that the three runners-up in the ladies’ competition were Miss Simpática, Miss Elegancia and Miss Fotogénica. Though I imagine there were at least three more contestants more photogenic than the last mentioned.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Spanish government is still locked in negations with representatives of both business and labour in pursuit of a new version of what I think was called a Social Contract by the Callaghan government in the UK back in the 70s. The funny thing is that the business group is headed by a very discredited chap. Even funnier is the fact that no one seems to have thought it right that he resigns. Least of all him.

Talking of mendacity . . . Here’s Christopher Booker on the Pachaurigate developments that are following hard on the heels of the Climategate and Glaciergate scandals. Pretty soon no one on earth will believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming. Which will be a great shame if it actually exists.

And talking of rubbish claims . . . I could scarcely believe my ears to hear a couple of products being advertised on British TV with the strapline “Get back to nature with the new Naturals range”. You might choke too, when you know that the products are detergents.

As you know, there’s no problem so bad that the government – central or regional – can’t make it worse. Following a call for the mayors of the three Galician cities with a small international airport to bury the hatchet and seek a consensus, it’s been announced there’ll be a new committee to harmonise efforts. God help Galicia’s air travellers. Even more of whom will surely now be heading south to Oporto's real international facility.

One of the by-products of reading about the attempts to force a merger of Galicia’s two Caixas (savings banks) is my belated understanding of why cultural events take place largely in Vigo and La Coruña. Simple really. The banks are the major sponsors of socio-cultural activities and this is where they have their respective head offices. So, the question arises – What will happen to Vigo’s cultural life if the HQ of the merged operation is in La Coruña? No womder the mayor is angy.

Here’s an interesting development around the issue of property abuse, for which the south of Spain is rightly (in)famous. I wonder if it will move the central government to show the slightest interest in responding to criticisms and demands from Brussels. I imagine not. It has much larger fish to fry. And for the benefit of people who have the vote. Not whingeing Brits.

Finally . . . Quote of the Week:

The internet is turning huge numbers of people into twitching Attention Deficit Disorder-afflicted reacto-trons. Journalist Stephanie Gutmann

Can’t say I’ve noticed.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Well, it finally stopped raining for an hour or two today. So, here's a foto of the new slabs in the little Plaza of Santa María in Pontevedra.

And of the lovely Portuguese-style house on the edge of it.

Incidentally, when they started re-paving this area – with less appealing granite slabs – they stumbled on a humongous ditch (fossa) beneath the square. This has now been roofed by these higher-quality paving-stones but underneath there will be a new museum. Which is excellent. Here’s a bit about the ditch. And about the dastardly English who used to lob large spherical stone objects over the wall where the houses now stand.

The house pictured above is now the HQ of the Rias Baixas Tourist Board. As is the way of things here in Galicia, this competes with the Turismo office in town and the HQ of the Pontevedra Tourist Board, which is housed in the restored building (Casa da Luz) which – you will recall – was going to open last September. But didn’t.

Talking of counter productive competition, I see that some local bigwig has said that Santiago deserves and needs an airport worthy of it as the capital of the region/nation. Which is surely true but not going to happen so long as the three small facilities in Santiago, La Coruña and Vigo slug it out to the death.

I moaned yesterday about my new electricity supplier - Gas Natural - but at least they didn't send me the bill for 180,000 euros that they calculated for a flat dweller here in Galicia. I did suggest they might need new calculators.

Finally . . . If you have any interest in the age-old pilgrimage (Camino) to Santiago, here’s my friend and fellow-blogger, Anthea, on the subject. With an emphasis on the Xacobeo aspect.

Friday, January 22, 2010

President Zapatero has given a speech to the European parliament calling for a rapid exit to the economic crisis, a return to growth and the creation of ‘quality jobs’. I imagine the reaction domestically will have been consistent with the famous Christian tenet that charity begins at home. But who would begrudge Señor Z achieving all these on an international scale, even if the can’t manage it in Spain itself?

The acronym FROB will not be tripping off many tongues. It’s a body set up months and months ago by the Spanish government to provide billions of euros in aid to the ailing savings banks, the Cajas/Caixas. These are not very transparent institutions but it seems they got rather too close to the developers and builders driving the phoney construction boom and now have serious problems with their (toxic?) assets and their cash flow. The stumbling block in the way of dispersal of the moolah is that the fund breaches EU regulations. And the negotiations around modifying it have dragged on and on and are now forecast to be concluded by March, I think. Some say President Zapatero is at fault for pretending for so long there was nothing wrong with any Spanish banks that he’s now missed the bailout boat. If you see what I mean. Seems plausible to me. Has the man put a foot right since before the recession?

The teachers’ strike against the Xunta’s new law on trilingual education was 90% successful, if you believe the unions, but only less than 50%, if you believe the Ministry of Education. But why anybody here would bother to believe anyone else is quite beyond me. The mayor of Vigo clearly doesn’t. He’s very angry at the prospect of his city losing out if and when the two Galician Caixas are forced to merge and the HQ is sited up in La Coruña. And he characterises everything said by those in favour of a merger as a pack of lies. I like a man who speaks the truth.

My old electricity company was recently taken over by a Catalan gas concern. I rather thought that the canny Catalans would be rather better at the bi-monthly estimates of my consumption than their predecessors. But apparently not. They must have even worse calculators up there than here.

And talking of utility bills . . . Having wrapped a cold towel around my head and plunged into the interstices of my latest electricity bill, I see that the unit cost for the (peak) December period rose by 34%. You’d think that I’d have noticed an announcement in the media about this, wouldn’t you. I must have dozed off. And clearly the letter informing me of the increase and the reasons for it has failed to arrive. Yet again. Nice business.

There’s fashion in Pontevedra at the moment – among young women, I mean – for shorts worn over leggings. Rather odd for winter but there we are. As ever, I stress I’m not complaining but simply reporting. I thought of this today when passing a shop advertising Leggins. Which is obviously a new bit of Spanglish. But, if you’re going to go to the trouble of dropping one of the three ‘g’s, why not drop two? Unless it needs to be kept to stop the word being pronounced leghins. As opposed to leguins. But are there any other double ‘g’ words in Spanish which serve this purpose?

Finally . . . One of the famous leaning lampposts of Poio was finally replaced today. My guess is because the top of it was getting ever closer to the people waiting at the nearby bus-stop.

Oh, yes. It’s still raining. So, no fotos of granite slabs.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Well, it just gets worse and worse for the climate change scientists. It now emerges that, despite it being a figment of someone’s imagination and having no scientific basis whatsoever, a forecast that the Himalayan glaciers would all be gone by 2035 became a key element in the 2008 alarmist ‘benchmark report’ of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the head honcho has now issued an apology. So that’s OK. We can go back to worrying about other chunks of ice that may or may not be melting.

Back in the real world, you’ll all be wanting to know where I am with the two banks I wrote to on Monday. Well, I’ve yet to talk to one of them but the other one told me yesterday they’d send me some investment fund options by Friday. Or two days after our chat. As I was leaving the bank, it dawned on me just how conditioned I now am. Given that they’re standard, why hadn’t I asked her why she didn’t go into her computer and print them off immediately? Incidentally, both of the banks are now adopting the policy that, now I’m a customer, they really can’t offer what they would to people who aren’t. So I may be moving again soon.

I mentioned the other day that Spanish trains are of excellent quality but slow. Much the same can be said for all the public works that have been taking place in Pontevedra over the last several months. Most of these involve granite and, while they may take an eternity, the end results are usually quite beautiful. I’ve been wanting to take a photo of some but, after the cold snap finished 10 days ago and the wind started blowing from the south west, it’s hardly stopped raining. Some time soon. I hope.

If you’re interested to know what our in-house Jeremiah is saying now about Greece and the possible break-up of the EU, click here. And here for a follow-up from British Euro MP (and eurosceptic) Daniel Hannan.

Finally . . . My friend Alfred B Mittington is in campaigning mood and has sent me this letter. It’s probably better that José refrains from reading it but I suspect that’s too much to ask. If you’ve read our recent dialogue, you’ll know that he and I went over similar ground. But not with as much emotion and eloquence as Alfie can muster. . . .

My dear Colin,

As promised, I am hard at work to improve the Spanish & Galician school systems, but it is a considerable job and it takes some time. Will get back to you about that, old boy, in due time. We ain’t dead yet, are we? And anyway these problems will not go away overnight. So there’s time.

However, on this day of the Mega-strike against the anti-Gallego Decretazo I cannot refrain from sharing with you two little documents which Ivana and Selassie [Alfred’s godchildren – CD] brought home from school yesterday. It makes some sense to quote these; for in yesterday’s blog you said something about the pro-Gallego faction not wishing parents to chose in what language they want their kids taught. I laughed when I read that, thinking you were being your wry Liverputian self again. But when Igor [the father of Alfred’s Godchildren – CD] showed me these two xeroxes I bloody laughed no longer. Because I fear that you were right.

The first of these originates with the (quote) ‘Equipo de Normalizacion e Dinamizacion Linguistica’ which is quite a little mouthful (where is ol’ Georgy Orwell when you need him?) representing – if I am not mistaken – the group of pro-Gallego schoolteachers in each school. As manifestos go, it’s not a bad one, really, offering some serious pedagogical arguments. But I also find here the paragraph: ‘We are of the opinion that the “Administración” should not confer upon the families the decision on aspects of the curriculum which are its own responsibility.’ Now at least they are honest, of course, in their rejection of giving parents a choice. But WHO do they mean with the ‘Administracion’, pray tell? Not, of course, what you and I, burdened as we are by our knowledge of Yankee ‘English’ think at first, i.e. the Government. For if the Government were to decide, then these fine folk run into the awful trouble that the democratically elected government at this exact moment is the PP Xunta, on whom they piss! No, what they mean is that small revolutionary spear-point hard core clan of pro-Gallego ‘experts’ who have burrowed themselves deeply into the civil service and sway the invisible sceptre that nobody voted into their hands! THEY are to decide what everybody is supposed to do and want and obey!

The second manifesto is no less funny and dramatic, but in another way. It comes from the ANPA of the kids’ school (an ANPA, as you childless bachelor surely ignore, is the parents’ association of every school). It’s a bloody long piece of work (ever read through the reports of the IV. International?) but the juicy bit is here: ‘The ANPAs reject that the government delegates to the decision of fathers and mothers the protection of the Galician language which the Estatuto de Autonomia grants to the public powers’; ‘the ANPAs are of the opinion that decisions about an educative program must be taken by the government’ and not ‘in the manner of subjective decisions of the families’!!!! Now ain’t this rich? Whatever parents think is a silly subjective decision. But what the highly politicized (and self-imposed) ‘experts’ think is of course Objective! Yet it gets richer still, for this ANPA writes in the name of the ‘pais e nais das ANPAs’ – and I can assure you that Igor and his wife were a little taken aback to receive a manifesto written in their name, about which they were never consulted, but in which they publicly state that they, the parents, are of the opinion that parents should not be given a choice in the matter!

Oh dear, reading these two pamphlets really makes me think that our pro-Gallego faction is not, perhaps, as democratic as one would expect, hope or like…

The only just and correct solution to this tangle would of course be to instruct every school to set up one bloody class which will be taught in Gallego and another which will be taught in Spanish (and in both of which there will be hours dedicated to the learning of both languages), and then let parents chose in which of the two to drop their brats. It will not happen, I know. And yet I cannot understand how otherwise serious people can maintain that they are indeed democrats, or left-wing, or well-intentioned, when they deny parents to chose for themselves. After all: anyone who refuses to offer the citizens a choice, implicitly admits that the citizens reject his proposal. And anyone who next proceeds to impose his views on the citizens who do not desire it, is a dictator. Sorry boys and girls: no way around it. You are denying grown-up people the right to decide for themselves how they wish to live; and you are making the vile bastards obey you to the greater glory of your minority view! And these are of course the same boys and girls who daily denounce Zapatero for not granting referendums to the Catalans and Basques! Whenever it is convenient, we change our most sacred First Principles!

As I said often before: all human thinking starts with the conclusions, then collects the necessary arguments, and finally works its way down to first principles.

Long enough, this one. Hope you liked it. How’s Ryan? Tell him I’ve got a bone of contention in the freezer, waiting for the old bastard to set his teeth into.

Your old friend, Al.

Of course, all this helps to explain why (and others) accuse Leftist Nationalists of using fascists methods. Which tends to upset them. The truth often hurting, as they say.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The hapless Sr Zapatero . . . Graeme of South of Watford – who watches these things more closely than me – has an interesting question about his future. Which presumably won’t involve him lecturing in English at Georgetown university. Click here.

In my recent exchanges with José about Gallego, I responded to his assertion that Galicians should not be allowed to be ignorant of their culture and language by asking who - if not the people - would decide what the people could and could not be allowed to be ignorant of. Essentially, I wanted to know who this select group would comprise. Well, the answer – as regards the language – appears to be the teaching profession and the unions. The former are on strike tomorrow against the proposed new law and the latter have insisted that parents not be given any say in this aspect of their kids’ education. I did, in fact, approach, the teachers to ask that the strike be postponed from tomorrow until Monday – so that I could go on strike for the first time in my life – but they’ve callously ignored me.

More anti-immigrant news. But this time it’s Brits we’re talking about. Accused of doing the sort of thing that’s been going on in the UK for decades, without much complaint from anyone. Maybe things will now change there, though fear of being accused a racist will probably still get in the way. Me, I pay for medical cover as a condition of my residence. Which will all change when I’m 65, I believe. But the bills for my treatment will go back to the UK.

Talking of us Brits . . . Can this really be true? Interesting to see that the estimate of 1m is four or five times higher than the official number. What was I saying about Spanish statistics?

Down in Portugal yesterday, I was able to have several of my conversations in English but sometimes I had to resort to mix of English, Spanish, Gallego and Portuguese. The latter is a relatively easy language to read but a tough one to understand aurally. In one case, the mix even included French, as the charming old lady who owned the rural house had probably been educated when this was the first choice of a foreign language in Portugal. As here in Spain. But, boy, is it hard to move back and forth between badly known or badly remembered languages.

And talking of English and Spanish . . . I was going to (re)invent the word ‘footle’ the other day, in the context of the guy who was managing the football impressively, but with his feet and not his hands. To labour this . . . ‘footle’ instead of ‘handle’. Well, I didn’t use it in the end it but it came back to mind today when I again saw the odd Spanglish word for ‘jogging’ – footing. But I prefer ‘footle’, even if it clashes with the existing word ‘footling’.

Finally . . . Back, for those interested, to education and the use of Gallego to impart it. I mentioned the other day that the PP party which took over the Xunta in April is managing to displease all the people all the time on this issue. But now, here’s the promised dissertation on this subject by my friend Alfred B Mittington. To say the least, it’s a tad polemical. So I’d like you all to know it really isn’t me pretending to be someone else. Though I’d be flattered if you thought so. All that said, I share Alfred’s views and I’m reminded of arguments I’ve had over the years with folk who think Galician kids should be taught not just two or even three language but four – Galician, Spanish, English and Portuguese. But, anyway, take it away, Alfie! . . .

A Law of Morons, a Tower of Babel, and a Better Proposal (I)

By Alfred B Mittington

Some years ago, during the opening of the last Año Xacobeo, a high functionary in the Cultural Department of the Xunta de Galicia (I prefer not to reveal his name; and I assure you that he does too!) was asked to announce the program for classical music during an official press conference in Santiago. The good man faithfully ran through the year-long programme of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms which his office had prepared, and then, eager to highlight the celebrated orchestras and soloists invited, spoke the following immortal words: ‘And we are also delighted to count on a performance of the famous soprano Carmina Burana.’

I had to think of this charming little gaffe last week when I scrutinised the latest proposal for a new approach to teaching in Galician schools. For I always thought that I would never in my lifetime hear of a greater bungler becoming Conselleiro of the Xunta de Galicia than the cultural bigwig just above. Yet it turns out that it was possible after all, and that they have made this superb new man responsible for the education of Galician children.

Allow me to paint the political backdrop so that my readers may understand, before I treat them to the actual joke, why the Conselleiro in question engaged upon this desperate flight forward. Galicia is one of the many regions in the world which partakes of two languages. One is Castilian, the tongue of the dominant Spanish state; the other is Gallego, an older variant of the romance languages in fact, still spoken naturally, happily and proudly in the region itself, mostly in the countryside, but more and more in urban areas as well, since it is the vehicle of regionalist and separatist ambitions of the young, the educated and the leftish. Nothing wrong with that. Everybody has my blessing to do in their own country whatever they bloody well please.

The political tension between these two languages led however, as it always does, to messing around with the school system and children’s education. Ideologues the world over, of all political colours and ideals, are perfectly aware that in order to impose your ideas on the rest of mankind, you gotta get at the children. And you get at the children through the schools. To put it in concrete terms: where in the old days Franco forced Catalan, Basque, Valencian and Gallego children to study exclusively in Spanish so as to root out these ‘dialects’ (and wasn’t he successful, now?), his political enemies in modern times got back by imposing, in their turn, the use of the regional languages in the classroom .

In Galicia, due to circumstances, this took a mild form. The previous coalition of Socialists and left-wing nationalists (known as the BNG) decided on a system in which schoolchildren would dedicate an equal number of hours to the learning of the Spanish and the Gallego languages, and in which half the subjects would be taught in Spanish, the other half in Gallego. So far so good. It worked, in its way. Just about everybody was unhappy with this solution, for different and opposed reasons, except the children themselves, who – unless I am terribly mistaken – couldn’t give a damn one way or another.

Yet leaving well enough alone is not in the nature of political leaders.

Roughly a year ago, the conservative PP, who favours the dominant use of Spanish (the ‘language of the Empire’ as it used to be called in the good old days of the Generalissimo) won the regional elections, on the promise – among some other things – of putting a stop to this hybrid system of teaching. Parents – their candidate promised – would in the future be allowed to chose whether they wanted their children educated in Spanish or in Gallego. No sooner had the elections been won, however, than this drastic proposal revealed itself to be untenable (I’m still trying to find out why, but that is immaterial for now). Instead, the fresh PP Xunta came up with a new Decree, a New Solution, a New Deal which would do away with all these linguistic conflicts, solve all problems, open the window to new bright futures of harmony and mutual understanding, and boost the Educational System to heights of efficiency and learning never before attained by any school system in the world, let alone in Galicia.

They proposed to add another language to the two existing ones…

Yes, dear reader, you read it well. But to make absolutely sure that you grasp it, I will repeat it once again. Probably inspired by the shining example of the European Union, where reigns the rule: ‘If It Does Not Work, Double It!’ (see the various presidencies, commissionaires, ministries and judiciaries added in every new round of constitution-building) the Xunta de Galicia proposed to add another language to the two existing ones in the schoolroom. Starting next school year, classes at all levels, from primary school up to the high school diploma, will be taught equally in Spanish, Gallego and English…

Yes, indeed: let us take a breath. For the sheer genius of this proposal is such that any person plagued by common sense needs a quiet moment to digest it. Never in the history of human education, from the ancient Egyptians all the way up to the most recent revolutionary French pedagogues, has anybody ever ridden such an incredible brainwave! How can it be, I ask, that in 40 centuries of tuition, nobody ever discovered this miracle way to double the efficiency of teaching? How can it be that the best minds of four millennia had to wait for today’s Conselleiro de Educacion, before they saw that there is a way that children can learn English at the same time as Mathematics, if only you teach them mathematics in English?? You kill two birds with one stone! You use only one hour where otherwise you would need two! You employ but a single teacher, who will impart, with one generous hand, the secrets of calculus and algebra, while the other sows, no less liberally, the splendours of the Tongue of Shakespeare into the fertile minds of willing children!

Arid and uncreative must be the minds of those pedants who object that the teaching of a language is not necessarily the same as the teaching in a language! But agents provocateurs are those priggish elements who suggest that in the whole of Galicia, there may not be enough teachers sufficiently fluent in English to service ten schools on the lines of this new system. And obviously hostile to all innovation of genius are them troglodytes who predict that – rather than the children learning both English and Math simultaneously, they will learn neither! No no no, I say! Silence thyselves, thou prophets of doom! I am fully with Xunta president Nuñez Feijoo who declared in a recent press conference, that by adopting this ‘trilingual decree’, Galicia will stop being known as a community at war with itself over language, and will become famous as the one where all master three! He is right! Here is the secret of progress! Here the final capstone on the majestic edifice of education that the world has been waiting for these many long ages! We have found the philosophers’ stone! The magic formula to turn all mud into gold!

In fact, this notion is so overwhelmingly convincing, that I insist we ought not to be timid, but to take our new divine insight to its logical conclusion! Let us not tarry. Let us not turn back half way! Let us march forward with true courage and vision and adopt the new Mittington Miracle Curriculum for the Galician schools! For if it be true that a child picks up a language while it gets taught another subject in that language, what better can we do then to teach mathematics in English, history in Russian, biology in Chinese, German in Arabic and yes, why not: Galician in Spanish, or vice verse, for it makes no difference! A soaring Tower of Babel will be the result! In only one generation of schoolchildren run through the system, every little Galician will be fluent in as many tongues as there are academic subjects on the curriculum! What linguists won’t they be! They will master every idiom, jingle every lingo, twist every tongue to their hearth’s desires! The UN, the EU, the IMF and every Foreign Ministry on the globe, will only hire interpreters, translators and dragomans schooled in the incomparable Galician colleges! Language schools the world over will close in the face of unbeatable competition from the banks of the Miño and the Tambre! Microsoft will give up its futile attempts to create a computerised translating program, since now there are infallible translation machines on legs from Mondoñedo, Santiago and Cee! A New Day dawns my friends, if only my proposal be accepted!

If there are still thinking people left in my audience, I have no doubt that they will by now agree that this proposal is all the way up there with the design of the Titanic. Teaching children mathematics in English is not the panacea it is said to be; on the contrary: it is a certified guarantee that they will learn neither mathematics nor English! How, I ask (and why the hell must I explain this?) will a 7- or 8-year old learn his math if it gets taught in a language he has never learned and does not understand? It would seem that the highly educated and most wise Conselleiro de Education of the Xunta de Galicia (who surely boasts of an impressive and interminable string of academic titles) is not aware that the teaching OF a language is a completely different thing from teaching IN a language. That you may throw a dog into the water so as to ‘teach’ it to swim; but that language acquisition takes place along totally different lines than to ‘awaken’ an inborn skill in an animal. And that it is a monstrosity to fuck around with your future generations is such a mindless idiotic manner!

And let us be frank: enough fucking around has been done already. Spanish schoolchildren (not just the Galician ones) famously score the lowest in any comparative tests of all European children with the exception of – I believe – Northern Moldavia. And here then is my question: if you could not do it in two languages, what makes you think you will succeed in three? This linguistic miracle-cure is NOT the solution to the troubles of your school system. The cure is simply worse than the disease, and only a veritable moron would apply such medicine. Shame on you!

No: your troubles are of a different kind, my friends. And there are of course a number of painless, straightforward, reasonably simple solutions which might be adopted to improve education in Spain and Galicia. To enumerate those is, however, a hardy task which demands some calm contemplation. Before I do so, I must first shed the drops of idiocy picked up in the course of the present article, as a dog shakes off the water after you’ve thrown him into a lake. So I will now go downstairs, put a log on the fire, pour myself a double scotch (in its own language, naturally) and put onto the stereo a CD of the Cantigas de Santa Maria, sung by that exquisite soprano Ms Carmina Burana. In that agreeable atmosphere, I will brood upon the subject and do my thinking. And I will be back to you with my proposals, to be published in this same spot if my good and wise friend Colin Davies allows it.

Alfred B. Mittington
Formerly of the Highlands Board of Education

1. Allow me to insist that I voice no opinion as to the relative morality of the two phenomena!

2. I quote from La Razón, Edición Digital, of 31 December 2009: “Feijóo afirmó que el ‘decreto trilingüe’ que quiere adoptar tiene como ‘objetivo final’ el conocimiento por parte de los alumnos de tres lenguas, aunque sin incrementar los recursos actuales”, “subrayó que su deseo es que los alumnos pasen de ‘monolingüismo al trilingüismo”, and “insistió en su vocación de ‘priorizar el gasto social’ para que Galicia ‘deje de ser conocida como la comunidad que pelea por el idioma y sea conocida por su dominio de una tercera lengua”.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Well, it was forecast a few years back – largely because it was easy to do so – that there’d be trouble around immigration once the phoney construction boom was over and there was little work for the millions who came to Spain after 2000 – legally and illegally – to provide cheap labour. Now they’re a cost to the social services or a threat to the work prospects of the natives, they’re not so popular. Especially the illegal ones, who are being denied town hall registration in some places around the country. The Spanish seem rather less guilt prone than the Brits about their ex colonies – possibly because few of them are in Africa – and so are usually less concerned about allegations of racism. So the debate which has just begun is likely to be robust.

Talking of debates, it struck me today how those on each side of the Gallego-Castellano language divide are such natural bedfellows:-
- Politically Left of Centre v. Right of Centre
- Young v. Old
- Without kids in education v. With kids in education
- Idealist/Romantic v. Realist

Yes, I know it’s crude but, using it, I bet it wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with a profile of the most likely sort of person who’ll be joining the demonstrations against the Xunta’s plans to change the existing law so as to, in effect, reduce the amount of teaching done in Gallego. For which they believe they have a mandate.

Which reminds me . . . Alfred B Mittington has told me today he’s written a discussion paper on this subject. So, keep tuning in for his (probably) provocative thoughts. One of these days, he’ll have his own blog but, at the moment, mastering the technicalities – he tells me – is not his forte.

Finally . . . I went down to Portugal today, to research accommodation for my less-than-willing-to-rough-it friends who are doing the Camino with me in May-June. Stopping for lunch in the charmingly named Pedra Furada, I chose the Cod in House Style. This can differ enormously throughout Portugal and, in this case/casa, it involved about a kilo of onions and two kilos of potatoes, dished up as delicious roast crisps. Truly was it once said you’re in danger of carbohydrate overload whenever you eat in Portugal. I doubt I’ll be touching anything for another two days.

Belatedly –Welcome to those lovely people who’ve become Followers of this blog since I last wrote this.

Monday, January 18, 2010

In our neck of the woods, there’s an annual festival which involves throwing stones over the church roof, while people are walking along the other side of it. With predictable results. But I see this is not the oddest of such Spanish events.

I wanted to talk to my ‘asesor’ in each of my two banks this morning. This can’t be done by appointment so, having presented yourself, it’s pot luck whether you have to wait and for how long. Perhaps because it’s Monday, there were queues in both banks, so I decided to make my enquiry by email. At times like this, I always recall the comment in John Hooper’s book, The New Spaniards, to the effect that Spanish companies needed to realise the rest of the world doesn’t feel it necessary to transact everything face-to-face. Or, putting it another way, they need to get better at responding to ‘impersonal’ contacts. But, anyway, I have to report that one bank responded right away by email and the other spent the afternoon trying to get in touch with me on a mobile phone I’d left in my other jacket. That said, both of them basically asked me to return to the bank to discuss the options. It’s progress, I guess but imagine this happening every time I spoke to my bank in the UK.

I see in this month’s Prospect magazine that you actually burn a decent number of calories while doing brain puzzles. As it happens, I usually tackle a cryptic crossword while I’m walking Ryan in the woods but this is now starting to be problematic. His advanced age of nigh-on-16 years means his sight and hearing are slowly going and it’s not good for me, while concentrating, to inadvertently walk out of his reduced field of vision. For, when I turn round, he’s half way up another track and is then clearly confused as to the source of a whistle which he could, until recently, easily place. I guess I’ll have to get a long lead. Or stop burning calories I didn’t know I was burning.

Finally, if you’ve any interest in knowing the viewpoint of a Galician Nationalist who doesn’t feel the need to be abusive and who can remain civil in the face of provocation from me, take a look at the Comments to my posts of the last couple of weeks. There you’ll find a dialogue between me and José, at the end of which we identified a little common ground but amicably agreed to disagree on the rest. Particularly on the issue of compelling bad Galicians to be good Galicians.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Spanish people will be sleeping easier in their beds tonight. The ineffable Sr Zapatero has taken time off from strutting (stumbling?) on the international stage to assure them he understands their criticisms, their anxiety and their insistence. For something other than platitudes, I imagine.

It looks like it’s going to be a golden age for teachers of English here in Galicia. For, not only is the Xunta introducing trilingual education (Gallego, Spanish and English) but it’s also going to give preferential treatment to teachers who can give lessons in English. Which is logical, I guess. Perhaps I should come out of retirement and make a packet, adding a few words of conversation to student’s eight years of little but written textbook grammar. After all, I guess they’ll need to actually speak English in order to teach in it. But I suppose it’s a bridge too far to expect the Xunta to ditch the ubiquitous dubbing of English language films for subtitles, as happens in our southern neighbour, Portugal. Which is years ahead in the teaching of English.

I was watching my team, Everton, beat Manchester City last night and was as impressed as anyone with a very neat bit of dexterity shown by one of the Everton players. In fact, the crowd rose as one to applaud the artistry. And it struck me that this sort of thing is what a bullfight audience gets so excited about. When it happens. Which is not terribly often, I suspect. But there was a lot less blood involved at Goodison Park than at the average bullfight. Or any bullfight, to be totally accurate. On the pitch, I mean. God knows what was going on on the terraces. Or are those days past now?

Finally . . . I mentioned the excellence of Basque tapas dishes a week or so ago. Now, comes the announcement that there’s going to be a university of gastronomy there. I imagine there’ll be a few Galicians wondering why Galicia has been passed over for this institution, given how highly they rate the local cuisine. Perhaps they can establish a place dedicated to shellfish. And sweet paprika. Interesting to see that the languages of instruction will be Spanish and English, not Basque.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Another sign of the times . . . In this wi-fi café tonight, the Smoking section is dominated, as ever, by young women but the Non-Smoking section is crowded with young men watching the Real Madrid match on the TV directly above my head. In the corner of the room. Where the plug socket for my laptop is. They seem to be under the impression this is a bar, not a café. Así son las cosas.

Talking of plug sockets . . . I was impressed to see two of these between each seat on the train I took to Vigo (and back) yesterday. This made an always-enjoyable trip even more pleasant than usual. Spanish trains may not move particularly rapidly but they’re of an excellent quality and the ticket inspectors are uncommonly civil.

Also impressive was the fact that the announcements were in Gallego, Spanish and English. Though it was a tad disconcerting to hear the Oxford English accent of a native speaker switch abruptly to the Spanish accent of another native speaker for the names of the stations.

As it happens, there was a huge storm in the early hours of Thursday morning and the train back from Vigo was delayed because of a pine tree on the line. The Spanish for pine is pino and my first thought was that they’d said pito, which I’d just been told at lunch was the Gallego for chicken. Which was a little confusing until they repeated the announcement. But, come to think of it, a lot of people laughed and we weren’t delayed for long. So perhaps it was a bloody chicken . . .

The best rail experience of yesterday, though, was the news that my age and wisdom entitle me to a card from Renfe – the tarjeta dorada – giving me a discount of 40% on weekday trains. I do hope the small print doesn’t exclude the night service to Madrid. If not, I’ll save a fortune this year.

Government statistics say that house prices in Spain fell only 6% last year and have now begun to rise in some parts of Spain. The general view is that ALL house price statistics in Spain are worthless, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Finally . . . A letter writer in El Mundo today complains of the ‘campaign against smokers’ and says no non-smoker is compelled to go into any of the [99%] of bars which permit smoking. Proof positive, I think, of my long-held theory that smoking destroys exactly those brain cells necessary to form a judgment about the habit. Which allows me to stay friends with intelligent people who smoke. It’s not really their fault. And they're not really stupid. Just brain-damaged. I should feel sorry for them. Actually, I do. Patronising bastard that I am.

Friday, January 15, 2010

In the UK – and, I suspect, the USA – the word ‘elite’ is taboo these days. Almost as bad as ‘judgmental’. So I was pleasantly surprised to see an editorial in one of the national papers making the point that, if the Spanish education system remains poor, it will prevent the formation an elite. But perhaps the word has a different connotation in Spanish. As, indeed, the word ‘education’ often does. Of course, I’m assuming the paper was making a critical comment, not a laudatory one.

It’s not a new number but it was interesting to hear the Spanish Labour Minster yesterday confirm that Spain’s black economy has reached the level of 20% of the official number. Except it hasn’t, says the rank-pulling Vice President for the Economy. So, pick your own number. But, anyway, it’s probably quite large.

Meanwhile, the head of the European Central Bank has taken time off from commenting on the woes of Greece to say that Spain “has work to do”. Which can’t really have come as much of a surprise to anyone.

Thanks to a BBC podcast, I had the opportunity recently to learn quite a lot about a member of the 60’s group, The Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band. One Vivian Stanshall by name. Specifically, I learned about a quirky film that I must try to find called “Rawlinson End”. For a taste of VS’s brand of humour, try this . . . His exploits with close friend Keith Moon are legendary. Perhaps the most notorious involves Stanshall going into a tailor's shop and admiring a pair of trousers. Moon then came in, posing as another customer, admired the same trousers and demanded to buy them. When Stanshall protested, the two men fought over them, splitting them in two so they ended up with one leg each. The tailor was by now beside himself but just then a one-legged actor, who’d been hired by Stanshall and Moon, came in, saw the trousers and proclaimed "Ah! Just what I was looking for.” Well, I liked it.

Finally . . . Galician Nationalism. I think it was a character in one of Steinbeck’s books who said something like “-isms and –ocracies, I’ve had enough of these. Give me facts!” Well, in response to the readers who claim I’m a Spanish Nationalist because I don’t agree with them, I say the salient facts are, firstly, that Galicia is not yet a nation and, secondly, that the people they have to convince to make it one are their fellow Galicians, not me. Meanwhile, the correct label for me is Democratic Status Quoist. As I’ve said several times, if the majority of people in Galicia, Scotland, Wales or wherever vote to secede and become an independent nation, then I will accept that their region/country is now a (probably poorer) nation. Until then, all else is mere talk. And that is definitely my last word on this subject. And I don’t mind how much you mock this view, Mr Cade, as I’m quite sure more people have laughed at your comments than at anything I’ve ever written. Which is rather sad really, given that I’m trying to amuse them and you’re not.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

What, some have asked, can the economically-crippled Spanish government hope to achieve during its current six-month presidency of the EU? Well, it could use it to burnish its domestic image, even at the risk of more rebuffs like the one experienced last week. According to this article “Sr Zapatero, battered domestically in opinion polls by the conservative opposition and facing record unemployment, is hoping he can recover some lost ground by capturing the European spotlight.” I guess it’s possible this risky strategy could succeed nationally while failing internationally. Which would, perhaps, endorse Alfred Mittington’s point that Sr Z is a clever chap who knows what he’s about when it comes to manipulating Spanish opinion. Well, he’s won two elections on the back of very little by way of achievement, so who knows? We will see.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, they say. Well, certainly not in this case

Interesting item on today’s news wires – “Two Galician nationalists have been arrested after a home-made bomb was found in the car they were driving to Pontevedra in the early hours of Thursday.” It makes you wonder. Perhaps it’s time for me to stop making references to this subject. As luck would have it, the baton appears to have just been passed to my fellow-blogger, Xoán-Wahn, whose orthography may not be enough to save him.

Admirer as I am of the Spanish government’s achievement in halving the number of road deaths in the last decade, I do wonder about the just-announced intention of the Pontevedra council to limit the speed to 30kph (or just over 20mph) on all the approach roads to the city. They say it’ll only increase travel times by three minutes. Which is possibly an attempt at humour. No doubt there’ll be many more of those amusing speed humps as well. From one extreme to the other in ten years. Impressive, no?

Finally – but still on the subject of driving . . . Regular readers will know why I laughed at the cartoon of a traffic cop fining someone for driving past a rock-fall warning sign without wearing a safety helmet. Stranger things have happened. Believe me.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Some of you will know that the Galician city of Santiago – or Santiago de Compostela, to give it its full monicker – has been the end point of a pilgrimage for more than a thousand years. But you may not know that the first comprehensive guide – complete with pictures – was produced in the 12th century. By a monk, I believe. And, of course, in Latin. This has now been translated into Gallego (Galician), which seems only too appropriate. Though I blinked at the reported cost of 180,000 euros. Nice work, if you can get it. And somebody obviously did.

Talking of the pilgrimage – or the Camino, as it’s normally called – a Spanish friend who’s done it was telling me this week that not only is it far from religious these days but it’s now seen as a pretty good way to, shall we say, make friends. Or ligar, in Spanish. When she reminded me, ahead of my own trek in May, that 2010 is one of the special years called Xacobeo (pronounced shackobeo in Gallego), I was compelled to ask whether it wouldn’t more correctly be called Xagobeo . . .

I wonder if that will mean anything to American readers.

I’ve had quite a few dialogues with Galician Nationalists over the years. Most have been civil and, while I may not share the opinions voiced, this has certainly brought me to a better understanding of their viewpoint. Moreover, I’ve occasionally wondered whether I’d be a Nationalist if I were a young Galician now. In the same way as I’ve asked myself, over the years, whether I would have been a Scottish or Welsh nationalist if born there. Anyway, the latest dialogue was with an anonymous reader and can be found in the Comments to my post of Jan 9. In the end, we agreed to disagree but I couldn’t help think back on the exchanges when I read this comment today from the writer I mentioned last week, Rysard Kapuscinski:- Nationalism cannot exist in a conflict-free situation: it cannot exist as a thing devoid of grudges and claims. Wherever the nationalism of one group rears its head, immediately, as if from the ground, this group’s enemies will spring up.

Or, putting it the way it often is – Nationalists define themselves by their enemies.

Now, wouldn’t it be a wonderful coincidence if Mr Kapuscinski came from that other Galicia, in his home country of Poland?

Finally . . . Reader Ferrolano will be interested to hear the Spanish government has ordered that the last (equestrian) statue of Franco in the country be removed from its resting place in the Arsenal Militar in Ferrol. It was shifted there a few years ago, after several decades in the pride of place of the main square of his city of birth. Given the little fellow’s attitude to Gallego, I doubt the plaque is in this language. Now, there was a non-Galician-Nationalist who merited the accusation that, if you’re not one of these, you must – by definition - be a Spanish Nationalist. But who wouldn’t want to be defined as an enemy of the Generalisimo? So, we're all Galician Nationalists now, I guess.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reading through the Galicia chapter of Richard Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain, I’m forced to the conclusion – from the numerous references – that he assumes all 19th century travellers carried trout-fishing equipment with them. Perhaps they did. And, if you think old George Borrow didn’t pull his punches, you should take a look at what RF has to say. Though possibly not if you’re Galician.

Talking of negativity . . . I see the British government has also thrown a bucket of cold water over President Zapatero’s grand scheme for the next ten wonderful years of the EU. Following on from the massive success of the Lisbon Treaty. But we can probably put this down to typically arrogant British disdain of anything Spanish. Though I do feel some of us have moved on a bit. The man himself is now doing his best to save face, though possibly finding the international community less susceptible to his mendacious and pollyanna-ish way with words. I imagine he’ll be keeping a low profile from now on. Though my friend Alfred might disagree. He’s sent me this message today, suggesting President Z may have other arrows in his quiver . . .

The name is MITTINGTON, not WITTINGTON, you orthographic Liverputian!

Other than that, the fact that Frau Merkel, like a Walking Walkyrie, ruthlessly sabres down Don ZP's neatest scheme to solve an internal Spanish problem, because she is loath to have the Mediterranean food-stamp nations dictate economic policy to the Bundesbank, does not imply that it wasn't meant that way. The Titanic also sank, but the original plan was that it would reach New York!

Just watch the cunning fellow! He'll find another way!


Well, Yes, Alfie. But the Titanic was not only meant to stay afloat but everyone thought it would. Did everyone think Zap’s kite would fly? Or do you believe he knew it wouldn’t? Is he really that perspicacious? Or devious? Well, OK. Yes to the last one. BTW – Sorry about calling you Wittington; after all, you’re not a Dick, are you? Don’t know what I was thinking of.

Talking of Spain and Britain, I see the Banco Santander is now advertising its intention to be Britain’s biggest bank. I find it hard to see them being larger than, say, HSBC in international terms so I’m guessing this means that, after the takeover of the ailing Abbey and Bradford & Bingley operations, they’re on the verge of having more branches than anyone else in the UK. This is a very Spanish way of looking at banking and I’m wondering whether their British outlets will, as here, be stuffed with people sitting at desks down the side of main hall, waiting for folk to walk in off the street without an appointment. Nice, but expensive, I would have thought.

Finally . . . I made some hotel bookings today for a group of friends coming to do the Camino with me end-May/early-June. I wasn’t too surprised that most of the receptionists volunteered that May was “rather a long way off” to be doing this. But the good side to this why-bother-now attitude in this last-minute country is that you can cancel and get all your money back until a month before the dates. Simply because no-one else will be even thinking of booking until then.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Well, Spain’s President, Sr Zapatero, didn’t have to wait long for a clear response to his proposal that EU members be sanctioned for failing to comply with tough economic criteria. In effect, Germany has summarily slapped it down. Which possibly reveals the flaw in the argument of my friend Alfred B. Whittington that it would provide a cloak for introducing harsh measures in Spain while pretending these were an EU imposition. It was never, ever going to fly. So, where next for the man who was so surprised the rest of Europe’s leaders didn’t take well to being lectured on economic stringency by the man who heads the Union’s weakest performing member? And why did he fail to see all this coming? My own guess is it’s because he’s got so used to getting away with murder here in Spain and has begun to believe in his own brilliance. Not to mention infallibility. After all, he’s only 3 points behind in the polls. Must have been a tough week for him, then.

Even before this development, The Economist had pointed out that “Editorials across the EU have mocked the idea of Mr Zapatero advising Europe on economic recovery.” But, as The Economist – like the FT – is a British publication, it must have been tempting to dismiss this as just another example of the centuries-old British contempt for Spain identified by the ABC journalist I cited the other day. Anyway, The Economist does provide an explanation of why, as it puts it, “Mr Zapatero’s government is making such a meal of the fact that Spain took over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on January 1st.”

One element of this meal-making was an invitation to the Secretary of State for the EU to perform an honorary kick-off yesterday at the match between Real Madrid and Marbella. For which he was roundly booed by the assembled aficionados of both teams. Perhaps this is the beginning of the end of Spain’s love affair with Europe.

A group of my Spanish friends were telling me today just how much food they’d eaten during the heavy round of internal and external entertaining over the Christmas-New Year period. When I suggested the Spanish talked so much so as to avoid eating even more, they had the decency to laugh and point out they’d long ago perfected the ability to do both at the same time. With which I found it hard to disagree. What’s most impressive, of course, is that everyone in the party is both eating and talking simultaneously, simultaneously.

Finally. . . I’d like to pay a heartfelt tribute to the chap who was walking on my right this morning and who, having decided to turn into a shop on my left, started to walk in front of me but then stopped and walked behind me. This is unprecedented and, before I leave here, I will endeavour to get a statue erected to The Unknown Polite Man of Pontevedra. Designs ideas welcome.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

El Pais today carries a survey suggesting 56% of Spaniards support the government’s plan to ban smoking in public places. Interestingly, though, the greatest antipathy to it comes from ‘young people’, who are always defined in Spain as those below 35. I imagine that, if this segment were broken down further, you’d find that young women are even more unhappy than the young men. Which raises a thought . . . Given that unemployment among the ‘young’ is above 40%, who’s paying for all the cigarettes currently being smoked by them?

El Pais did make one nice comment. It said that the percentage of people strongly objecting to the ban (36%) was higher than that normally given for the total of smokers in the country – 33%. Which rather endorses the suspicion many of us have long harboured that the latter statistic was a nonsense. Like many here.

The front page of one of our local papers today reminded me of how different things can be from the UK. It contained a long report on one of the fox-slaughtering events which take place around this time of year, together with pictures of some of the 47 creatures shot "in the interests of ecological balance.” And not for pleasure, of course..

My thanks to all those who provided Gallego words for ‘drizzle”. The one which I felt best conveyed the essence of almost-nothingness of the Bilbao variety was susuru. Perhaps because it’s close to ‘susurration’, or whispering. I’m guessing they have the same Latin origin, with susuru meaning ‘whispering rain’.

It’s always risky throwing a big stone into the boiling pond of Iberian languages but I was interested to read in Richard Ford’s Handbook that, but for the 13th century decision of Alfonso the Wise to codify his laws in Castilian, Gallego would now be the predominant tongue in the Peninsula. But I wasn’t too surprised that my Galician friends are a tad sceptical about this as, firstly, no nationalist has ever made this claim to me and, secondly, Alfonso is normally cited positively by nationalists as someone who favoured Gallego for his poetry. Not as the idiot who screwed up the chances of Gallego becoming pre-eminent.

And talking of Gallego . . . I doubt there’ll be many takers but should you be interested to know what the Conselleiro for Education in the Galician Xunta has to say about the new education law, click here for an interview with a local paper. It’s in Spanish at least.

Finally . . . It was all of ten minutes between my arrival back in Pontevedra last week and the first time someone walked into me. Though this isn’t strictly correct. As she was still facing the café she was exiting, the woman actually backed into me. And then, five minutes later, another woman forced me to stop as she moved from the shopping gallery entrance to the taxi she’d summoned. As I frequently say, the Spanish are among the most sociable and affable people on earth so this habit of comporting themselves as if they were the only person on the face of it seems rather inconsistent. Not to mention downright rude. Unless you’re Spanish, obviously. But are they unique in the world in this regard? I've lived in six countries and visited many more but can’t recall it happening elsewhere. Even in the middle of the Tehran bazaar.

I will get used to it one day. As I keep saying.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

A short while ago, I invented (I think) the word ‘un-ruley’, to encapsulate the much-documented Spanish practice of playing fast and loose with rules which are personally inconvenient. I mention this now because I want to address two specific areas. 1. Smoking, and 2. Education in Gallego here in Galicia.

As regards smoking, we’re all waiting for the Ministress of Health to tell us when exactly this year it will become illegal to light up in any public place in Spain. And then some of us will be watching with interest how much notice is taken of the new law. Meanwhile, the government has started a PR blitz on the effects of passive smoking, said to be a major justification for what many Spaniards regard as a breach of their human rights. And articles have begun to appear on just how flouted the existing law is. This is the provision introduced a couple of years ago to compel places of more than 100 square metres to segregate their smokers and non-smokers, while smaller bars could do what they liked. Allegedly, there are 350,000 bars in Spain which exceed this limit but only 3% of these are complying with the law. Which gives rise to the strong suspicion that it's not terribly well policed. If at all. But I’m very lucky. Both my favourite wi-fi café and my favourite bar have provided separate smoking facilities, which will presumably be unnecessary in due course. Perhaps. Vamos a ver. We will see.

As regards education in Gallego, this is of no real relevance to me personally, as my daughters are aged 28 and 33 and, anyway, live elsewhere. But I know it’s a subject which exercises my friends and neighbours here. And it’s also of interest to a British reader who wants to bring his family to Santiago for a couple of years and wonders whether they’ll have to learn (and be educated) in one or two languages. I wish I knew. Despite the fact I have several teacher friends here, getting a straight answer to this question is proving rather difficult. The existing law obliges at least state schools to provide equal teaching in both Spanish and Gallego. And – until the recent change of government - there seem to have been concerted efforts to compel schools to have most of the major subjects taught in Gallego and the minor ones (the marías) in Spanish. The new (right of centre) government is backtracking on this and, in doing so, has once again proved that, although you may not be able to please all the people all the time, you certainly can displease all the people all the time. Essentially, they’ve proposed that a third of subjects be taught in Spanish, a third in Gallego and a third in English. This, of course, flies in the face of reality and I wasn’t surprised last night to hear one of my teacher friends suggest that the (impossible) provision in respect of English was really a cloak to allow parents to choose either Gallego or (more likely) Spanish where English wasn’t available. So, what is the law? What will it be next week? Is the current law being complied with now?: And will any new law be complied with next year? I haven’t the faintest bloody idea. Welcome to Galicia.

On the subject of Gallego . . . An anonymous reader has taken me to task in this comment on the article I cited yesterday – “It is thanks to newspapers like ABC and journalists like that chap Herrera that the Spanish nationalistic view reigns little challenged in Spain. Were it not for them, for their brainwashing and propaganda, their whinging about the English, the French or the Catalan, would be replaced by your own about having to “live in Galician” in a country called ... Galicia (or Galiza, in Galician)”. Well, it’s a matter of (juridical and non-juridical) opinion whether I live in a country called Galicia/Galiza, as opposed to a region in a country called Spain. But the point I really wanted to stress is that I have no objection at all to everything being in Gallego. I’d simply like it to be in Spanish as well. As things were in Bilbao.

Talking of the Basque country . . . Here’s a fascinating little film of Orson Wells, chatting to someone in a village in the French Basque Country. Which also may or may not be a real country.

I’m indebted to Richard Ford for the information that, at least in the mid-19th century, it was a compliment to tell a Spanish woman she had the eyes of an ox. I’ll be quoting more in due course from his famous Handbook for Travellers in Spain that I’ve just started to read but, should you want to read all of this, you can now download it either from Google or from here.

Finally . . . My post of yesterday has stimulated my friend Alfred B. Mittington to send me this encomium to the Spanish president, Sr. Zapatero. Alfred is a bit of a cynic but, since I’ve often said the Spanish are brilliant at the EU game (cf. poor Portugal), I have to go along with him on this . . .

Oh, but all you good people are still such innocent, trusting dupes! Sitting ducks for one as astute as Mr Zapatero in the little matter of staying in the saddle with your reputation unscathed.

Indeed it is an amazing paradox that a Spanish Prime Minister, who is presiding over one of the worst run economies in Europe, should so strongly suggest that badly run economies be punished and brought back into the fold of accountability. What is the solution to this astounding riddle?

Well, here it comes: Mr Zapatero, who is no fool, knows very well that in the course of this next year, he will have to apply some of the most ruthless emergency measures, budget cuts and anti-social legislation in Spanish history. If he doesn’t, the land will simply sink into bankruptcy and third world mayhem. Yet, his priority concern in six years governing has always been to be perceived as the Protector of the Poor, at all costs, come what may: students, old folk, immigrants, minimum wage earners, abused women, you name it. Not only does this gentlemen sincerely believe that this is his Mission on Earth, he also owes his votes and his position to this Image. Therefore he is loath to be seen as the one to propose such harsh measures. How to wriggle out of the dilemma? Ah, here comes a Master at Work! His solution is that the EU obliges Spain, with extreme prejudice, to apply these emergency measures, probably by the mouth of poor Mr Van Rompuy, who therewith finally discovers his niche and his true utility.

And of course, compliance with the New Bureaucratic Rules will come with a tiny, no-questions-asked compensation in the shape of additional European emergency funding…

If anyone is still wondering why the Spanish opposition could never dislodge one as fault-prone and quixotic as Don ZP, the above scenario shows it. The man is simply too good at the game!

Alfred B Mittington

(Former Political Commentator of The Daily Meticulous)

Friday, January 08, 2010

You have to have a twinge of sympathy for the global warming scientists. After all, they may be right with their doomsday projections. But it doesn’t help that various places in the world are currently experiencing their coldest winter conditions in many decades. Or that 2009 didn’t turn out to be as warm as predicted. Then, of course, there’s the scandal surrounding the East Anglia data and the controversy around the business interests of one or two leading lights in the AGW “community”. Such is life.

A propos . . . When I came to live along the Galician coast in 2000, I was told it snowed here only once every hundred years or so. Well, here’s the evidence that flakes do occasionally fall here.

More interestingly, this is at least the second time in nine years this has happened, if not the third. No wonder there are Global-Warming sceptics around. And I wonder how long it’ll be before the conventional wisdom returns to what it was a few years ago, viz. that we’re heading for a minor ice age.

Reader Richard sent me the following Financial Times headline this morning and, but for the density of the cigarette smoke surrounding me in the wi-fi café, I might well have fallen off my chair in laughter:- Spain aims to bring EU states into line. Zapatero seeks powers for Commission to police compliance with ‘2020 strategy’. Interestingly, the Spanish economy watcher, Edward Hugh, picks up on this theme here.

Being neither right wing nor a Catholic, I only flick through the ABC newspaper when there’s absolutely nothing else on the rack. But, as luck would have it, this was the case today. And so I was able to enjoy a polemical little piece by one Carlos Herrera, inspired (if that’s the right word) by the above(widely-read!) FT article. This was headed “The insufferable, centuries-old British contempt” and in it Sr Herrera confesses the only Brit he likes is Prince Charles. The rest of us are unpleasant, disdainful, boring drunkards who are afraid of the French but look down on the Spanish. Being of the Right, he then goes on to say that, though he shares the views of the FT on Spain’s socialist government and our parlous economy, it doesn’t lie in the mouth of a British newspaper to comment on them. Essentially, Sr Herrera – who seems unaware the FT is an international journal which criticises every country’s government - is an upmarket version of the Spanish internet lout who screams abusively that, while what you write about Spain might well be true, you have no right to say it as you’re not Spanish. And, as is ever the case, the angry writer fails to apply the logic of this stricture to his own views of Britain and the British. All in all it’s a very tabloid bit of writing for a serious paper and so I wonder whether it’s actually a spoof, as it certainly made me laugh. If not, it must be Sr H playing to the gallery, even though he could well enjoy visiting Britain and have some British friends. He might even speak English. Be all that as it may, the article ends with the word coño. Or ‘cunt’. Which may or may not be entirely appropriate.

Other cafés in Pontevedra, I’m told, have raised their prices by up to 10%, leaving us all still wondering where our much-vaunted deflation is. If you haven’t already read it, here’s how Edward Hugh addresses this issue in the article cited above:- Whatever happened to the 'deflation scare'? Well basically, it has been put on ice. But it will come back. If we look at what the EU are proposing in Greece, it is not only a reduction in the current fiscal deficit, it is a restoration of competitiveness. This means internal devaluation. And by the same logic this is the policy which will need to be introduced in Spain under the "2020 (vision) strategy" - using powers which José Luis Zapatero is himself proposing. Basically, the fact prices rose in 2009 is not good news; it is simply a symptom of the inability of Spain's economy and society to correct itself unaided. Meanwhile, Edward is lucky enough to patronise a bar where there is price stasis.

Finally . . . Here is someone else’s view of flying, which echoes mine precisely:- “I reckon that full-body scanners - some stranger being able to see not only whether your knickers are made of dynamite but also what you had for your lunch - could be the tipping point for air travel. Flying is already a god-awful experience in the main, boring yet frightening. Now comes this latest piece of technology to delay and humiliate the long-suffering passenger further.” Quite. To be avoided at almost any cost. IMHO, as they say.