Sunday, February 28, 2010

Good news re the Spanish economy; Poor polticians; The Spanish Property Market; and Galcian Feismo.

Well, we didn’t get our much-predicted ‘perfect storm’ in Galicia yesterday but here’s another one that’s scheduled to arrive soon.

To counter all the gloom about the Spanish economy, here’s an upbeat article from today’s El País in which the writer insists The Spanish Patient will soon leave the intensive care unit as its fundamentals are sound. Though he does admit that the lack of transparency in the banking sector gives rise to reasonable concerns about the country’s health. And that something needs to be done about it, if credibility is to be regained.

A few weeks ago I was going to remark on a proposed law under which Spanish politicians would have to provide details of their assets. Specifically, I was going to express the thought that it might be a good idea to extend this to their spouses and relatives. Anyway, I was reminded of this when reading that the President of the Valencian government – whose head is currently wreathed in accusations of corruption – had declared that he drives a very old car and has only 600 euros in the bank. You almost have to admire his cheek. But, then, the judge in his case is an old friend and this seems to count in Spain.

The Spanish property market is something of a mystery to most of us. One thing, at least, is clear – normal Anglo-Saxon principles don’t apply. Whether there’s a cogent set of Hispanic principles to which everyone here subscribes is less clear. But, anyway, I wasn’t too surprised to read that Santiago de Compostela boasts a large number of empty flats whose owners refuse to lower the selling price even though they’re ‘old’ and have been on the market for four or five years. One possible explanation is that most of the owners have emigrated so “don’t need to sell until they get the price they first thought of.” Which might now be a lot longer than the four-five years so far.

Which reminds me . . . I read today that Spanish young folk are the last in Europe to leave home for an independent life. Not news in itself, of course, but I was sympathetic to the claim that one major factor is the difficulty of getting rented property at reasonable prices. This must be the reason, I guess, why one Spanish couple I know have their three 25-35 year old kids living at home, even though they all have good jobs. Of course, the other reason could be that the kids are smart enough to realise that paying not so much as a red sou towards their keep is quite a good deal.

Finally . . . Though Galicia is a naturally beautiful part of the world, it also has a reputation for having some of the ugliest houses in Spain. In part, of course, this is a reflection of hundreds of years of poverty. And of the fact it’s not as hot up here as down in, say, Andalucia. And it’s not to say there aren’t some magnificent granite properties here, small as well as large. I’m prompted to mention this by an article in today’s Voz de Galicia on the Worst Bodges of 2009. To be honest, I saw something even uglier today but didn’t have my camera with me. Maybe tomorrow.

And talking of a lovely stone property . . .

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Galician storms; Spanish economic forecasts; Spanish pensions; Cachibol; and Prize-winners

Well, the wind arrived at 2.30 and then left again at 3.00. But it reappeared around 5.20 and blew for a bit longer. Though not very strenuously. The blossom is still on the cherry tree, the street rubbish bins are still exactly where they were, and the Leaning Lamposts of Poio are still standing, no more or less askew than yesterday. Bit of a washout, really. Unless something happens tonight.

It’s been a bad week for the credibility of the Spanish government. Such as it was. Both Standard & Poors in the USA and the EU in Brussels have dismissed their financial forecasts as over-optimistic. Which shouldn’t really surprise anyone, given their track record. And their need to avoid the take-over of economic management by Brussells.

What did surprise me was a chart in one of our papers today showing what percentage of final salary is received by pensioners in many developed economies. Guess which two countries top the list – Why, Greece and Spain, of course. With 95% and 81%, respectively. France comes in at 53%, Germany at 44% and the USA at 38%. Who on earth needs 95% - or even 81% - of their final salary after retirement? Perhaps it made a little more sense when salaries were low on the international scale but this is hardly the case in Spain these days. At least not for those on the infamous ‘permanent’ contracts. No wonder the Spanish government thinks it has a problem serious enough to address now, under the guise of recession measures. For details of the time-bomb, click here.

To be even-handed here’s a comment on the British economy – “Barclays Capital concluded that the outlook for long-term growth – and therefore the already calamitous state of the public finances – is almost certainly worse than the Treasury has been forecasting. We are in a hole all right, and there is worryingly little sign in our liberal democracies of the strength of will and vision that will be needed to get us out.”

And here’s a new bit of Spanglish, the first I’ve seen for a while – Cachibol. Or Catchball. Though I’ve no idea what this is. Probably not a group of young girls in a circle chucking a tennis ball at each other.

Talking of languages . . . I saw a sign on the library door today about French and Gallego Book Clubs. Sad to say, there doesn’t seem to be either an English or Spanish equivalent. Anyway, the poster for the French Club said the level required was Very Good Intermediate. And the Gallego sign said Virtual o Presencial. It took me five minutes to work out this wasn’t a reference to any sort of level but an indication you could do it from home or in person. I think. Presumably your level doesn’t matter. Or everyone is assumed to be very good. So I may go along and confuse them.

Come rain or shine, boom or bust one thing you can be sure of is that Telefónica’s profits are going to keep on rising. If you’re an investor, you’d be daft not to have some of their shares in your portfolio, even if you hate the company as much as the rest of us. But this recommendation could be the kiss of death for them. With a bit of luck.

Finally . . . Here’s reader Richard’s two responses to my request for sentences using ‘clerical and ‘lay’. They won first and second prizes. And the third prize, actually:-

Due to a clerical error, your local lay preacher will not be making his usual Saturday night sermons on the mount. 

By clerical order from the Bishopric, it was announced that none would get to lay the preacher.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bloody Galicians; (Non)Austerity measures; Spanish rudeness; and Galicia's almost interminably wet winter.

Galicia’s papers are naturally well-stocked today with comments on the insults levelled by the lady politician I cited yesterday. She has since excused herself on the grounds that what she really meant was merely that the two leading politicians were both indecisive. Which, at best, is disingenuous. She’s also declined to apologise, taking refuge behind what we might call the classic Spanish justification for racist or even merely gratuitously insulting remarks – “I didn’t mean to upset anyone. So I’ve nothing to be sorry for.” Anyway, here’s Trevor over at Kalebeul with his typically robust take on this brouhaha.

I mentioned yesterday the government had warned that civil servants could well have their salary increase rate reduced in the years 2011-13. However, this was only the morning announcement. Later in the day, someone else corrected this impression and insisted that salary increases would be as per an agreement with the unions of a while back. The government also announced that the state pension will increase 3.5% this year, against a current inflation rate of around 1%. None of which smells much of austerity, does it? Perhaps they’re raising the bases before someone comes in and puts some steel in their backbone. And allows them – as I’m sure Alfie Mittington would claim – to get some kudos for having at least tried to do the right thing by the working man and woman, before Brussels or the IMF overruled them.

The government and the opposition here have had their first meeting aimed at reaching some sort of ‘state pact’ to address the country’s economic challenges. It didn’t go well, by all accounts. But you really have to ask if there’s any point in even trying to reach inter-party consensus when members of the government can’t even agree among themselves from one hour to the next what its policy is.

Which reminds me . . . The same President Zapollyanna who’s being doing his utmost for some time to cosy up to Cuba, yesterday had some harsh things to day on the death of the leading political dissident there. While in gaol, of course. I do hope his relatives were able to take some comfort from this posthumous concern.

As for the Greek Tragedy, the question arises as to whether brutal real-politique and political self-preservation are now saddling up to ride to the protection of these and other feckless Mediterranean spendthrifts? It’s beginning look like it is. Bugger moral hazard. What’s good for the banks is good for other miscreants too, it seems.

Spaniards and their consideration for strangers has been a regular topic in this blog for years now and long-term readers will be (more than) familiar with my theory as why the affable, charming and even ‘noble’ Spanish can also come across as the rudest people in the world. So I was amused to read that my fellow-blogger up in Santiago university, Xoán-Wahn has been struggling to fight off this conclusion on his own part. With limited success, it seems. All of which reminds me that I realised this morning that my three weeks in the UK later this year will coincide with one of Toni’s absences at sea. What a terrible waste of golden silence.

Finally . . . There certainly was a weather lull today. The sun even crept out for a few minutes, allowing me to take this ‘before’ foto of the nascent blossom on the tree in my front garden. I’ll post the ‘after’ foto once the ‘extratropical cyclone’ heading our way has blown through tomorrow. If I'm still alive.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Insulted Galicians; Greek diplomacy; The Spanish consumer fights back; Galician winter weather; and more sacerdotal sex

The dictionary of the Spanish Academy used to include – and may still do so – definitions of the word ‘Galician’ (Gallego) which included ‘stupid’ and ‘stammering’. So, it was bound to ruffle feathers in the Galician dovecot when the lady(?) leader of a small Spanish political party referred to the Spanish President as “A Gallego in the most pejorative sense of the word.” Not content with that, she then went on to describe the Leader of the Opposition in just one word – Gallego. Which at least happens to have the merit of being strictly true, as he’s from Pontevedra. But that’s not what she meant, of course. Is it any wonder that people question the calibre of would-be national politicians here?

Insensitive and arrogant as she now seems, the woman in question clearly ranks as a diplomatic genius next to Greece’s deputy prime minister. Despite the fact his government has a large cap in its hand, he’s taken to insulting the country’s main benefactors, Germany. Thieving Nazis, apparently. The Germans are naturally less than impressed with this and one wonders whether it's increased the chances of Greece’s bailout coming from the IMF, rather than the EU. This was politically unacceptable yesterday but, as they say, a week is a long time in politics

In Ireland, civil servants have had their salaries cut and I believe the same might be in store for their colleagues in Greece. Here in Spain, though, the government has said the funcionarios will merely have the rate of increase reduced in a year or two. Which might not be too painless, given that in recent years – 2009 included – their pay has increased more than the rate of inflation. They must be shivering under the cold winds of austerity.

Talking of which, click here for the latest bit of pessimism about Spain’s economy from the Wall Street Journal. Which is a senior member, of course, of the Anglo-Saxon Conspiracy. I particularly liked the comment from one observer – “Spaniards don't yet understand that their comfortable way of life, cushioned by the state, is about to change. They still think like Cubans and live like Yankees”. And I fear he wasn’t only talking about civil servants, who at least appear to have every justification to think and act like this.

The Spanish Consumers’ Association is asking us to vote for The Worst Spanish Company, The Worst Business Practice and The Worst Advertisement. The competition is expected to be very tough but the cast-iron forecast is that no winner will take the slightest bit of notice of the odium accruing. Customers in Spain are even more of a nuisance than elsewhere.

Yes another day of high winds and heavy rain here in Galicia. But the good news is that things will quieten down tomorrow. Before the worst storm of the winter hits us on Saturday night. I'b better take a foto of the cherry blossom during the lull tomorrow. It could be in for a very brief appearance.

Finally . . . It seems the priest I cited last night also worked as a gigolo to part-fund his extramural activities. He boasted he was well-hung. But not from a cross, I guess. I like the fact one of his parishes is called Noez, which is quite close to the word nuez, meaning ‘nut’. By the way - the priest confessed to parishioners during a recent mass that he had "misused their donations". Now, there’s true diplomacy at work!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Inter-racial relations in the Spanish empire; Social stability in depressed Spain; Galician winter weather; and The laying on of more than hands.

In his book “Empires of the Atlantic World”, John Elliott paints a richly textured picture of Spanish colonial society after years of intermarriage between various races. Some of the resulting descriptive terms I’d heard of but not all. So . . .
The offspring of Spaniards and Indians were mestizos.
The offspring of colonists and blacks were mulatos
The offspring of Indians and blacks were zambos.
Needless to say, the exact colour of one’s skin was important but Elliott adds that “The barriers of segregation were far from being impassable. In New Spain at least, it was possible to remove the taint of Indian, though not African, blood over the course of three generations by successive marriages to the caste that ranked next above in the pigmentocratic order.” In addition, the cash-strapped Spanish government also later found it convenient to sell certificates classifying mixed-race folk as ‘Spaniards. Within this system of “legalised ethnic flexibility’, it was even possible – under the so-called gracias al sacar – for mulattoes to move from black to white. Which was never possible, of course, in Anglo America.

But back to today . . .Do you ever get the feeling the chances of anyone understanding economics are as low as those of biologists fully understanding the human body? I ask this because, while consumer spending has risen in one of Europe’s weakest economies (Spain) it’s fallen in one of the strongest (France). Our resident Jeremiah says the latter – and other bad data – is increasing fears of double-dip recession in Europe. I think I’ll flip a coin to see if this is true or not.

Here in Spain, we continue to see little of the social unrest currently visible in Greece, despite the overall unemployment rate being close to 20% and the youth rate being above 40%. I suspect you’d get opinions equivalent to the number of people you asked as to why this is. But it does raise the question of whether things are as bad as the bare statistics suggest. The first demonstrations organised by the unions took place on Monday night in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia but don’t appear to have been a huge event. The unions claim there were 60,000 on the streets of Madrid, against an estimate of only 9,000 from the police. With more austerity measures considered inescapable, it’ll be interesting to see if this is the calm before the storm.

When I first came to live here in late 2000, you could still see cheap shops called Todo a 100. Or everything at the price of 100 pesetas. From memory, this was around 0.54 euros. Once the euro was established, the name changed to Todo a 1 Euro. And today I saw a new shop in Pontevedra – not something you can say often these days – called Todo a 2 Euros. Not bad in less than ten years – an almost fourfold increase. Is this eloquent testimony to Spain’s much-cited reduced international competitiveness? Or just an indication of the imperviousness to recession of Pontevedra’s funcionario-heavy bourgeoisie?

But I have more important things to worry about. I again have a mouse living in my washing machine, using the detergent compartment as a dining room for the eating of bits of dry dog-food it’s taken via the hole chomped in the bag. Mouse manners being what they are, it’s also using the place as a toilet, of course. Since I’ve allergic – and averse – to cats, if the notices of eviction I’ve put up don’t work, I’ll be forced to buy a new trap. I would use the one I’ve got for the rats at the bottom of the garden but this is heavy-duty and I’ve previously seen mice having a fiesta on the plate, with no untoward consequences.
Winter in Galicia is always on the grey and damp side but this year has been worse than any of the nine I’ve endured to date, with the obvious exception of the first (2000-1), when it rained virtually every day from the beginning of November to the middle of June. But it’s not all bad news. I picked the first daffodil bloom from my garden today; the mimosa trees are developing their yellow blanket; and there’s lots of pink blossom emerging on the (cherry?) tree in my front garden. Whether this will withstand another day of wind and rain as bad as today’s, we wait to see. But I take comfort that spring is on the wing and that it won’t be long before the smell of jasmine greets me every time I open the front door or arrive at the gate. Shame about the wisteria killed by the dust from Toni’s marble cutting a year or two ago.

Finally . . . Click here for further evidence of the wealth of the Catholic Church in Spain. Then feel free to make up your own funny sentence containing the words ‘clerical’ and ‘lay’. There’ll be a prize for the best. Honest.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Archive success, of sorts; Politics among the Spanish judiciary; The Greek tragedy-cum-farce; and Alfie on European differences

Well, I eventually got to see some archives yesterday, in the place I first started at a couple of abortive weeks ago. To be honest, the hour I spent perusing a town census of 1857 (the original document, I believe) didn’t throw up anything on the two residents I’m interested in but there were one or two fascinating findings. Firstly, the most common occupation was that of shoemaker, which seemed odd. One possible explanation, I guess, is that I was concentrating on the barrio in which I knew one of the men had lived, which could well have been the centre of this activity in the town. I was also interested to see that a frequent (and sad) entry in the Occupation column was the single word ‘Poor’. Perhaps people on the Spanish version of Victorian poor relief. But the most fascinating fact to emerge was that there were quite a lot of people in their 90s (including one couple aged 96 and 91) but very few in their 70s and 80’s. Almost as if not many folk made it past 69 but those they did could expect to go on for another twenty or thirty years.

The other observation I made in the archives was one I may have mentioned before – viz. that the staff there includes a young man who gives the impression of being the most bored individual on the planet. Possibly because, during four visits to this place, I’ve yet to catch him actually doing anything. He also looks decidedly unhappy but this may because he’s not allowed to have the white coat worn by his four or five marginally-more-active colleagues. I wonder if he’ll last out until retirement in about thirty-five years time

I was pleased to see from this article that I’m not the only one here who doesn’t understand exactly what’s going on (nor why) in respect of Spain’s famous judge Baltasar Garzón. I guess the article rather endorses my comments of the other day about elements of the 'Spanish model’ that need to be addressed, if international goodwill is felt to be desirable.

My friend Dwight is keeping me well informed of US opinion on the Greek imbroglio. Here’s Irwin Stelzer with his pungent comments on the subject. Elsewhere it’s reported that anti-German feeling – allegedly something of the past – is on the rise in Greece. And rather complicating things, I imagine. That’s the bloody trouble with humans; they react badly to things that cut across the grain of human nature, no matter how well intended. As with Communism. And now with top-down Europeanism. Sad but true. Hence my long-standing pessimism in respect of the EU, to set against the optimism of reader Moscow, for example. Putting it as Irwin Stelzer does, history matters.

Stelzer also points out that, given the exposure of German and French banks to Spanish debt, “Spain's balance sheet is one of those receiving closer scrutiny.” But I guess President Zapollyanna will see this lingering spotlight as further evidence of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy.

Just before posting this, I went to see Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies at the social centre of one of our Caixas. As the film reached its (very) dramatic denouement, the tension was unintentionally shattered when a reference to Benidorm reduced the previously attentive audience to a state of helpless laughter. Still, no one had arrived late and nor had anyone left early, so they deserved some reward.

Finally . . . My good friend Alfred B. Mittington has written to me again, providing this commentary on a cultural difference between northern and southern Europeans, currently centre stage because of the possible need for some of the latter to be bailed out by some of the former.

Incidentally, a reader has suggested the setting up of an Alfred B Mittington Appreciation Page on Facebook. Anyone interested should get in touch with me on colindavies@terra.es

Bounty is in the eye of the beholder
As the Brussels Farce and Greek Bail-out Tragedy unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of several worthwhile contributions which recently appeared on Thoughts from Galicia, because they are so very illustrative of the grand emotional clash between North and South which is now in the making. One of them is the piece on Spanish lotteries posted in last December 21st by this Danish (?) gentleman Peter Missler. As readers were quick to point out: it is a pretty outdated piece and sometimes ill-informed. Yet it also contains a diamond in the mud, a notion worthwhile remembering as the North-South conflict takes shape; to wit: the observation that Mediterraneans are in the habit of relying on Luck or Loot for their riches.

This is, I think, essentially correct. Due to the great insecurity of wealth over many centuries, Spaniards and other Latin nations have come to feel uncomfortable with petty middle-class wealth, have begun to question the usefulness of hard work and slow saving, and hence made their dreams gravitate to that One Stroke of Luck, in the shape of a hidden treasure, a business Pelotazo, or a winning lottery ticket. Yet the emotional evolution does not stop there, and its further consequences are going to play a pivotal role in the coming months. So it makes some sense to spell out the positions.

Let me try to put it in a nutshell. Without meaning this as any sort of moral judgement, I think it is not unfair to say that our Mediterranean friends do not perceive wealth and knowledge as a result of virtue (hard work, study, saving, thrift) but rather as a Gift from God, a coincidence, a stroke of Good Fortune tossed somebody’s way for no explicit reason. Having been brought up, furthermore, in an environment of strong family cohesion and solidarity between the dispossessed (both of them admirable phenomena in my book!), they next feel deeply that any such Boon ought to be shared with friends and family. The lottery makes a fine example once again. John Hooper, in his book on modern Spain [“The New Spaniards”, chapter 12], described somewhat baffled how one winner of the Christmas Gordo spoke perfectly naturally, and without any hard feelings, about dividing up his winnings evenly among his brothers and sisters and in-laws. The man did not begrudge this at all. It was his duty, what was expected from him. And what he might expect from them in their turn when the roles were reversed.

Colin Davies’s own hilarious anecdote from his English conversation class shows how this sacred principle even pervades the realm of knowledge and learning. When one of his students showed up, after she had milked a friend for the secret surprise subject of tomorrow’s English writing exam (the friend has landed an advantageous job - how can he refuse to share his fortune with his pals?), she wanted a ready-made text which she could then learn by heart and pass off as her own on-the-spot improvisation… What any northern puritan would regard as a scandalous case of double fraud, the Spaniards in the class took with good cheer. They showed neither surprise nor indignation, but set to work to provide for her in her hour of need. Skill in English, you see, is just another random coincidence which one has the solemn duty to share with the less fortunate… The system is rigged against you anyway, see? And this is a legitimate way to gain your diploma and your next career-move…

What does all this have to do with the Greek bail-out? Well, more than appears at first sight. Anyone who over the last few weeks has read around and listened up a little for café conversations may have noticed a touch of irritation creeping into comments Spaniards make about Europe. Essentially the annoyance comes down to this: ‘If Europe does not bail us out when we’re in shambles, then what’s the sense of being a member of the club?’ What you see here is the projection of the Gordo-winning nephew who refuses to share his prize with in-laws onto inter-European relations. Germany, Holland and the Scandinavians are not rich, so the latent feeling goes, due to their hard labour, work ethic, savvy or sacrifice. No: they are super-wealthy because some unexplained voodoo mechanism made money float their way (enquire insistently and you may hear vague suggestions about colonies, slavery and collaboration with dictatorial regimes). Hence they ought to share their Good Fortune with their less lucky Club Med primos, and if they don’t, they are being very bad neighbours. A grinding grudge is born….

The trouble here is that the Northern nations feel a little differently about such matters, and those feelings are bubbling rapidly to the surface now that the financial consequences of Euro-foul-ups are becoming tangible. Unlike the Latin Mediterraneans, the Germans, Dutch, Danes and Swedes do believe that Fortune may be forced to come your way by hard work and cunning organisation. Naturally, misfortune does exist, and if it truly strikes someone, that person deserves our help. But he ONLY deserves our support if he has done all in his power to avoid penury; if he has worked as hard as we have, been earnest and careful, denied himself all indulgences and did what he could to avoid blunders. If he’s been lazy, or spendthrift, or gambling, or drinking, or bull-fighting on working days, he has lost his right to our alms. One might say that Rights are a function of Effort in protestant eyes, not of the Human Condition.

Would you like me to give you the corresponding Germanic attitude to family sharing? Here goes: I once knew this nice, middle-of-the-road, perfectly representative Heidelberg family in which the siblings were in the habit of selling each other their old cameras, study books and sweaters! Nobody found this odd in any way. And when I asked my then girlfriend if she didn’t feel it was – well - a little mercenary that her brother would sell her an old sweater, she shook her head vehemently and assured me that Certainly Not, for he had only asked her the fair price… Go talk to these people about the Deserving Poor; and you’ll come away with a definition of ‘Deserving’ which is about as narrow as a razor’s edge.

Hence Northern thinking on hallowed European ‘solidarity’ takes place along the lines of the old Ant and Grasshopper fable: we have worked hard, sacrificed much, denied ourselves luxuries and swallowed bitter pills so as to first build and then safeguard our wealth and our welfare. Meanwhile, them Southern bastards have lived big, overspent, fucked up and worried not about Tomorrow. So now let them rot. Because - as one ominous NYT article(1) said some days ago in so many words - why should I tighten my belt so that some lazy Greek may retire at 63? It is their own dumb fault. We already sponsored them forever in the past. And now we have to fund their frivolous behaviour once again? No Way José! Another grudge is born…

So there. One half of Europe thinks it is a solemn obligation of its richer neighbours to come to their rescue. The other half that its southern primos are bloody freeloaders who plan to sponge off them forever. You may think that such barstool-rancour is marginal to the Progress of Nations, but it is not. It is, on the contrary, a simmering subsoil fire, which will burst to the surface once the going gets tough enough. And it seems that the going is now getting pretty darn tough.

It is often said – and more often forgotten in practice – that we ought to learn from history. So let us learn a little here. Must I remind my readers what was the fuse that brought about the Lutheran Reformation? At that time, the most visible grudge against the Church of Rome was the selling of Indulgences for every possible sin, in exchange for huge sums of money which were then lasciviously spent on the building of St Peter’s in Rome, so that corrupt, philandering Popes might parade a prestige-object to the world. Not from my back pocket, cried the thrifty Germans, and cut their ties with Rome. A little later, the tiny Dutch nation got a mighty tired of being taxed by their Spanish overlords, so that an Escorial might be built and ill-conceived religious wars might be waged forever. They rose in revolt, all seven muddy gin-drinking herring-stenching peat bogs of them, standing up against the greatest empire the world had so far seen. And won… Talk about the strength of a goodly grudge… (if fuelled by some sturdy glasses of jenever, that is!)

If things of such magnitude have happened in the past over a few Peter’s pennies, you may imagine what we are in for, speaking in terms of collective anger, as the full size of the bill presented by Brussels to the Northern taxpayer gets revealed over the coming weeks (there is already mention of soft loans to the tune of 25 billion Euros!). Must we be afraid of furious street-protests in Athens and Madrid? Don’t be. Look instead to the barricades of Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Vienna, I say! That is where the real tea-party will take place. And after that? Who knows? For what was once merely teeth-gnashing popular Euro-scepticism in the spoiled Northern electorate, will turn into outright hostility to the EU and all its minions now that injury gets added to insult. And then the seething Shopping Masses, once victorious in their own capitals, may well march on Brussels to file a complaint with a meat-cleaver. Beware, thou Bureaucrats and Europutados! The chickens that used to lay the golden eggs are coming home to roast. You!

Alfred B. Mittington

(Winner of the 1988 Von Humboldt Award for the essay ‘From Weber to Webber, or: Evita against the Spirit of Capitalism’)

(1). The New York Times

Monday, February 22, 2010

Funding Catholicism; Eschewing blame; Kamikaze drivers; and Frightening smokers (as if);

In 1977, as I recall, the Spanish state and the Catholic church reached an agreement under which the Church would become self-financing immediately. But wheels sometimes turn very slowly here and nothing was done until recently to change the Franconian system under which the state made an annual block grant to the Church. True, for thirty-odd years there was a box on your tax form which gave the impression the size of the grant was dependent on how many people ticked this. But it wasn’t. However, a year or so ago the government finally moved to implement the 1975 concordat, while at the same time significantly increasing the percentage of your taxes you could vote to go to the Church. The end result in 2009 was that it received 252.7m euros, which was 11m (4.5%) up on the previous year. Or more than they’d have got if the government had kept to its previous practice of increasing the grant by the inflation figure. So, perhaps the state should hand over the running of the economy to the Catholic Church.

Good to see that a USA study has established that an hour’s siesta sharpens up the mind and makes us ‘cleverer’. Clearly, there’s more of this going on in ecclesiastical than in government circles.

Which reminds me . . . Having belatedly come round to the view that Spain is in deep recession and that this isn’t likely to end next week, President Zapllyanna is now in denial about whose fault it all is. Nowt to do with him, apparently. Things started to go wrong under his predecessor, Mr Aznar, and the current crisis is due to irrational markets and greedy speculators. Nothing can be attributed to him, it seems, simply because he’s been asleep at the tiller of the ship of state. Dreaming, no doubt, of how to improve the image of Spain among liberal progressives.

There’s quite a lot of global competition but one sector in which Spain can stand tall is that of large scale fraud. Today, for example, we read of a chap who’d managed to swindle 29m euros from a Chinese corporation. On reflection, though, this is probably small beer in this segment of international commerce.

There was another kamikaze incident this week in Galicia, unfortunately fatal. This is when a driver takes his or her car the wrong way down an autopista. I was going to ask whether this happens much in countries other than Spain but I guess the proper first question is whether it happens much in regions of Spain other than Galicia. Whatever the answer to this might be, in this case the (female) driver was almost four times over the drink limit. And had been convicted of drunken driving only last December.

Years ago, I recall being amused by the adverse reaction of the Spanish media to the suggestion that shocking fotos be put on cigarette packs. Newspapers which revelled in the publication of pictures of gore and shattered bodies felt this was going a bit too far for the sensibilities of the public. So it was good to read today that cigarette manufacturers will soon have to chose from a galaxy of eleven gruesome picture to adorn their packaging. And that Yes, it’s just possible that a total ban on smoking in public places will be introduced this year. We will see.

Which reminds me . . . When I said to one of the waitresses in my regular bar today that I thought it was forbidden to take children into the Smoking section, she smiled, shrugged and murmured “Yes. But here in Spain . . . ”

Finally . . . A Spanish member of the George Borrow Society – Professor Fernando Alonso Romero – has written a book entitled El Mundo de lo muertos en Galicia y en el folklore del occidente Europeo. Or The World of the Dead in Galicia and in the folklore of Western Europe. ISBN 978-84-87904-85-1 for those with a passionate interest in these things.

Comments Moderation: Thanks to what looks like a Google glitch, I didn’t know that our spotty friend from the Middleton fish and chip shop in Manchester had returned to provide further evidence of something he established long ago – viz. that, as they say in the rougher parts of Liverpool, the best of him ran down his father’s leg. So, with apologies to regular commentators, I’ve had to re-initiate the moderation of comments.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Canine carbon footprints; Household economies; The Spanish economic model; Teutonic muscle flexing; Debt figures; and English as she is spoke

Here’s an interesting fact – the keeping of a medium-sized dog has the same ecological impact, they say, as driving a 4.6 litre 4x4 (todo tereno) 10,000km a year. More if the dog is inside the vehicle, increasing the weight.

And here’s a interesting development for those of us who have a daughter whose affinity with artificial lighting is such that she switches every light on every time she enters a room and never, ever switches one off. Regardless of the time of day and the amount of sunlight, I should add. You can buy a little box which tells you how many watts you’re using when you switch anything on. Which will be of most use in respect of guests who believe it’s necessary to put three litres of water in a kettle (3,000 watts) for a 300cc cup of tea.

But on to higher things . . . There was an article in one of our national papers this week, bemoaning the fact the Spanish model is no longer admired around the world. This was a tad confusing since I didn’t think it was likely that many people had admired specious economic growth built on the sand of the phoney construction boom since 2000. And it also struck me the writer couldn’t be very aware of foreign disregard for the things that seriously blemish the Spanish state\culture and which no one seems to have the political will to do anything about. And then I read in El País today that an actress had said, in effect, that Spain’s further development is hamstrung by the ‘anything goes’ attitude so prevalent here. So I’ve changed my views on celebrities making political comments.

One of the inevitable effects of the Eurozone crisis is that Germany is finally moving away from its subordinate role to France. He who pays the piper usually calls the tune, of course, and it was no great surprise to see Germany baulking at giving handouts to Greece. And now it's reported she is hell-bent on getting one of her own as the head of the European Central Bank - traditionally one of the plums snaffled by France, by hook or by crook.

Talking of crooks . . . I also read today that the Spanish debt figures regularly defended by President Zapollyanna are false in that they don’t include the debts of the regional governments. Which are said to be twice as much again. Of course, Spain has not been alone in this. Greece has been using the genius of the American banks to obfuscate things. And Mr Brown has long had his off-balance sheet PFI schemes. The Greeks, of course, have a word for it – Lying.

Talking of Americans, a fellow-blogger in Galicia has become a tad irritated at being told be will fail his English oral exam if he doesn’t pronounce things the British way, and not his natural American way. Frankly, the most surprising thing to me about his account was that the university of Santiago has an oral test. But the other thing that fascinated me – since confirmed by Spanish and American friends - is that, specifically, we Brits pronounce the letter R differently, especially at the end of a word. Which I hadn’t picked up during all my years of visiting and even living in the USA.

Finally . . . I wanted to send a message of welcome to new Follower Peggy today. But to do so, I was compelled to become a Follower of my own blog. But at least this means I was spared the agony of a long wait until the total rose from 49 to 50

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

There was a strange meeting in London yesterday, involving the heads of the governments of Britain, Spain and Greece. One wonders what on earth they can have chatted about. Other than the parlous state of each of their economies, of course. And perhaps Socialism. Anwyay, Gordon Brown must have been disappointed to see himself called Mr Brow in one of Spain's national papers today. Whether high or low, they didn't say.

El Mundo had a foto of Brow(n) and Zapatero entitled "Red ties and red numbers", which was quite clever. Or at least amusing.

El Mundo also stressed that the messages issued by Sr Z. in London about Spain's plans were contrary to those cited by his Ministress of the Economy in the same city last week. But, then, they would. And he would too. Can anyone be surprised that few even on the Left have any confidence in him anymore?

But, anyway, I'm coming down with a cold or even the flu, so I'll leave you with these fotos of el entierro (burial) of our Lenten offering last night. Since he was, as usual, immolated, it really should be called la cremación, I guess.

Ravachol the parrot, dressed as a speed cop:-

Young dancers who had the sense to wear a cape as protection against the cold and the rain:-

And some poor creatures who didn't:-

I did try to get a foto of a nun, whether smoking or not. But there were none to be seen among the bishops and cardinals.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Anglo-Saxon dirty work; Adjusting to Spain; The Goose chase again; Sisters of the Smoke; Barmy Brits; and A Lovely Holiday Cottage

There was some amusement caused around the world – and even here in Spain – by the claims from the Spanish government that criticisms of the country’s economy were the result of an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy. Even though the Spanish seem naturally disposed to preferring conspiracy to cock-up explanations for events, it was a bit hard to take this nonsense from the President and one of his Vice-Presidents. But it was even harder to swallow the report in one of our local papers that the government had instructed the Spanish secret service to check out its suspicions. My inclination at first was to see the article as some sort of spoof but by the end of it, I’d concluded it was serious. But, anyway, here’s fellow-blogger Trevor’s amusing take on the affair, over at Kalebeul.

And just to show how fair I can be, despite my Anglo-Saxon origins, here’s an article suggesting the UK’s economy might just well be in a worse condition than that of Greece, never mind Spain. Thinking about it, I guess it’s possible it was planted by the Spanish government. In cahoots with the Greek government.

Talking of fellow-bloggers . . . Over at Notes from Spain, internet entrepreneur Ben Curtis draws a nice distinction – in the context of Spanish practices – between getting accustomed to things and resigning oneself to them. I like to think my own preferred phraseology – managing your expectations – is admirably neutral in this regard. By the way, Spanish readers should probably not read Ben’s post if they're sensitive to an Argentinean’s strictures on life here.

The Archives Saga – Part 5: Taking coffee this morning with my friend Cris before going again to the town hall, we were approached by a chap who identified himself as the head archivist of the city. He’d heard that I was playing Archive Pin-Ball and wanted to tell me what it was I should be asking for and where exactly it was. Need I say that this is back at the first place I ever went to? So, there you have it – If you want anything done, find out where the relevant funcionario has his or her morning coffee and take it from there. All that said, I shouldn’t get too carried away. I still haven’t seen any documents.

I don’t suppose there’s any reason why a nun shouldn’t smoke. Indeed, as nuns are invariably female, in Spain it might well be a precondition of entering an order. Leading to the adoption of not just one but two bad habits. I mention this because the café adjacent to the town hall in which I met Cris permits smoking and it was here that I witnessed the nicotinic nun. Rather to my surprise. Not to say shock even. Now, it’s right to point out that this is one of the times of the year when many irreverent Spaniards – often men – dress up as nuns. But this was 11.15 in the morning and I’m pretty sure the lady was the genuine article. Essentially because she met the other obvious precondition for being a nun in Spain – a height of no more than five feet.

In an article in this month’s Prospect magazine about the leadership mess in the EU, the writer points out that, in an effort to retain a role for Spain as the current rotating president of the EU, Sr Zapollyanna has “launched the EU presidency no fewer than three times”. Though there’s something of a suspicion here that this has more to do with distracting Spanish attention from domestic problems than in securing a position of power in Brussels. But, whatever the reason, it does make for good theatre. Which is about all the long-suffering Spanish voter has right now. Especially as a couple of international bodies have blown the latest bout (boat?) of government optimism out of the water. Mind you, these are primarily composed of Anglo-Saxons, I suspect.

Finally . . . You have to laugh. Having been complicit in the conversion of whole swathes of coastal Spain into expatriate ghettos, the British are now said to be disfavouring Spain as a tourist destination because “It’s not foreign enough”. Step forward Galicia!

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Geese; Politics national; Politics regional.

Well, my goose chase through the town’s archives offices became a little wilder today. At the place where I was sent by the chap at the town hall, a charming lady told that that what I wanted was held at the town hall. So that’s now three places denying they store the relevant documents, with each of them insisting one of the other two does. I’m not really getting the impression there’s much coordination or efficiency involved in this municipal activity. Nor that the folk who work in the various archives are, shall we say, over-worked. Indeed, they seem delighted that someone interrupts their reverie. And my impression is they’d actually love to be helpful, if they possibly could. Anyway, back to the town hall tomorrow. This time with a Spanish friend, just to ensure I’m not labouring under some major misunderstanding.

At the national level, politics became more interesting this week with the leader of the opposition calling for the governing PSOE party to replace its leader, the increasingly hapless President Zapollyanna. As the latter is the opposition’s key asset, this is either a stroke of folly or of genius. The former because his replacement might just be better. The latter because the opposition party knows that their calling for his defenestration is likely to keep him in power until the next general elections in 2012.

At the Galician level, it’s rare to see the nationalist BNG party get into bed with the right-of-centre PP party, which currently forms the regional government. However, they did so recently over keeping the two local savings banks as Galician as possible by merging them, against the wishes of the Bank of Spain and the PSOE party running the national government. It’s even rarer to see all three parties come together on anything. But this actually happened this week. Under the banner “Keep your hands off your dubious expense claims.” Good to see that politicians of all stripes can unite in a worthy cause.

Internationally, the Spanish government seems to be having some success in differentiating between its plight and that of the (ex)Greek government. President Zapollyanna has again told us the recession is about to end, that things can only get better and that he and his colleagues are hell bent on quickly putting the Spanish house in order. But not everyone is convinced. Here, for example is Ms Allard – quoted in a NYT article kindly sent by my friend Dwight – who is billed as an expert on the Spanish labour market and who insists “Nobody is being realistic about this. No one is saying publicly that this is a system where 70 percent are overprotected, underproductive and overpaid and the rest of them are paying for it.”

Which probably takes us back to the three archive clerks I’ve dealt with in the last week. All government employees, all (if I’m any judge) under-employed and all (I suspect) impossible to sack. Or even ‘rationalise’.

I suspect it's a bit like this in Greece.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Noise; Odd Names; Greece and Spain; Chasing Geese; and Celebs.

If you’re going to live in the real Spain and not one of the expat ghettos, then a high level of noise is something you’ll just have to get used to. Even if you don’t live next to my neighbour, Nice-but-Noisy Toni. Who’s due back from sea any minute, since you ask. That said, things aren’t often as bad as they were for those living above a Barcelona disco, the owner of which has just been jailed for five years for flagrantly ignoring the law and driving her neighbours to the psychiatrist. Here in Pontevedra, there’s quite a difference in levels in the two wi-fi cafés I favour but I’m hard pushed to know why as they both cater primarily for young people. In fact, the worst molestia I suffer is in the bar where I take my midday wine and tapas. Here, there’s a group of seven or eight women of fairly advanced years whom I’ve taken to calling La jaula de abuelas salvajes – The cage of wild grandmothers. The racket they make can be quite astonishing but I was amused to hear today that this isn’t necessarily a modern phenomenon. Nor, indeed, an exclusively Spanish one. For here is Jonathan Swift writing about London ladies taking tea in 1723:-
But let me now a while survey
Our madam o'er her evening tea;
Surrounded with her noisy clans
Of prudes, coquettes, and harridans,
Now voices over voices rise,
While each to be the loudest vies:
They contradict, affirm, dispute,
No single tongue one moment mute;
All mad to speak, and none to hearken,
They set the very lap-dog barking;
Their chattering makes a louder din
Than fishwives o'er a cup of gin;
Not schoolboys at a barring out
Raised ever such incessant rout;
The jumbling particles of matter
In chaos made not such a clatter;
Far less the rabble roar and rail,
When drunk with sour election ale.

The line about ‘No single tongue’ is particularly appropriate to Spain, though. Where it seems to be an article of law that everyone’s (invariably) strong opinion should be expressed at the same time. Over everyone else’s, if at all possible. 

Talking of women . . . There’s a wide range of Spanish first names which owe themselves to the Catholic religion. Concepción and Dolores being two examples off the top of my head. I once suggested here there was a name Penitencia – or perhaps it was Purgatoria – only to find that reality had beaten me to it. Anyway, having heard the name Lourdes on the radio this morning – obviously named after the famous grotto in south west France – I took to wondering whether there were women in Portugal called Fatima. And women in Ireland called Knock. Surely not. Except, perhaps, as an unkind nickname.

So, Greece is now an economic protectorate of the EU and Brussels has taken a major step forwards or backwards towards resolution of the question of whether we’ll have a true superstate. I guess much depends on how the Greeks react to being managed in what they may see as German economic interests. Not for the first time, of course. Which is part of the problem.

As we wait on further developments, someone has rightly asked whether nationalists in Scotland are observing what being an ‘independent’ member of the EU can mean. Not to mention similarly-minded folk in Catalunia, the Basque Country and ("We need solidarity") Galicia.

No one suggests things in Spain are as bad as they are in Greece but I do recall Edward Hugh forecasting – in his darkest moments – that something like this would happen here sometime this year. It seemed a bit fanciful at the time but now, who knows? Especially if we get the double dip some are now forecasting because of poor German growth in the last quarter. Meanwhile, Spanish consumer spending has risen for the first time in a while. Which presumably won’t count as good news if it’s all gone on exports.

I’m engaged in a goose chase – possibly a wild one – in respect of data on two prominent residents of Pontevedra who met George Borrow when he was flogging his Protestant Bibles here in 1837. You may recall that I made an abortive visit to the town hall archives a week ago. Well, my second visit coincided with the presence of a very helpful clerk , who apologised for not having the town records but pointed me in the direction of yet another building (the third) which might. Polling up there this morning, I found the door locked. Assuming this was another coffee-break problem, I repaired to the nearby library to while away half an hour. Only to find this closed too. And then it dawned on me that the streets were inordinately quiet and that it was Ash Wednesday. Which rather shattered my intention of writing, again, on just how much time can be wasted in Spain trying to get a simple task done.

Finally . . . A nice quotation about modern life, perhaps more relevant to the USA and the UK than to Spain, where journalism is still a respected profession - As journalism loses power, so celebrity gains it — not just in column inches but in the commodity that journalism once claimed for its own: political influence.And now over to Madonna [another funny name, of course] for her view on Spain's risk of becoming a Franco-German economic protectorate . . .

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Sex; Insults; EU Solidarity; Alluring Waitresses; Satirical Parrots; and Revenue-Raising.

I mentioned yesterday that Spain had changed quite a lot since Jan Morris wrote her book Spain in 1964. But not as much as the author herself, of course. Back then she was James Morris. And married to Mrs Morris.

The art of insult is perhaps not what it was in Oscar Wilde’s day but I was impressed to read this comment on one of the senior British civil servants appearing at the recent Iraq war enquiry in London – “Then there was that vain popinjay, Christopher Myers, condemned to the hell of being himself.”

Talking of famous quotes . . . You’ll all recall, of course, that Walter Bagheot said it would be a mistake to dilute the mystique of the British royal family. Or to put it in his exact words - "We must not let the daylight in upon magic." I thought of this when reading this morning my own comment of yesterday about the secrecy with which the EU operates. Or widespread ignorance, at least. I guess we could all find out how things work in detail, if we had the time and the inclination.

And talking of the EU . . . Short term, there’s not much evidence of ‘solidarity’ in favour of Greece, which appears to have been left to swing in the wind for a few weeks at least. And tonight comes the news the country will be humiliatingly deprived of its vote at next month’s meeting of finance ministers. Possibly because of the growing evidence it’s been cooking the books for years. Mind you, Greece may not have been alone in this and it’ll be interesting to see what comes of the Brussels demand – possibly a tad late – that national accounts are audited. Brussels, of course, has lots of experience of accounts being audited. And qualified. Being adept at hiding them, they can probably smell a rat quicker than anyone. And may eventually do something about it.

Finally . . . There was an impressive symmetry in the café I had a coffee in after getting off the night train from Madrid at 8.30 this morning. In the Smoking section there were six women and in the Non-Smoking section, six men. The waitresses, by the way, were all dressed as Little Red Riding Hood (Caperucita Roja). Presumably because we’re well into Carnaval celebrations. Though I doubt that the original one wore a mini-skirt.

Which reminds me . . . The parrot effigy which will be immolated later this week in Pontevedra – Ravachol – is this year dressed as a traffic cop, with a 30kph sign on his chest. This, I understand, is a satirical comment on the new speed limits around town that I’ve moaned about a couple of times. Personally, I’d have preferred to see the parrot similarly dressed but strung up by its ankles, eyes bulging and with a sheaf of speeding-fine notifications stuffed down its throat. Anything for a laugh.

Which reminds me . . . The head of Tráfico advised today there'll be another 200 radar traps installed this year. The good news being, apparently, that "This can't go on for ever. So, yes, there will be a limit.". Impeccable logic, of course, but I wouldn't bet on it. Some local authorities are reported to have run out of funds and to be incapable of taking out more loans. Step forward the usual easy targets!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Travel writing; Democracy in inaction; the Spanish Economy (again!); and EU Solidarity

Thanks to my daughter in Madrid, I’ve renewed my acquaintanceship with Jan Morris’s book, Spain. Truth to tell, if I were a travel writer, I’d probably give up after (re)reading the matchless prose of her overview of this fascinating country, where “every generalisation must be qualified and every judgement half reserved”. True, things are not quite what they were when the book was first published in 1964 – I’ve yet to see clogs and ox-drawn carts in Galicia, for example – but Morris still captures the essence of Spain better than anyone else I’ve ever read. And it’s good to be reminded of the eternal positives of this nation and its peoples.

To compensate for banging on about the EU being non-democratic, here’s an article on how the British were denied knowledge of a key government strategy which, no matter how well meant, has had consequences for society that almost certainly merited discussion in advance.

Some readers think our friend Ambrose is largely wrong with his forecasts full of foreboding and some think the opposite. Wherever the truth lies, here he is with some worrying thoughts on the continuing vulnerability of Britain (and the pound) to the sentiment of lenders and speculators. Let’s hope he proves too pessimistic this time round.

A week of so ago, the Spanish Ministress of the Economy rejected criticism from Paul Krugman on the grounds he didn’t understand how the euro worked. Which, if true, would be a tad odd, as he’s reputed to be one of the world’s leading practitioners of the dull science. Well, here he is commenting on Spain’s problems in much the same language and with many of the same sentiments expressed in one of the articles I cited yesterday. PK agrees with those who say the eurozone is not going to break up any day soon. “What we’ll probably see over the next few years” – he says – “is a painful process of muddling through: bailouts accompanied by demands for savage austerity, all against a background of very high unemployment, perpetuated by grinding deflation.” Or, putting it the way someone else did today . . . “Denied the usual economic remedies – lowering interest rates, or devaluation – by their membership of the single currency, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland will suffer economic stagnation, mass unemployment and shrinking public services. For a long time to come, their people will pay a terrible price for buying into the euro dream. If the euro itself did not die last week, the dream certainly did.”

Horrible as this prospect is, I’m still convinced most Spaniards don’t yet fully realise what’s about to hit them. Possibly because of the skewed priorities, the regular evasions and the misplaced optimism of their fair-weather president, Sr Zapollyanna. Who is finally showing signs of becoming as unpopular as he deserves to be. Perhaps things will change if and when we all start to see the sort of vicious hikes in municipal taxes already announced in some parts of Spain. Around the same time as the Sales Tax rate rise in mid year. Bleak times indeed.

But it’s not all bad news. I see that my deliberate tactic of putting a heading on my posts has had the desired result of getting my blog into Google Alerts for Galicia. In fact not just once but twice!

Finally . . . I wondered out loud last week how many Germans realised that the Spanish were no longer poor and deserving. So, I was naturally interested to read today that 53% of them think Greece should be chucked out of the eurozone, in preference to them getting subventions from northern European taxpayers. What particularly seems to have irked the hard-working Teutons is the discovery that, while their retirement age has been extended beyond 65, the “lazy, corrupt, inefficient” Greeks only have to wait until they’re 63. I fear we’ll see a lot more of these revelatory comparisons in the weeks and months to come. Which must be worrying for those Brussels bureaucrats who know that ‘solidarity’ depends on obscurity and ignorance in respect of these trifling matters. Maybe the cat is out of the bag.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Wages of sin; Colonisation of the Americas; EU woes: and Duck treats from Gascony.

Well, I guess there are retirements and retirements. An ex Director of the Spanish Guardia Civil is about to leave the jail he was sent to 15 years ago for corruption. Now 65, he’s reported to have a villa in the Antilles, a flat in Paris and 10 million euros in the bank. Presumably all in his wife’s name.

I mentioned that I’m reading a thick tome entitled Empires of the Western World, by J H Elliot – which is a comparison of the Spanish and British colonising endeavours between 1492 and 1830. The similarities and differences are naturally fascinating and today’s citation is of the contrasting approaches to peopling their new territories. While the British were pretty relaxed about who went – and even happy to see the back of troublesome elements such as the pious Puritans – the Spanish took a rather different line. Jews, Moors, gypsies and heretics were all denied entry to the Indies and early evasion of this ban led to a decree that all emigrants must provide proof of the purity of their blood (limpieza de sangre). From the Parish priest, I guess. The irony is that the Spanish then proved rather more adept at intermarrying with those natives who survived the European diseases that nearly wiped them out.

One of those funny coincidences that arise – I was on the tube in Madrid on Friday morning, reading that Cuzco was one of the cities in the Indies which wasn’t given a new Spanish name, when the train drew into the station of this name on Line 10.

Talking of European conditions – here’s a pretty objective description of what happened at the Greek bail-out summit on Thursday and an overview of the crisis now faced by the euro.

And here’s another article assuring us the Greek tragedy won’t break up the eurozone. Instead, the agency of this will be – as I am wont to say – the impossibility of imposing a fiscal straightjacket (and harsh austerity measures) on democratically run nation states. In other words, it’s merely a question of time before “the single currency will ultimately split and be exposed as what it is – a triumph of European hubris and political vanity over unavoidable economic logic.”

Finally . . . Can my reader in France (or anyone) tell me the difference between grattons and frittons, my suspicion being they’re the same (wonderful) duck concoction under different regional names?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Economy again; The Governance of Spain; Statistics; Miracle creams; Breasts; Sardines; and a Message from Alfie.

It may not be quite what Greece is going through but we now have the first signs of the forecasted street protests against any austerity measures from the Spanish government. The unions have announced a number of demonstrations later this month against proposals to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67. By the date they take place, there may well be even harsher measures to protest against but we will see.

Meanwhile, the king (of all people) is reported to have spent this week trying to get the government, the opposition, the unions and the business community to come together and agree a National Pact to deal with the country’s economic ills. Fat chance, I would have thought and most commentators seem to agree. Perhaps if both Sr Zapatero and Sr Rajoy made way for people of higher calibre. Wherever they might be.

I’ve talked from time to time about the essential ungovernability of Spain from Madrid. And this was before I read in the Economist article I cited yesterday that, thanks to continued devolution over the good years, the central government only directly controls a fifth of total public expenditure. Though maybe it can indirectly control a lot more simply by cutting off funds. Which should go down well with those regions which thrive on ‘solidarity’.

One of the commentators to said article claims that statistics from the Spanish government are even less reliable than those of their Greek counterparts. Well, I have no idea whether this is true or not – though the property statistics always seem to be a bit of a joke – but I can say that it’s not unusual to see errors in the tables produced in the national press. Such as ABC’s labelling of this year as 1010 in one of its articles this week. Which doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.

I had wondered how long it would be before the left-of-centre El País returned to its charge against the head of the Socialist government, Sr Zapollyanna. Not long at all, it seems. For today’s edition contains a hard-hitting article entitled “There must be change.” OK, it’s a slogan used by the party some years ago but I think we all know that the writer is getting at.

El País today also carries today a two-page ad for a cream for men that will remove fat from the waist and abdomen while you sleep. Well, maybe but I can’t help wondering in how many other countries such dubious claims can be openly made.

Spain’s much-heralded and recession-driven deflation continues to pass me by, at least. The 2.50 euros I paid for a coffee in a corner of the Plaza de Dos De Mayo in Madrid this morning may not be at Paris levels but it’s still far more than I can ever recall paying in Spain.

Penultimately . . . I was interested to see that the effigy burnt on Ash Wednesday in Madrid is that of a sardine, just as it is in many towns along the Galician coast. The reason, of course is that “The Burial of the Sardine is a Spanish tradition that ridicules the ecclesiastical tradition of burying the fat to mark the beginning of Lenten fasting. Over the years, pig fat has become a sardine.” In Pontevedra, we set fire – with barely a nod in the direction of Health & Safety – to a large stuffed parrot. But the explanation for this is less straightforward.

Which reminds me . . . The famous personage brought in to kick off the Mardi Gras/Carnaval celebrations in one Galician city was a local actress made famous by the national TV series “Without tits, there’s no Heaven”. One of her lines was that “Without cocido, there’s no Heaven”, which got the required response because cocido is the national Galician dish, comprising every bit of the pig and a few other things in a rather fatty casserole. Being something eaten weekly from the minute Gallegos let go of the maternal mammaries, it’s a great local favourite. But, to be honest, most foreigners can take it or leave it. Or, putting this another way, it’s not my idea of Heaven. (I was going to say I prefer tits but this would be very crude. So I won’t).

Finally . . . And still with El País, the paper also carries a major article with the summary “Brussels must temporarily relax the Maestricht criteria for Spain, Greece and Portugal, as done for Germany and France. It’s too early to return to liberal orthodoxy and to withdraw the fiscal stimuli.” All very predictable but it does allow me to introduce this article from my friend Alfred B. Mittington.

Who’s afraid of et dona ferentes? 

It’s Springtime in Madrid! President José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (a.k.a. ZP) is wringing his hands in pure delight as he saunters through the Moncloa corridors of power! Yes: the axe has fallen! The dyke’s been breeched. The toothpaste is out of the tube. Brussels has caved in and promised to shore up the Greek house of cards. No matter how vague, how wishy-washy, how reserved yesterday’s statement may have been: it is a firm pledge to come to the rescue. And that implies a golden promise for our hard-pressed Spanish Premier: what they will do for one food stamp nation, they will have to do for Spain too. It has all gone so neatly and beautifully! Greece has taken the chestnuts out of the fire and will be blamed the most by those who pay. Next the Northern Nations will need to drink Mr Socrates’s cup of Portuguese poison. Then, and only then, when these sinners have been duly served and spanked, Spain will follow, innocent unobtrusive Spain, only a lesser transgressor who never asked for such a thing, who would never presume, who now merely takes its rightful share of a pie already baked for others... Aaaah, a rosy dawn of glittering new Euros emerges above the northern horizon! And with luck, it will include some firm demands for strict austerity, which the Spanish PM will then use to the best of his considerable ability to sell his stringent anti-social reforms to the baffled folks back home (I stick to my prediction of January 9th!).

For the moment, we must, of course, maintain that Spain will never need help. That Spain will even contribute to the Greek bail-out! For Spain’s economy is robust, and trustworthy, and vital, as our PM just declared in Parliament and in a string of Brussels press conferences. Those who do not agree with that grand vision simply ‘do not understand the strength of the Spanish economy’. No matter that these ignorant dupes include fellows like Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winner of Economics (a man who ‘does not understand the Euro’, according to Treasury Secretary Ms Salgado of the sad canine countenance, whose own economic genius was unknown to the world until she was suddenly asked to replace the capable, but critical, Pedro Solbes). And they include the very Spanish and very socialist EU commissioner Joaquin Almuña, that faithless PSOE friend (‘We shall not permit,’ declared a seething 1st Vice-Premier Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, ‘that anybody sheds doubt on the health of the Spanish economy!’ – after which Mr Almuña went in hiding because he feared she would send the marines). And the IMF. And the World Bank. And the Financial Times. And the Wall Street Journal. And… Oh well: fill in the rest for yourselves, dear readers. The clique includes anybody who ever counted for anything in the global realms of Economy. All of these are morons. And not just that. But they are Jews, and Speculators, and Masons, and Vile Agents of a Dark Evil Empire, all of whom are out together – if we may believe recent declarations fomented by Minister José Blanco - to undermine the prestige of PM ZP from pure spite alone

For that is really the only problem Spain has today! She is the innocent victim of Speculators in the pay of an Evil Foreign Conspiracy. I hope Mr Blanco will allow me to disagree, and to teach him a little something about sharks in high finance. Speculators are indeed evil. But for all their nastiness, they never take on a well-run country which enjoys a healthy economy. They do not do so because they would lose. And they’re not in there to lose, but to gain. Just as curanderos [Ed. ‘quacks’] will never profit from the fit and the healthy, speculators gravitate only towards countries that cannot defend themselves because they do not control their economy. Therefore an attack of speculators – sickening as it is - must be read as an indisputable sign of what you so vehemently try to deny. The Spanish economy is in Big Trouble

But Praise be to Brussels: help is now on its way! The German, the Dutch, and the Scandinavian taxpayers will once again gurgle up the funds and fortunes needed to stop the holes in leaky Latin hands. Let there be no misunderstanding: I do not pity the Northern Nations. It is their own dumb fault. Ten years ago, when the Euro was introduced against the liking of most Europeans, critics were silenced and sceptics shut up with the firm assurance that – under the rules of the so-called Stability and Growth Pact of 1997 - no participating nation would be allowed to run up a deficit bigger than 3 %. Anyone who did so would be automatically slapped with tremendous fines and fearsome sanctions. Then came the next fiscal year and it turned out that France and Germany – Yes Indeed!!! - wanted to run up a bigger deficit. Were they slapped? Were they mercilessly sanctioned? No, of course not! To do so would be short-sighted, we were told. Those who proposed such mindless application of the rules did not understand the bigger issues, failed to see the merit in irresponsibility, the splendorous light that emerges from setting your house on fire! And so the 3% rule was quietly abandoned (See this NYT article written at the time).Naturally the Club Med nations were fast to follow the example. And faster still to make the most of it. And here we are today. Our Southern friends ran up tremendous burdens on very leaky tyres. So let France and Germany not now complain! They brought it on themselves. They reap what they sowed in arid soil! Now they pay through the nose for what they would not let in through their ears!

Only, there is a little set-back to the Glorious New Rescue. One which happy-go-lucky PMZP may not have entirely foreseen, since he speaks no other language and knows no other countries. Allow old Al – who knows his Northern Countries well enough – to prophesise a little once again. In the past, the Northern taxpayers were willing to toss billions of subsidies to the suffering Mediterranean Nations, because they wished to help save them for democracy from their own dictators and autocrats (turning a blind eye to that old dictum about countries getting the governments they deserve…). Franco, Salazar and the Greek Colonels were, in their own weird and posthumous way, Club Med’s most efficient fundraisers. This love-fest lasted some 25 years and cost a king’s ransom. But the Northern generations who remembered the likes of Franco have now gradually been replaced through death and baby-booms by youngsters who have never even heard those dictatorial names, but who do remember vividly that they were never asked to vote for the Euro, and were, on the other hand, blatantly denied the validity of their No vote on the European Constitution because it wasn’t the Right Answer. 

These, I assure you, will be foaming at the mouth and fuming from the ears to have to finance the Southern food stamp-nations once again from their own paycheques. They surely will pay – because they have no way to refuse (whom of the Europutado-hopefuls in the national parliaments will you vote for to put an end to this generosity-from-alien-pockets?) But – being forced into the role of Northern Breadbasket – they will start to take a closer look at these Euro-Mezzagiorno countries. What will they see? In Spain they will discover two regions which make good money and are well-organised – the Basque country and Catalonia – and a central Madrid government who makes a mess of things and wastes every boon and bonanza, before it plays big with other folk’s pennies and boasts of its big balls, like - remember that one of ZP’s only a year ago? - that Spain is the 8th Economic World Power and on its way to overtake the GNP of France…’!! Mark my words: opinion-makers in the North will soon suggest that it might be a useful idea to give such efficient, well-behaved, thrifty regions (Porto in Portugal, Lombardy in Italy, the Basque Country and Catalonia in Spain) a greater influence, some more weight, a little more leverage in Spanish and European affairs, so as to avoid Repetition…. In the past, these arrogant regions were not much appreciated in Northern eyes due to the capriccios and innuendos of gentlemen like Mr Bossi and his Northern League. But once people start to contemplate such matters with their pocketbooks, sympathies change quickly, and anything might happen…

Therefore Woe to Madrid! The Greek bail-out may well be a Trojan horse clad in glittering Euros! And it might well be better for ZP and his cronies to take a rather more Laocoonical view, and cry out for all to hear: Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes! Which reads in a modern translation: “I fear the Greeks even if they bring me the dole and donations”! 

Alfred B Mittington.
Author of ‘A Crowbar to Keynes’ (Harvard School of Economics, Cambridge 1949)

Friday, February 12, 2010

The bail-out. President Zapollyanna. Colonisation. And Cats.

To bail out or not to bail out? That was the question. And it seems that, so far at least, the dour Germans have restrained the impulsive French from saying anything calculated to frighten the horses in Berlin. Meaning that caution has triumphed over expediency. And that economics has already caught up with politics. The result is disappointment, confusion and a fall in both the stock markets and the euro. Or, at least, this was the situation a few hours ago. It could well have changed since then. In the words of one commentator - "They offered nothing. It was just words without any concrete measures, hoping to buy time." Leaving our Ambrose to opine – “There was an element of bluff in the accord, as if the EU leaders hope to muddle through with ‘constructive ambiguity’ fingers crossed that their vague political pledge will never be tested. Bluff is a valid tool of statesmanship but in this case their bluff could be called very soon.” Quite possibly it has been by the time your read this.

Meanwhile . . . Another gem from President Zapollyanna. Calling for hard work on the part of his compatriots, he insisted that - "The solvency and solidity of our country is obvious." Well, no it isn’t, amigo. Even worse, as The Economist says here, one of the reasons for this is that you are incompetent. As ever, the comments to this article are most illuminating.

I’ve just started on a monumental work comparing the Spanish and British colonial expansion into America in the 16th and 17th centuries. I was intrigued to learn that the famous urban-centricity of the Spanish was already well-established even back then. And that there was a great deal more bureaucracy involved in emigrating from Spain than from Britain. Specifically, you could only leave Spain from Sevilla and, before doing so, you had to fill in a number of forms. So, I wonder what the Medieval Spanish was for the regular refrain of the modern job-preserving Spanish funcionario - “Le falta uno, usted” (You’re missing a document, Sir). All that said, the author adds that the restraints were less than totally effective. Forms could be forged and officials bribed. Plus ça change, then.

Finally . . . I read recently that one of the oddest things about the internet is the popularity of pictures of cats. Including fotos of felines who resemble Adolf Hitler. Or ‘kitlers’ as they’re known. Click here for more on this.

And here for a wonderful rural retreat in Galicia for your summer holidays.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bail-outs, the EU, Rail Travel, the Spanish timetable and Galicia's cocaine (dis)connection

The good news today is that Spain is said to be on the verge of exiting her recession.

The bad news is that this assurance comes from President Zapollyanna, whose record on these things has been consistently unimpressive. To say the least.

But President Z has, at least, kept one promise. He said long again his response to the recession would be a “socialist one”. In keeping with this, he has again extended unemployment benefits. Should – God forbid – Spain ever find itself in the same position as Greece – having to introduce harsh austerity measures at the behest of Brussels – one wonders if Sr Zapatero would resist these as much as the unions. Or whether he would quit the field and hand over to some Sr Nasty in his party.

Meanwhile, we wait to see what the flesh is on the bones on the EU rescue plan for Greece. As there is much talk of loans and as Greece is awash with debt, I assume the EU money will be on softer terms, allowing some re-financing to take place. Some commentators, of course, feel it would have been more appropriate to leave all this to the IMF but this was clearly politically unacceptable in Brussels. As I said yesterday, politics looked like triumphing over economics - if we ignored the exposure of German banks to Greek and Spanish defaults. And now I see that French banks are in an even worse position as regards Greek debt. Which possibly helps explain M. Sarkozy’s pressure for a quick solution.

Longer term, we wait to see how the Brussels mandarins move towards the always-essential full political union to secure the monetary union. Which surely faces more tests even after this week’s hubbub has died down. As someone has put it – “Even after the current mess is cleared up, the eurozone will find itself faced with an awkward question: does it admit that currency union was a mistake and dismantle it, or does it press on and create an effective European economic government to fill in the missing gap? To do nothing seems untenable.” To this question, the writer gives his own eurosceptic answer – “Brussels, which of course has no reverse gear, is pushing for the latter. A few years ago, one would probably have assumed it would succeed. Today, the consensus behind ever-closer integration is disintegrating. The European project was forged in the post-war years when the public was willing to do anything to prevent a repeat of those atrocities. But the majority of Europeans were born well after the war. If Brussels expects to be able to push through closer economic integration over their heads, it may be in for a rude awakening.” Which, I think, is another way of putting my oft-repeated comment that, sooner or later, the EU is going to come up against democratic realities. Which you might say is already happening on the streets of Greece. The trouble with economics giving way to politics is that eventually they’re the same thing.

I mentioned a while ago that Spain’s national rail carrier – RENFE – offers a card giving 40% discount to senior citizens. So, buying a ticket to Madrid today, I was expecting to pay something very much below what it usually costs me. But it was not to be. There certainly was a discount but it was only 20%. This is because when you buy a normal return ticket, there’s an inbuilt discount for the return leg. Which is added back to the price before they give you the Tarjeta Dorada discount. I felt I’d been rather misled by the headline rate of 40%. But, given what I regularly write about corporate marketing tactics here, I really don’t know why I was surprised.

The Spanish timetable . . . Someone called me at 25 past midnight last night. Interestingly, it was an English acquaintance. Albeit one who’s lived here for 30 years, so has possibly gone native. That said, when I asked one of the waitresses in my usual bar today what she thought would be the latest time for a call, she said 10.30. Which equates to only 8.30 in the UK. So, was she being honest?

Finally . . . I was interested to read that the Colombian drug cartels have decided to stop using Galicia as the major entry point into Europe for their iniquitous product. Disappointingly, though, this was not because the Spanish police are getting better at intercepting the consignments but because the Galician partners are not efficient enough. Though perhaps these factors overlap.

Strangely, as I drove down to the bridge before walking into town to post this, I was stopped in one of a series of police roadblocks. They waived me through, of course, but I couldn't help noticing that some of them were carrying sub-machine guns, not breathalysers. Living close to a couple of gypsy settlements which are regularly raided for drugs, we're used to a police presence around here. But not usually one as serious as this. I wonder if it has any thing to do with the recent discovery that ETA have been setting up a base in Portugal. Perhaps the papers will tell us tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bail-outs and Bureaucrats

So, the Germans blinked and, as expected, accepted the principle of an in-house rescue for the troubled members of the EU. You might say that politics has triumphed over economics but the fact that the German banks were very exposed to default – especially in Spain – might well give the lie to this.

Possibly not the best of timing but here’s a British eurosceptic view on the current financial stresses of the EU. The author writes that “If the euro is to survive, then austerity on a scale that is only just beginning to be seen in Ireland may have to become common around Club Med, and elsewhere.” Maybe but there’s not much sign of that yet here in Spain, at least as regards wage deflation. Representatives of the government, the unions and the business community have just agreed to cap wage increases at 1.0%, 2.0% and 2.5% over the next 3 years. But more, if inflation rockets up. Of course, in reality, the markets will decide and, in practice, this agreement may have as much relevance as the annual price dictated by the Galician Xunta for the wholesale price of grapes.

Meanwhile, one wonders where moral hazard is in all this. And whether the Irish are asking themselves why they bothered to initiate austerity measures last year when they could have waited for the EU 7th Cavalry to come to the rescue and give them an easier ride out of the hole.

Bloody ‘ell! I’ve just seen that our Ambrose is echoing me again! - “Germany's apparent backing for a bail-out comes despite worries that it will lead to the breakdown of fiscal discipline across the Club Med region. It also raises troubling questions of fairness. Ireland has tackled its own crisis by slashing wages and going far beyond any measure so far offered by Greece, yet Dublin has not received help.” I wish he’d get his own ideas.

The other question that occurs to me is whether German taxpayers, for example, have any real idea of where their money is going. In the article cited above, Simon Heffer refers to the ‘poorer’ countries of Southern Europe and appears to include Spain in this description. Well, everything is relative and there must be some poor bits of Spain. But I’ve yet to see them. And I seriously doubt that the German middle class has the quality of life of the Spanish middle class. I mean, how many German families can afford a full-time maid, for example. To answer my own question, I’d guess few Germans are aware of how un-poor most Spaniards are these days. And I don’t suppose anyone in Brussels will be rushing to tell them. Wouldn't be very ‘communitarian’ to incite (justify?) resistance to EU fiscal measures.The bureucrats know best.

To come down from these heady heights to the bagatelle of daily life . . . I mentioned yesterday the 11.30 coffee rush in one of the wi-fi cafés I use of a morning. Well, I went to another one this morning, even though it’s a smoking place. This is because it’s next to the town-hall, where I wanted to check something in the municipal archives. I’ve always suspected this café was used primarily by civil servants – essentially because it doesn’t open at all at the weekends – so I guessed the coffee-breakers were all from said town-hall. This suspicion was rather endorsed at 12.00, when – reeling from the fumes – I made my way to the archives in the basement of the building and found the place deserted. Except for me and all the records. Which I could easily have torched. Or at least stolen. But I didn’t. I just resolved to return tomorrow. But not between 11.30 and 12.30.

Finally . . . Here’s a web page providing details of my rural retreat, available to rent to all those discerning souls who appreciate rustic beauty and tranquillity. And who don’t need a swimming pool. As it took me ages to fill in their form, I'd really appreciate it if some of you could just take a quick look. Anyone who wants to know more can always contact me at colindavies@terra.es

Special deals for Galician Nationalists, of course. I'm not proud.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Cheating; Teaching; Fishing; and Driving

Yesterday evening I tackled the five teachers to whom I give a conversation class on the morality of helping a colleague with ideas for an essay she was getting in an exam later that night. None of them accepted it was cheating. Or even laziness. And the preferred analogy – glossing over the fact she was not supposed to know the subject of the essay – was that of doing some research on the internet prior to the exam. In the end we agreed to differ but I had no problem with their assertion that, in the Spanish context, it would have been discourteous not to respond to a friend’s request for help. And we moved on to the subject of John Terry and his extra-marital adventures. Which did produce some interesting differences of opinion between them. The basic one being between those who felt even a one-night fling was unacceptable and those who felt the line should be drawn somewhere else. But then, of course, the latter group fell out over where that line should be. An interesting hour.

Talking of teachers . . . The wi-fi café I now use most mornings is close to a secondary college. Around 11.30 each weekday, it’s invaded by a large number of teachers taking their morning coffee break. Which lasts at least half an hour. Try as I might, I can’t imagine my teacher-daughter back in the UK being able to snatch more than for minutes for a coffee from a machine in the staff room. Let alone leaving the school to repair en masse to a nearby café. Different worlds.

The local papers this week have made much of the fact there’ll be 3.2 billion euros worth of work put out to tender in Galicia this year for the AVE high speed train link with Madrid. More than in any other region, ever. But, truth to tell, with the Ministry of Development having its 2010 budget significantly reduced, I’d be more than astonished if this actually happened. I’ve already shelved my forecast of 2018 as the earliest date we’ll have the line that was promised for 2012, even as recently as – you’ve guessed it – the last general election in 2008.

Spanish fishing fleets favour an area called Gran Sol. As sol means ‘sun’, I’ve always assumed this was somewhere down Africa way. But no, it turns out to be west of the British Isles. And the suggestion is that this sol is a corruption of the English word for a type of fish – the sole. I’m a tad sceptical, so can anyone verify this?

Finally . . . Reader Ferrolano wrote to say that the phantom crossing I showed the other day seemed to him to be rather dangerously located. Well, here are two more examples of how the admirable Spanish avoidance of excessive concern for safety sometimes leaves you wondering whether this doesn’t go a bit too far.

The first is of the approach to the crossing where I gave up producing statistics on the average number of drivers who stopped for me as I waited at the side of the road. I decided that, as the crossing was round a blind bend, this was almost certainly not a fair test of driver responses.

And here’s the same crossing from the other direction. True, if your eyes are sharp enough, you can see the sign on the right hand sign. But the crossing itself is below the brow of the hill and, so, hidden from your line of sight.

Talking of line of sight, it 's nice to know that the people who block it on both sides of this crossing will be the same ones prosecuting you for hitting any pedestrian who suddenly emerges from behind the rubbish bins on either side.