Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Reader Moscow and I have been having a (not very productive) dialogue about Spain’s economic growth over the last ten years and its prospects for the next five. As it happens, Edward Hugh addresses this subject in his blog today. I won’t bore you with quotes but his conclusion is that there are major barriers to Spain achieving the private consumption and export levels which underlie current forecasts. For his reasoning as to why Spain possibly won’t be able to do a Germany, click here.

Relatedly, in another interesting Qorreo article, James Badcock castigates the Spanish government for neglecting “to seek new avenues for an economy that was munching through a building boom and attracting a new immigrant workforce at an alarming pace.” “Where would all this activity and manpower go when the boom ended?” he asks in retrospect, pointing out that “A savage economic downturn that would undo in little over a year what the Spanish miracle had taken decades to build.” When “So many of the new jobs proved to be disposable and the theatrical talk of replacing the brick with the laptop proved to be so many empty words.” Looking ahead, he goes on to berate both the government and the opposition for failing to produce a vision of where Spain’s economic future lies. Ahead of next year’s general elections, he suggests this void is so large “It would almost be preferable to stage an electoral battle between Nobel-winning economists, propounding their growth models and proudly sticking by them.”

So . . . no wonder I’m confused myself as to where Spain’s economy has come from (and to) in the last decade and, even more so, where it’s heading in the next.

Down at the pool today, I noticed that the new injunctions on behaviour I’ve cited before don’t contain any reference at all to noise. So, can we assume it’s impossible for either Spanish kids or adults to make enough noise to annoy their compatriots? Of course, the other explanation is that it’s so obvious what shouldn’t be done that it’s not necessary to spell it out.

Life as a compulsive blogger . . . I felt yesterday’s (hastily written) post was bad enough to merit an apology to regular readers. Then this morning I saw there’d been 200 hits, against a normal range of 150 to 170. Which was pretty confusing. I thought at first it was possibly just folk researching thorium. Then I realised I’d used the word “brothel” in the previous post. So not that much of a surprise, I guess. And I’ve just done it again . . .

Finally . . . My departing daughters and their friends have left me with an empty house, lots of laundry and a bloody head cold. But it’s not all bad news; before she left, my elder daughter (the novelist!) noticed that my small fig tree was heavy with fruit. In previous years, it’s produced a maximum of one pathetic fig. So this is a major improvement. Shame I don’t eat them.

Tailnote: My elder daughter has now published the second chapter of a novel she describes as “A fast-paced political thriller but, above all, a personal tale of pride and paranoia.” Set in a fictionalized Cuba, it’s being e-published one chapter per week. Click here.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Galicia has a lot of granite. I mention this because our Ambrose feels that thorium might save the world and there’s a lot of this stuff in granite, it seems. The region’s future could be rosy. Or grey, rather.

I’ve been pondering the issue of where how and why’s Spain’s economic growth of the last ten years came to pass. Specifically, I've been wondering how and why Spain's massive urban redevelopments came about. Right on cue, it’s reported that the Spanish tax authorities suspect that “the involvement of town halls in urban development has led to large scale fraud.” Which is an observation that possibly won’t come as a great surprise to many. Anyway, the tax man is going to take a harder look at the activities of a number of councils, especially as “all indications suggest that the amount of urban fraud continues to be substantial.” This is not to say, of course, that I believe corruption was the driving force behind Pontevedra's progress. And even if I did, I'd have to admit my impression is no one gives a toss.

On the issue of local finance, it was reported today that transfers from Madrid to the regions are now down to 2006 levels. Taken with reduced revenues from property transaction taxes, this is said to have pushed some councils “to the edge of ruin.” So the question still hovers in the air – How come the Pontevedra council can be planning to spend this year 24% more than in 2008? Are they borrowing the shortfall?

Finally . . . For those following it, my daughter published the second chapter of her novel today. For those who don’t yet know anything about this, see the Tailnote below.

Tailnote: Here’s a reference for my elder daughter’s second novel, which she describes as “A fast-paced political thriller but, above all, a personal tale of pride and paranoia.” It’s set in a fictionalized Cuba and is being e-published one chapter per week. Several folk have been kind enough to say they enjoyed the first instalment.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Galicia – with a population of around 3 million – boasts three international airports, in La Coruña, Santiago and Vigo. So it’s something of an irony that the I spend so much of my time ferrying visitors from and to Oporto airport, down in northern Portugal. This, of course, is because the Galician airports – possibly out of internecine rivalry – have failed to get their act together with either Ryanair or Easyjet. One wonders if things would be better if the ultra-nationalists got their way and Galicia seceded from the Spanish state. My guess is worse.

Anyway, I went down to Oporto again this morning, taking my younger daughter for her early-ish flight to Liverpool. Crossing the Miño river, which forms the border between Spain and Portugal at the southern end of Galicia, we immediately noticed –and then smelled – the pall of smoke which hangs over the countryside as a result of a recent spate of fires there. Surprisingly, the Miño seemed to act as a barrier, not just to the fires themselves, but also to the aftermath. There was very little smoke and no smell on its northern bank.

I have two major questions about Portugal:-

1. Why can’t they design a car park entrance which allows you to take the ticket out of the machine without the need to at least climb halfway out of your window. If not get out of your care entirely?


2. Why is the gents’ toilet in the airport always closed because someone is (allegedly) cleaning it?

Finally . . . Reader Moscow has answered my query of the other day – about why Spain has progressed so much more than Portugal in the last ten years – with the rejection of any suggestion that it has anything to do with EU transfers. Spain, he says, is simply a richer place. Maybe so. But Britain is richer than Spain and I wonder if there’s any UK city which has seen anywhere near as much investment as Pontevedra has in the last decade. Like doubtless many other cities around the country. So, is Spain a more entrepreneurial and productive place than not only Portugal but also Britain? Not to mention France and Germany, neither of whose per capita income, I suspect, has seen similar growth. If not, where has all the money come from? And is it still legitimate to go on treating Spain as a ‘poor’ country for purposes of EU grants and subsidies?

Tailnote: Here’s the reference for the first chapter of my elder daughter’s second novel, which she describes as “A fast-paced political thriller but, above all, a personal tale of pride and paranoia.” It’s set in a fictionalized Cuba and several folk have been kind enough to say they enjoyed the first instalment. So, give it a try. And tell her if you like it. An author - well, a novelist at least - needs all the encouragment he or she can get. It's a lonely profession.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

As part of my contemplation of how and why so much money has been available to spend on buildings and roads in and around Pontevedra city in the last decade, I’ve been trying to establish what the municipal budget has been over the last three years. Without great success, I have to admit. As far as I can tell, it was just under 80m euros for 2008 and 99m for 2010. This increase of c. 24% over two years hardly looks like retrenchment and one wonders where all the revenue came from to replace the huge amounts no longer available from property taxes. If anyone knows where I can get the sort of breakdowns I need, I’d be grateful for advice. I’ve complained more than once about the huge amount of data given you by British county councils when they send you details of your (ever-rising) annual Community Charge but, at times like this, one can appreciate it’s a lot better than nothing.

Meanwhile, I was amused to read today that Spanish is now more popular in what's left of foreign language education in British state schools because “it’s seen as less elitist, since it’s spoken by hip, developing Latino nations with funky music, not snooty, wine-quaffing Parisians and Johnny Halliday.”

And I was interested to see that ex Tory MP Matthew Parris has addressed the issue of stemming the growth of the ‘feckless poor’ segment of the British populace. Doing this cost Keith Joseph his political career in 1976, when he claimed that Britain’s ‘human stock’ was being threatened by what he saw, essentially, as immoral welfare payments. Some would say things are even worse thirty years on (in ‘Broken Britain’) but it will be interesting to see if Parris’s article causes anything like the storm Joseph’s speech did way back in 1976. Or whether it will even raise a ripple.

Finally . . . . Times must really be hard for some folk. Pulling into the petrol station on the edge of a business park up in the hills behind Pontevedra today, I noticed that the brothel next to it had closed down. This may well be a unique occurrence in Spain. To date.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Apart from my (welcome, of course) human visitors of the last two weeks, I’ve also been looking after the tri-lingual dog of my friend Dutch friend, Peter. This fine canine is called Argos, in honour of a famous Greek predecessor. And not, as my daughters suggested, after a British high street discount store. Anyway, Argos is a keen marker of territory and, in this, he’s been setting an example for my own dog, Ryan. The latter, though, is now around 95 in human terms and finds it impossible to stand on three legs. So it was this morning that, having duly sniffed the wheel of a car which Argos had just lubricated, he proceeded to urinate on all four of his own feet.

Which reminds me . . . The American word for nappy is ‘diaper’. As is usually the way with these things, this appears to have been a medieval English word for a cloth used by adults specifically for . . . Well, you can probably guess. Strange to relate, the OED tells me that ‘diaper’, like the name Argos, is Greek in origin.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the groups of Pontevedra’s beggars comprises well-dressed, middle-aged men who sit all day on a door-step, behind a cardboard placard briefly describing their plight. I say ‘Pontevedra’s beggars’ but I’ve also seen the same people in Vigo. Now, to sit still for hours on end in a busy shopping street obliges you to find a doorstep which, for one reason or another, is not in use. In other words, a good ‘pitch’. So, the obvious questions arising are – Is there a market in these places? Are they bought and sold? Or are they even licensed by the Pontevedra council? If not, why not? They are, after all, valuable commodities. Otherwise, no one would stoop to sit on them. Which is a sort of South African pun, I’ve just realised. Reminding me of the old saying that a pun should be a feather with which to tickle the intellect. Not a pistol let off at the ear-hole. You can decide which in this case.

Finally . . . As someone who’s long believed that the impact of weather on cultures has been much understated, I was interested in this paragraph from the most recent post of my friend Anthea’s blog Anthea's Virtual Jotter - If you visit the Arndale Centre in Manchester, you will find that English shoppers suffer from all the faults that Colin and I have noticed in Spanish shoppers. They stop and congregate in major thoroughfares for a chat, regardless of how many people might want to go past them. They drift or occasionally charge out of shop doorways without so much as a passing glance for folk going past. They don’t just stop to admire friends’ babies in new shiny buggies; they barge onto you with the new shiny buggies. When their mobile phone rings they come to a halt wherever they are to answer it: in a shop doorway, just outside a lift, wherever is the most inconvenient place for everyone else. This behaviour, so similar to that of their Spanish counterparts, occurs far less frequently in ordinary shopping streets. Maybe it’s a question of climate. Inside an indoor shopping centre they don’t have to be concerned about the weather and so they can come to a halt whenever they want, without fear of freezing to the spot on an August day.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

One of those Spanish evenings. My daughter’s friends, walking the dogs, bump into my friend Pablo, who lives up in a house on the edge of the forest. Pablo is one of those Gallegos who, having known me for several years, have now suddenly decided that, despite my Englishness, I’m worthy of being a real friend. The girls return and tell me about the meeting. As Pablo speaks no English and they no Spanish, this had been fraught with misunderstanding. Next thing he’s at my gate, inviting me and my ‘daughters’ to a glass or two of wine at his house. This is a real honour but I tell him the chicas are actually my younger daughter’s friends and the real things are indoors, getting ready for a curry dinner which I’m preparing for some friends from town. I invite Pablo to take a look at the curry and – like most Gallegos – he dismisses it as fit only for dogs. Or - because it’s spicy - for Mexicans. He then berates me for raising the subject of my roof – which he wants to repair – when we met at the recent bullfight. When I add to this gaffe by trying to say something about this, he makes it clear, with well-chosen expletives, that there’s a time for talking about roofs and a time for talking about wine. Of which I gain the impression he’s already had a glass or two. Nonetheless, he manages to squeeze in there’s no way he’s going to replace my tiles for a mere thousand euros. Though ‘mere’ is not the word he uses. He then departs to get me a couple of bottles of Rioja. On his return, I thank him profusely for the wine. He admonishes me again for not being able to get my priorities right and then departs, insisting I take up the invitation for a copa or two at his place. Which I doubtless will.
Talking about having fun . . . We have our final fiesta of the year the weekend after next. This is the medieval fair – the Feira Franca – which was only inaugurated ten years ago but which now consumes the entire old quarter. Preparations for this have already begun downtown. As this lead time of a more than ten days is vast by Spanish standards, this serves to endorse my regular contention that the Spanish are never more serious and efficient than when they’re planning to have fun. In fact, this may be the only time they go in for any planning.

Talking of fiestas . . . Up in Brión this week, they celebrated some failed attempt by the British to storm the city a century or three ago. From the foto in the local paper, the British troops were apparently kitted out in floor-length kilts and bolero jackets. And they wore on their heads that Spanish symbol of (American) capitalism – the stovepipe hat. So, no wonder they lost.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It’s now almost ten years since I took up residence in Pontevedra. During all this time there’ve been public works projects complicating movement in several parts of the city. In addition, of course, there’s been the construction of numerous blocks of new flats. Indeed, on the northern edge of the city, the ground is being cleared and foundations laid for even more of these. This is despite the fact that, with the property bubble well and truly burst, occupancy of most of the new blocks is very low. Possibly even nil in some cases. The questions that spring to my mind are Why? And How? By which I mean who financed all this? The question is placed in stark relief by a short trip down into North Portugal, specifically into Pontevedra’s twin town there, Barcelos. Which boasts very few of the new buildings, roads and roundabouts that make parts of Pontevedra unrecognisable from only ten years ago. So, how come Spain got the bunce for all this and Portugal didn’t? Is it just a question of hot money flowing into Spain and being put to profitable use on the back of inappropriate interest rates? Or did Spain grab a disproportionate percentage of EU grants and subsidies? Encouraging banks and all those with sticky fingers to promote a construction boom that, despite reports of its death, seems to be continuing here in Pontevedra. All theories and comments welcome. Whatever the aetiology of it all, there’s no doubting that Pontevedra looks an even better place than it did ten years. Provided we discount the aesthetic value of all the old two-storey houses flattened to allow the construction of yet more anodyne flat blocks. Certainly you’d find it hard to find a single road either in or near the city which hasn’t been ‘improved’ in recent years. If only by the addition of 15cm speed bumps and the reduction of the speed limit to 40 or even 30kph.

Another question I have is – Are France and Britain (unlike Spain) really not paying for hostages to be released by Al Qaeda? If not, we can surely expect a lot more kidnapping of Spanish citizens.

Talking of what the Spanish government does with its citizens’ money . . . As I understand it, any young person in Spain who earns below 22,000 euros a year is entitled to 200 euros per month rent subsidy. In Spain ‘young’ usually encompasses all those below 35. But I assume this isn’t merely thrown at anyone below this age who might or might not be living with his/her parents but only at those who can prove they’re actually renting. And that they earn below 22,000 a year. This question has arisen because it’s been announced today that the scheme has been suspended as the payments have been going “in error” to young people earning more than 22,000 a year. I’m sure it’ll all be sorted out soon. Meanwhile, tough on those who really need it.

And still on the issue of revenue creation . . . One or two readers may recall I was fined a couple of years ago for doing more than 50 on the four-lane highway that comes into the north of Santiago. I noticed yesterday that there’s still only one (easily miss-able) sign and that the limit (surprise, surprise!) has been reduced to 40. As the man said the other day, “low hanging fruit”.

We’ve had terrific weather here in recent weeks but his morning dawned very cloudy. I read in the local paper that the skies would be clear by midday. Which seemed unlikely when I looked at them at 11.45. But then I recalled that ‘midday’ in Spain is when you have you main meal. So I wasn’t too surprised that things were a lot better by 3pm.

Finally . . . I touched recently on the summer spat between Spain and Morocco over the Spanish colony (sorry, “enclave”) of Melilla in north Africa. Click here for a better understanding of the backcloth to this.

Finally, finally . . . A plug for my elder daughter’s new novel., which is “A fast-paced political thriller but, above all, a personal tale of pride and paranoia.” – Ángel Valdés has it all: women, peace – and absolute power. But when an overheard remark ignites his jealousy of a long-dead comrade, Ángel finds himself gambling everything to become the undisputed hero of his country. My daughter adds . . . "I'll be publishing a chapter of the novel here every week while I submit it to various UK and US agents. Please feel free to leave constructive comments!" So, go on.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Having firstly dropped off one of my younger daughter’s friends at Santiago airport this morning and then picked up another two arriving from Rome, we repaired to the city centre. Where they decided not to join the massive queue for the only entrance open this Xacobeo year. Before this, though, we had to run the usual gauntlet of young women standing outside the numerous cake shops, offering taster samples of the tarta de Santiago on sale within. I mention this because the first young lady who accosted us turned out to be from neither Galicia nor any other part of Spain but Bulgaria. I’m guessing some of our many unemployed find this work unattractive. Coincidentally, a Bulgarian family has just moved into one of the houses in the development in which I live. They seem to be doing better than the Rumanians. Or at least those who spend all day on their knees in the streets of Santiago, head permanently bowed and a placard in front of them explaining (in bad Spanish) why they need one’s charity. As I said to my daughter, they do add an extra touch of medievality to the city.

Talking of unemployment . . . I believe the government has announced additional payments for those who’ve theoretically come to the end of their (18 or 24 month?) unemployment pay period. This hasn’t stopped the country’s trade unions attacking it for the proposed reforms of the labour laws. Indeed, the unions have accused the government of planning to “criminalise” the unemployed. I’m not sure quite how.

Interesting to read that Vivien Leigh, of “Gone with the Wind" fame, suffered from what’s called these days bi-polar condition and used to be called manic depression. According to a new biography, she was prone – while at one end of the spectrum, I guess – to satisfy a voracious sexual appetite by visiting male brothels. Impossible to see how this would be kept out of today’s even-more-voracious media.

Which reminds me . . . El Mundo today gave us the foto of Kylie Minogue which Facebook has banned as too salacious.

Finally . . . You can buy T-shirts along the Camino which sport - on a black background - the large yellow arrow used as a way-marker along the various routes into Santiago. Seeing a group of men wearing these and having been told by my daughter what the arrow represented, one of her friends then asked “But how long do they have to stand at the side of the path?” . . .

Monday, August 23, 2010

Flicking through El País this morning – in between chauffeuring stints – I caught sight of an article which seemed to address the impact on religion on business cultures. I didn’t have time to read it but one of the quotes from it intrigued me – something along the lines that in Catholic cultures, by analogy with the institution of confession, everything is forgiven. My immediate thought was there might be some connection between this assertion and my oft-cited view that Spanish are the world’s best apologisers. For things they should never have done in the first place and for which they clearly expect to be immediately forgiven. But then I thought “Hang on. I was brought up a Catholic myself and don’t adopt the stance that I can do anything that pleases me, just so long as I apologise immediately (and with apparent conviction/repentance) to anyone who’s upset by it.” And I don’t think other Catholic people – the Irish, for example. Or the Poles – go through life like this. So, back to the drawing board.

I mentioned yesterday the increased capability of the Spanish police to crack down on speeding foreigners. Of course, this is not unconnected with the need for revenues to replace those from property transaction taxes and, in this, Spain is certainly no exception - as this quote from a UK paper shows:- “Motorists' wallets are low-hanging fruit. . . . Where there's green, there's gold, as far as the taxman is concerned, and so councils, using the language of environmentalism to squeeze drivers to the bone, are now utterly dependent on the car. Indeed, car drivers are now so burdened that their role is starting to resemble that of non-Muslim dhimmis in medieval Islamic societies – an outsider group officially despised, yet one on which the state relies financially.”
Finally . . . On the theme of Anglo-centricity of Anglo cultures . . . Sky News this morning had as its lengthy lead item the imminent general election results in Australia. I find it hard to believe there are more than five non-antipodeans in the UK interested in these. All of these employed by Sky. But perhaps I’m wrong and there’s as many as ten. I mean, outside Australia, what difference does it make to anyone who won? There aren’t even any Rumanian gypsies there to either send back home or allow to stay and do whatever they like.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Reader Rudy feels that Britain isn’t necessarily as insane as I occasionally suggest. And he’s surely right. But here’s an article which possibly supports my contention.

Back to Spain . . . Here’s my stab at a translation of the letter to El Pais I quoted yesterday. I found this to be quite tough so will happily accept corrections from a Spanish reader. Or, indeed, anyone with better Spanish than me. Anyway, the drift is pretty clear:- For years we have been one of the de facto and de jure members of the economic, political and social warp of Europe. Our entry into the eurozone was deserved; we were at the head of the developed countries; and our economy responded to a solvency to which we were unaccustomed. Rather more recently, we slowly brought ourselves into line with that Europe which endures greater fiscal pressure, rules unrelated to morality and limitations on compromise. However, we haven’t copied work patterns which allow the conciliation of family stresses and the equalization of opportunity which improve one’s quality of life; we haven’t emulated the sense of responsibility which increases production and safeguards the economy; and we haven’t even copied the promotion of education founded on hard work as a fundamental value. So, the piecemeal copying of models which in the countries of their origin respond to a sensible and intelligent rationale represents a fatally cunning trap which condemns the Spanish people to an iniquitous democratic serfdom.

Finally . . . Impressive to read that the speed cops down south now have the technology to identify, pursue, stop and then impose humongous on-the-spot fines on all those foreign motorists who flash past the cameras sited a metre or so after the reduced speed limit sign. Desperate times, desperate measures. But why should they escape when I can’t? And who said things aren’t efficient here?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Time is tight again. So, here’s the original of an interesting letter to El Pais the other day, on the state of modern Spain. I’ll post a translation tomorrow but, in the meantime, Google may be able to give the drift . . . Hace años que somos uno de los miembros de hecho y de derecho que integran la urdimbre económica, política y social de Europa. La entrada en la "zona euro" fue digna, fuimos cabeza de los países desarrollados, nuestra economía respondía a una solvencia inusitada. También desde hace menos tiempo, paulatinamente homologamos de Europa aquello que comporta mayor presión fiscal, normativa que aparta de lo moral, así como aquello que restringe el compromiso. Sin embargo, no imitamos sus horarios laborales que permiten la conciliación familiar y la igualdad de oportunidades mejorando la calidad de vida del ciudadano, no copiamos la responsabilidad que acrecienta la producción y salvaguarda la economía, ni siquiera reparamos en promover una educación cimentada en el esfuerzo como valor elemental. Por ello, plagiar sesgadamente modelos que en sus países de origen responden a una justificación juiciosa e inteligente es una ladina trampa mortal que somete al pueblo español a un inicuo vasallaje democrático.

My younger daughter some time ago created a Facebook page for my dog, Ryan. Today Facebook told me he’d had found friends using their Friend Finder facility. Which means that he’s a lot cleverer than I thought. Or their claim is a load of codswallop. Probably the latter.

Gerard Brenan is a famous British Hispanicist. If I’d ever known about it, I’d forgotten that there was a dark stain on his life – the treatment of a 15 year old maid whom he impregnated and then abandoned, taking their daughter with him. A new book – “Ciega en Granada” by Antonio Ramos - provides chapter and verse of this maltreatment.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Down in North Africa, some sort of squabble is taking place between Spain and Morocco over one of the Spanish enclaves there. Melilla, to be exact. It always amuses me to see – in the right-of-centre El Mundo anyway – how differently this issue is treated from those surrounding Gibraltar. But, then, they are, in truth, very differentiable examples of overseas possessions belonging to ex colonial nations. No?

Back here on the mainland, Ministers Salgado and Blanco are indulging in their traditional game of Left Hand-Right Hand. This time over tax increases. The objective appears to worry people generally about the need to increase taxes but then proffer relief by stressing the rich will be hit hardest. But who really knows?

So, up in France they’re expelling Romanian gypsies while here in Spain they dominate the street begging industry And perhaps one or two others as well. Can both countries be operating under the same EU laws, but with differing interpretations? Or is it just a reflection of the fact they have a right-of-centre government north of the Pyrenees and we have a left-of-centre one down here?

Is Google going downhill? I ask because they’ve gone (In Google Reader) from saying I write 6.2 posts a week to claiming I pen 7.7. As I write exactly 7, it’s rather worrying they can’t get this simple calculation right. What does is say for the accuracy of their ‘targeted’ advertising?

An item from insane Britain - In Altrincham, Greater Manchester, thieves broke into a motorcycle showroom and stole three bikes. The police watched them roar off into the night but didn’t give chase because they felt it would be unsafe to do so. The thieves weren’t wearing helmets or protective clothing and it’s national police policy only to chase motorcyclists if they’re wearing the right safety gear.

Finally . . . An article to warm the cockles of Moscow’s heart. On the anglo-centricity of us Anglos. Being a regular watcher of France24, I’m not sure things are much better, mutatis mutandis, across the Channel. I’ve learned an awful lot about some obscure African states I’ve previously hardly heard of.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

I was the other day trying to convince a visitor that, if you ran numbers showing the average Spaniard that, if he sold one of the inherited family flats and invested the proceeds for 5 years, he’d then have more assets than if he just kept the place empty for this period, he’d just look at you as if you were mad. Here’s an extract from an IBEX Salad post which addresses this issue from a different standpoint:- “ . . the yield on property investments in this country, outside of certain large cities, is absolutely miserly and rare are the places in which rents will actually cover an 80 percent mortgage on a home. On the other hand, one would think that this same state of affairs would result in a vibrant rental market but, unfortunately, Spaniards do not arbitrage one against the other because the calculation – if that is what it is – made here is not based on squaring the books on a monthly basis but by way of a long term comparison of the perceived qualities of money and property. The latter wins hands down with certain very real, though not specifically quantifiable, effects on the real estate market.”

The emphasis is on “perceived qualities” and this helps to explain why very few of us foreigners understand the property market here. Or ever will. I’m reminded of my early days here, when the sellers of the first two properties on which I made offers immediately raised their asking price. And were surprised when I walked away. I’ve always assumed they felt that, if there was a Brit willing to buy the property anywhere near what they were asking for it, then they’d surely under-priced it. Or that there was a legion of bigger fools in the background.

But back to the humdrum . . . After a decade of telling me my kitchen was not as clean as perhaps it could be, my two daughters have finally accepted the sense of my standard response - “Well, I have absolutely no problem with you cleaning it.” As a result, I couldn’t get into the bloody place last night for the glare emanating from the combination of four white-tiled walls, a similarly surfaced floor and the serried ranks of gleaming white units.

Talking of my daughters . . . They’ve asked me why this is the fifth or sixth year in a row their sleep has been disturbed by granite-pounding machines on the building site thirty metres from their bedrooms. And, moreover, why on earth this starts at 8.30 (equals 6.30 in the UK) of an August morning. Not being privy to the secrets of the Spanish construction industry, what can I say other than Spain is sometimes very different not only from other countries but also from itself? My best guess is that the constructor is desperate to wring some more stage payments out of the poor deluded souls who in 2002-3 contracted to buy a re-sellable, high-profit-generating house for delivery in 2006. And to think I once laid a bet with a reader that they wouldn’t be finished until 2008!

My daughters have also requested I use a different fork for the fog food from the ones we use for our meals. To which I’ve replied that I certainly will when they’ve bought me a special canine implement. No wonder they come down with everything going round, despite their “healthy” eating. Or perhaps because of it.

What I’m waiting for is for my daughters to ask me why my shirts aren’t better ironed. But as young British women don’t seem to iron anything these days, this could be a long wait. Or at least a non-productive exchange. I don’t, by the way, imagine that young middle-class Spanish women (or men!) do very much more ironing than their British counterparts. Either they live at home and their mothers do it or they’re married and pay a cheap chica to do this. And much else.

Meanwhile, it’s now 10.15am and – with the dogs walked and fed, my shirts ironed and the dishes done - the only sign of any of my five house-guests has been my younger daughter coming down to complain that my clanging around (in sunglasses) in the kitchen was disturbing her even more than the granite-cracking machine.

Of which this is a foto . . .

Finally . . . My apologies to those who tried to get The Times article I cited in the initial version of yesterday's post. I forgot that this now needs a subscription.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I think I mentioned that the house next door was sold a month or so ago. Since when it’s been (noisily) stripped, refurbished and redecorated. The new owners and their kids put in an appearance today, with the latter taking the opportunity to lob several pieces of rotting fruit over the fence into my garden. Which is a promising start.

But, anyway, time is still at a premium. So I’ll leave you with an interesting article on how to deal with banks that are too big to fail.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

According to our local paper, the takings of the stallholders during this year’s Semana Grande are 30-40% down on last year. Which seems a lot to me. Perhaps they feel the taxman will be influenced by this claim. Assuming, of course, they pay any.

Pontevedra now has a new museum. It centres on a huge fosa (defensive ditch) just inside the medieval walls. This was unearthed a year or two back when one of the squares in our old quarter was being re-paved. There used to be a large mansion (El pazo del arzobispo)) on this spot but this, we’re told, was destroyed by marauding Brits in 1719, some of whose catapulted boulders are on display in the museum. Or will be when it’s finally opened. Which, I suspect, was originally scheduled for before the start of this year’s tourist season.

Talking about things that are slated to happen . . . .The local press recently reported on a protest against the ban on smoking in public places rumoured to be coming into force in January next year. This, the protesters say, will force people out on to the street in order to indulge their habit. By analogy with teenage binge-drinking - el botellón - this new group activity has been given the name el cigarillón. Some of us are less sympathetic to this plight than others.

Finally . . . Does anyone know whether the phrase territorio comanche has any particular meaning?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Those of you who read Graeme’s post on the socialist party primaries in Madrid will have come up against the Spanish word autobombast. This translates, rather less sonorously, as ‘self-praise’ and I guess it comes from the same Latin root at ‘bombastic’.

Interesting to see the German economy powering away on the back of a euro rate that suits that country now just as much as it did when it was introduced. But which is now even more inappropriate for the EU’s weaker economies such as Spain. Our friend Ambrose here asks whether the southern Europe states can withstand the ordeal they’re currently being subjected to. Which seems a fair question.

Quote of the Week

There are two Golden Rules for and orchestra. Start together and finish together. The public doesn’t give a damn what goes on in between. 

Sir Thomas Beechamp.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Five house-guests arrived today. It’s the last night of our August fiesta. And there’s fireworks at midnight. So no post tonight. Or at least not much of one.

Poem on the headstone of a grave in an English cemetery:-

Remember man, as you walk by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so shall you be.
Remember this and follow me.

To which someone had added:

To follow you I'll not consent.
Until I know which way you went.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

I confessed recently I sometimes feel I'm living in Wonderland. Which is doubtless the lot of expatriates everywhere. The feeling came over me again recently when reading of the upcoming primary elections for the socialist party candidate for the position of mayor of Madrid. Or maybe it was for president of the Madrid autonomous community (i. e. region). These jobs are both currently held by PP party members who are permanently at daggers drawn and I get rather confused about who does what. And who’s got it in for whom. Anyway, I was grateful today for this insight from fellow blogger Graeme, over at South of Watford. Although he’s certainly a man of the Left, my impression is Graeme’s no more impressed by the socialist shenanigans than I am.

Up here in the Pontevedra sticks, there was no mention of yesterday’s funeral parlour demolition in today’s papers. Naturally enough, they were rather more interested in the forest fire which killed two young fire-fighters yesterday. There’s a widespread belief in this conspiracy-oriented part of the world that most of our summer conflagrations are caused by pyromaniacs but I have my doubts. My suspicion is they’re largely down to aged farmers who let their brushwood fires get out of control. Either way, the consequences are always tragic for someone.

Taking my coffee this morning, I noticed that the bus parked outside the café belonged to a company called Viuda de Cándido. Or “Candido’s widow”. I’m aware of a champagne being named after a widow (Veuve Cliquot, as I recall) but not something as prosaic as a bus company. But why not? Anyway, its logo is a fancy VC. So I guess it’s a good job the husband wasn’t called David.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Well, my second visit to Vodafone didn’t even go as well as the first. I could have sworn that the (inevitable) bit of information said to be lacking yesterday was the number of my contract with Orange but they insisted today it had been my bank account number. So, a third visit tomorrow. Though possibly to another Vodafone outlet as I wasn’t too impressed by the manner of the woman who dealt with me. Even if this was probably because I insisted on seeing the contract and ticking the six boxes about not receiving publicity and having my details sold on to others, etc. Which she’d somehow neglected to ask me about yesterday when I signed the form.

Over in the UK, 34% of domestic consumers think the economy is in a “very bad state”. Things are worse in Japan, where this view is held by 41% of consumers. And worst of all here in Spain, where the figure is as high as 63%. With only 5% seeing the state of the economy as being “good”. And this was probably before Sr Zapatero warned us about next quarter’s likely performance. Thank God we’re all on holiday so don’t have to worry about this until September.

Much public expenditure in Spain – quite possibly most of it – falls to the autonomous regional governments and the financial crisis and the recession have left many of these struggling to generate income and to raise loans. In this post, fellow blogger Trevor Ap Simon in Barcelona points up how the desperate measures called for by desperate times run counter to the ‘nationalist’ tendencies that were so much more affordable when times were good. It’ll be interesting to see how this dichotomy is resolved. Will Spain suddenly take a step back from its trajectory towards a pluralist ‘Nation of nations’?

A new bit of Spanglish – el balconing. This is the leaping from hotel rooms into swimming pools and it is, of course, largely the preserve of drunken foreign youths. Several of whom have killed themselves in recent months. So, not so much death-defying as death-guaranteeing.

Which reminds me . . . I’m not sure if the illegal funeral home next to Pontevedra’s main hospital was knocked down at 10am this morning, as ordered by the courts after 17 years’ deliberation. There were hints in yesterday’s local press of some sort of deal and today’s headline was that things would take time because of the asbestos used in its construction. I’ll have to check tomorrow morning.

Finally . . . Three transliterations of common English words or phrases that were used in an article I read yesterday about ex President Aznar and his English pronunciation. As they took me a while to work out, I’ll pass this challenge to you:-
- Qüiqúens (or Güiqúens. Can't read my own note).
- Zanquiú
- Jelou

Thursday, August 12, 2010

I sometimes wonder whether I talk too quietly for Spanish ears that are used to being shouted at and assailed by round-the-clock café and bar music. This conversation today is not the first to leave me asking myself if my pronunciation can really be that bad. The scene is the lobby of a new small hotel I’ve just noticed down in the old quarter:-
Me (in Spanish, of course): Do you have a folleto (pronounced ‘foyeto’) of the hotel?
Receptionist: ¿Una tarjeta?

Just after this, I went to the Vodafone shop to talk about moving away from Orange. As you’d expect in Spain, this was a paper and signature-rich experience. In fact, I had to sign in three places on one piece. Anyway, all went well until we reached this point:-
Do you have the official piece of paper with your NIE [foreigners’ identity number] on it?
You’ve just seen and photocopied my residence card with my NIE on it.
Yes but these are not valid any more and we need to make a copy of the new form they issue.
My card doesn’t expire until 2011.
Yes but we need the new form.
No you don’t and if my card’s good enough for the Tax Office, my bank and the supermarkets it’s good enough for you.
But we need the new form.
Well, I haven’t got one and I’m not about to go and get one. My NIE is on the card you've just copied. If it's not valid, why did you copy it?
OK. No problem.

Then I was told off in the vegetable shop for breaking a huge piece of ginger into two halves. Even though I was buying both of them.

A frustrating sort of day really, as after Google had advised me this morning of changes to the format of their Gmail page I had problems getting into both their ‘Dashboard” and into Google Reader and then back to my email page. Surely no coincidence but can they really have cocked up so royally? Incidentally, the advice from Google was “We have pruned our pixels”. Presumably telling you they’d simplified the page is just too old-fashioned and un-hip.

Accustomed as I am to thinking of Spanish trains as pretty damn good these days, it was a shock to receive these details of a trip to France made my a friend of mine last Sunday:-
1. Arrived at local station to be told there was no train because of a technical problem
2. Advised we’d be getting a bus to León and picking up a train there
3. Advised that the bus had been cancelled
4. Advised that we would now be getting a bus sent from Vigo to take us up to Ourense and catching a train there
5. Advised that the bus from Vigo hadn’t arrived and we’d be going by taxi to Ourense
6. Taken by taxi to Ourense
7. Caught a train there in which the air-conditioning had broken, in temperatures of 30+
8. Arrived at the border several hours late
9. Got to my hotel very late. Kitchen closed. No dinner.
As she put it, “A routine trip to or from Galicia”. So I really shouldn’t have been shocked. I know this line to France is very much a poor relation.

And, to complete this saga of service problems, I’ll just say that anyone wanting to use the ALSA BUS web page should be prepared for a lot of frustration. In a word, it’s useless. At least if you’re trying to find out how your daughter can get from Oporto airport to Vigo. Ironically, the company has as its logo – “Making travel simpler”. But it would, wouldn’t it?

Finally . . . The good news. I engaged my new friend in the bar today and stared him straight in the eyes while we went through an editorial in the Voz de Galicia. He seemed thrilled. And gave me rather more details of his life and health than I really wanted. But he’s a retired surgeon so at least I’ve gained a good enchufe. And these things count in Spain.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Spain’s vacillatory President Zapatero seems to be outdoing himself. Having announced market-pleasing budget cuts a few weeks ago, he’s now retracted on a chunk of them. Needless to say, this has not gone down well with said markets. On the other hand, he might just be shedding a bit of his misplaced Pollyanna optimism; he’s warned us that the third quarter numbers might not be good. Which suggests the Spanish economy is heading back into ‘negative growth’ territory. August is a good time to announce these things, of course, as virtually everyone is distracted by vacations and fiestas. So it’s unlikely his popularity rating will drop below that of the leader of the Opposition, Sr Rajoy. Even if his party is eight or nine points behind the latter’s in the polls.

It seems to me the Galicians can be rather English before switching to being totally Spanish. By which I mean they show quite a bit of reserve, for possibly years, before ditching it completely once you’ve “arrived”. I say this because one of the waitresses in my lunchtime tapas bar told me today that one of the other regulars has complained that I’m not responding as warmly as he’d like to his expressions of interest in what I’m reading and to his question as to whether I want any help with vocabulary. I am, he’s told her, “un hombre peculiar” and “un rata de biblioteca”. This is because I don’t leave off reading my newspaper when he greets me. Worse, I don’t always look him directly in the eye when I’m talking to him. And this from a man who didn’t acknowledge my existence for several years and who often doesn’t look up to greet me when I come in. But, anyway, I must endeavour to be more Spanish, now that he’s become so. Kisses tomorrow, then.

In like vein, the daughter of the owner of another favourite tapas bar has gone from offering me a single free glass of liqueur (un chupito) three months ago to now putting the entire bottle on the table and insisting I take as much of it as I want. And this after eight years or more of me going there every couple of weeks or so, during which it was quite difficult to get even a free smile out of anyone.

This may be hard to believe but, as I’ve been typing this, my nice-but-noisy neighbour, Toni, has arrived at my door with a gift of six red wine glasses (copas). His wife, he says, noted that I was down at the pool earlier this week, with friends, drinking decent Rioja from inappropriate glasses. So she bought me these. Leaving me rather lost for words.

But back, finally, to Spanish culture. Possibly not having left it. There was an interesting article by the British historian Henry Kamen in El País today. On . . . err . . . bullfighting. Here’s Google’s translation, tarted up by me. Even if you can’t face it, you should at least scroll down to the note at the end, for a smile.

“Considerations on the 'National Fiesta’ [bullfighting]”, by Henry Kamen 

The El Mundo editorial that commented on the ban on bullfighting in Catalonia was quite right when it declared “It is a prohibition that seeks only to punish Spain." The always-intelligent Luis Maria Anson in his Canela fina of 29 July spoke of the "politicisation" of the issue. There are valid reasons to ban the spectacle, for example, on grounds of cruelty to animals, but neither Carod-Rovira, nor the vast majority of Catalan deputies who voted in favour of banning the bulls stand out as supporters of the movement to protect animals. His motivation was none other than to attempt a blow against the dominance of Spain. The ban is essentially a political issue and can only be reversed through political means, in Barcelona or Madrid.

However, the proposal of the PP party to reverse the ban, by legally protecting the spectacle, is based on a totally wrong view of the role that the Fiesta has played in the culture of Spain. I do not know if Rajoy has studied the history of Spain, but before rushing towards a blind public defence of the corrida, he should reflect a little.

The symbolic battle in public between men and animals can be found in many cultures around the world and has been described in many famous works of art. It evolved as a struggle to affirm man's sexual superiority and there is evidence that it was practiced in the Mediterranean from very early times. The bull became the symbol of machismo, of power, of the male thirst for blood. However, contrary to what many writers have said in the press recently, bullfights were never the National Fiesta of Spain, any more than auto de fe was.

In the early years of modern times, the most famous kings of Spain opposed the corridas. Queen Isabella of Castile attended one and was so horrified she refused to attend another one. Charles V never went to them. Like his great-grandmother Elizabeth, Philip II did not like the corridas and generally avoided them, but he took no action to impose his preferences on the Spanish. Sometimes he banned the spectacle when specific communities requested this (as the citizens of Ocaña did in 1561).

On the other hand, when in 1566 the Madrid Cortes asked for a ban on all corridas in the kingdom (and, it is superfluous to say there was no Carod-Rovira in that session of parliament!), he refused to respond on grounds that it was a traditional custom, and he did not want to ban a popular spectacle. Surprisingly, however, he gave full freedom to those who wished to ban the spectacle in Castilla. In 1568, Spain allowed the publication of a papal decree in 1567 declaring the corridas unlawful. Personally, he hated them. On major holidays, he preferred to remain alone in the palace at work, while everyone else went to the bullfight. On the feast of San Juan, 1565, for example, there was a special corrida for the court. All the nobility attended it, but not the king. At perhaps the happiest moment of his life, his marriage to Anna of Austria in 1570, he forbade the celebration of a corrida as part of the planned festivities.

Bullfighting fans normally avoid referring to facts like those just mentioned. Maintaining, perhaps, that the Fiesta was universally popular and the hostility of the ruling elite was irrelevant. Unfortunately for them, the facts show that the corridas were not generally accepted in the country.

In the 18th. century the great reformer of Spain, the minister Jovellanos, took the first steps towards an examination of the state of bullfighting. Like other ministers who supported the Enlightenment, he called the bullfights violent and ferocious, and felt it was time for "ferocity" in Spain to cease being a civic virtue. Almost without exception the corrida was rejected by the educated elite and the Europeanised intellectuals. When, in 1767, Jovellanos requested a report on the spectacle, it turned out that corridas were regularly held in only 185 towns in Spain, which led to the conclusion it could not be considered a national activity. The government adopted a plan which proposed abolishing it within four years from the date of the report. In practice, Spanish inertia ensured that nothing was done until a 1786 law that banned it, but even then nothing happened and it had to be banned again four years later.

In the last years of the 18th. century, therefore, the corrida was by no means the National Fiesta of Spain. Jovellanos discovered that it was unknown in the entire northern half of the Peninsula, except for the Basque Country. As late as 1800, there were no bullfights in Cataluña, Galicia or Asturias. This is a fact that the Spaniards seem to ignore. The public was shaken out of its happy disobedience to the prohibition when a torero bled to death when he was gored in front of Queen Maria Luisa. In consequence, in 1805, Minister Godoy banned it again. In practice, however, it continued and, indeed, reached its peak, while the figure of the bull became a kind of symbol of Spanish identity.

What is indisputable, in view of these facts, is that it is the Government of Castilla – effectively that of Spain - which has most often banned bullfighting.

In Cataluña, everyone knows that the corrida has no roots in popular culture. It was introduced as a foreign import little more than a century ago and without any popular support. The current Barcelona bullring, the Monumental, was opened less than a century ago, namely in 1914. Even before that date, the lack of support for the corrida was obvious. The Catalans considered it a sign of the backwardness of Spain as regard Europe. Dr. Robert, Mayor of Barcelona, organized in 1901 a popular assembly in which he called for its abolition. Since then, there have been several attempts to introduce a ban, but all failed. Until now.

At one time or another, of course, the Governments of Spain, not only those of Cataluña, have tried to suppress popular spectacles of all kinds. In the 17th. century, the Madrid government banned the popular theatre, but only for a short time (Prohibitions "have never succeeded", admitted an official report of1672). The prohibitions affected many other leisure activities, but all without exception were a dead letter. One of the most interesting was that of the carnival, disobeyed from the moment it was pronounced. At the same time, opposition to the bulls was widespread among the educated classes in Castilla. Miguel de Unamuno said that flamenco, bullfighting and the operetta were "a plague" that, instead of teaching people to think, satisfied them with "absurdities and atrocities."

In other words, the world of popular entertainment was a battle between two political trends in Spain. This division still exists. The Catalan Socialists claim to support the measure because they want to defend animals. This is obviously false. But it is also a lie that the proponents of the corridas are defending a National Fiesta. Spain, and especially Castilla, have never had a truly national Fiesta - as previously noted, the governments of Castilla banned corridas more often than any other in the peninsula. The PP party, which seems to be defending the idea of a National Fiesta, should refrain from entering an arena where they will be defeated and where their leader may even lose an ear.

Let those who have inspired the ban come to terms with their own voters about abolishing a spectacle that really only has roots deep in the regions of Catalonia which vote socialist. 

Editor’s Note: One of the above sentences was translated by Google as “The public came out of his disobedience to the prohibitions happy when a torero bled because of a fuck to death in the eyes of the Queen Maria Luisa.” I was tempted to leave it in but decided against it. As you can see, Google haven’t quite cracked the challenge. Think of horns.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

I rarely go down to the pool in the communal garden of my community. And I jump in it even less. But it’s been very hot of late and, besides, with my daughters and their friends about to descend on me, I felt it’d be good if I could swap my winter whiteness for at least a nice shade of summer pink. So I took myself down there at 4 this afternoon, expecting to be the only person there. But there were three teenage girls in their bikinis there and these were soon joined by two of their friends. Feeling a little self-conscious, I buried myself in my book and did my utmost to ensure there could be no accusations of prurience. But it’s one of the great things about Spain that young women are not taught to assume all men are perverts and, in truth, I doubt this even crossed their minds. In due course, another three young women arrived but – fortunately or unfortunately – my self-allotted hour was up and I made my way back to the house. Having had my day considerably brightened. Not to mention my skin.

If you want to tell a driver his/her lights aren’t on in Spain – or at least here in Galicia – you use a quacking-duck’s-beak gesture with one of your hands. The one used in the UK to tell someone they’re talking too much. Merely pointing at the headlights seems to have no effect at all. As I know from frequent failed attempts at helpfulness.

Finally . . . I read today that the band which played at the recent bullfights here in Pontevedra has threatened to forego the honour next year. It seems they’re fed up with all the insults directed at them during the proceedings. I suspected the audiences here were not out of the taurino top drawer and were basically there for the fun. But I never realised things were this bad. The bulls will be pulling out next.

Monday, August 09, 2010

It being summer and the height of the tourist season, bagpipers and dancers in traditional Galician dress are thick on the ground down in Pontevedra’s old quarter. As they’re always voluminously dressed in what looks like a very heavy black material (serge?), I always feel rather sorry for these performers even when the weather’s cool. But, when it’s as hot as it’s been for the last two weeks, my heart goes out to them. No wonder they never smile.

Speaking of bagpipe players . . . The nationally-popular group, El Sueño de Morfeo, came on stage last night to the sound of a violin and bagpipe duo. As the group hails from next-door Asturias, my first thought was this was a reflection of Celtic traditions there. But then I recalled that only Galicia is allowed to lay claim to these and immediately banished this traitorous thought from my brain.

On Sunday, El País devoted two and a half of its first three pages to information on Cuba’s President Castro. Can he really be that important?

Talking of odd news items . . . I see that over in Britain the Catholic Church will be charging up to 25 quid for entry into Masses being celebrated by the Pope. OK, it’s not as bad as selling indulgences but it still seems pretty mercenary to me. I was tempted to say the Church had hit a new low but half a second’s thought about its recent history knocked this notion firmly on the head.

Finally . . . My friend Alfie – who I thought only read my blog when he knew I was going to publish something from him – has sent me this note about last night’s reference to the bullfights:-

Dear Colin,

Shame on you! All it takes is the promise of free booze for you to sit through a show of open air butchery. Together with the rest of the beastly crowd.

You say that yesterday’s score was 6 bulls down against 0 toreros hurt. Some surprise. Last time I looked, the annual score stood at some 7,000 bulls against 0.13 toreros. Which ratio will not equal out until the bulls are trained as well as the men. For let’s face it: the bulls have no idea what they are getting into. They do it for the first time and the last. The toreros, on the other hand, can predict every move and every behavioural feat of the bull. Some Fair Fight!

Let’s make a collection and train a few bulls to go for the man rather than the mantle! And let’s see how ‘courageous’ and ‘heroic’ our butcher-apprentices in a clown’s costume then turn out to be! Not one of them will dare to step into the ring!



Sunday, August 08, 2010

I’m a little confused by what’s going on in one of the wi-fi cafés I use. A couple of weeks ago, a computer terminal was installed at each end of the place and I assumed we were moving away from the system of giving your table number at the bar so they could check what you’d had from a scrap of paper on a numbered board on the wall and charge you accordingly. And, indeed, for a day or so we were issued with an invoice spat out by the computer, which we then took to the counter and paid against. But then things went back to how they’d been before, the only difference being that the board now has the receipts from the computer and not the bits of paper written by the waitresses. I’m not clear that this is progress, despite the increased expense of the new system. But I do know this is one of the few places in town where the prices have risen in the last two or three years. And that I’ve lost a plug socket for my laptop.

I see that the funeral parlour illegally built next to Pontevedra’s main hospital seventeen years ago will be demolished on 12 August. And then re-built. Maybe.

Please don’t tell Alfie but I accepted an invitation from a friend who’s a founder member of one of Pontevedra’s oldest peñas and attended the bulls last night. You can tell where the peña’s real loyalties lie from its name – Gin Kas – and, in truth, the program of eating and drinking both before and (long) after the actual corrida was way beyond my capacities. As I’ve said before, the Spanish take their merry-making very seriously and are ruthlessly efficient at it. The bullfight itself naturally evoked all my ambiguities about this "art form" but was at least notable for the six very clean kills. Though I doubt I’ll ever get used to people cheering the still-less-than-instantaneous death of an animal on these grounds. The score, of course, was the same as ever – Toreros 6: Bulls 0 – and the latter are never going to get promotion to the Primera League until they shape up.

Tonight is the last of the corridas and, therefore, the last time this year the poor residents of Pontevedra’s old quarter will have to suffer the binge drinking, urinating and vomiting (the botellón) which accompanies them. They have protested, naturally enough, that the botellón is no longer permitted in the city and that, furthermore, it doesn’t rank as one of the traditional fiestas for which an exception is made to the noise regulations. But deaf ears have been turned to their complaints, at least for this year. Which is, ironically, what you need to allow you to get any sleep at all on these two weekends of the year.

Finally . . . For those here in Spain irritated by telemarketers, here’s some sound advice from David Jackson. Incidentally, I find David’s blog slow to open, so don’t worry if this happens to you.

Friday, August 06, 2010

With one thing and another, time is very tight. So, following on last night’s complete failure to appear, here’s a cop out . . . .

In the UK, happiness peaks at 74. Teenagers rank their contentment at 5.5 on scale of 7. Levels then decline, dropping to 5.0 at 40. But they then rise to hit 5.9 at 74.
Social Indicators Research. Feb. 2010

In Eastern Europe, it's the countries which were too poor - or lazy - to dub their TV programs into their own language that now speak the best English. [Contrast Spain, where Franco’s efficient industry remains very much in place and English levels are low.]

The word “progressive” once meant something quite definite. In the early 20th century, it stood for the constellation of ideas on the margins of the socialist movement – free love, atheism and dietary reform. All middle class. The type of people George Orwell used to love to mock. Then something strange happened. The broad river of socialism dissipated into a mass of little rivulets – rights for women, for gays, for blacks, for animals, for anyone, in fact, except workers. The progressivists took over. They became New Labour. Now they are extending their grip over the Tories. We are all progressive now. Or at least pretend to be.
Edward Skidelsky.

Finally, courtesy of an exchange with my friend Alfie Mittington, I’ve been reminded of this article which encapsulates my attitude towards salad. Alfie says it makes its point at much greater length than is truly necessary. Which might strike a few of you as a bit rum . . .

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Well, my visitor and I were successful today in getting the Pontevedra branch of Banco Santander both to give him some cash and to arrange a transfer from his account up in Monforte de Lemos. But it took us well over an hour and it will need the obligatory follow-up visit tomorrow to complete the copious paperwork. Today’s joke from Monforte was that they couldn’t do anything in response to my friend’s communications from Ireland because they didn’t have his signature on file. Which didn’t quite fit with the fact he’d initiated transfers from a Huelva branch on previous visits. Nor did it explain why they hadn’t replied to any of his letters and emails.

But, anyway, the hour it all took gave me another opportunity to witness the Byzantine processes of a Spanish bank. These included the teller taking a photocopy of my friend’s passport, faxing it to Monforte, calling someone there and then asking us to wait until the backlog in their machine could be cleared so the fax could be retrieved and read and a phone call made back to Pontevedra to confirm my friend could have his money. Quite why his account book and his passport weren’t sufficient is beyond me. Especially as he's red-haired and has a patch over one eye.

What really caught my eye, though, were the antics of a teller who arrived at her desk when there was a line of fifteen people waiting at the only window which was open, faffed around for five minutes or more, stuck up a notice on her side of the screen, faffed around for a few more minutes and then disappeared for half an hour. After she’d returned, she did a bit more faffing before finally condescending to deal with some of the long-suffering customers. The sign, by the way, advised that – during next week’s fiesta – the bank will only be open for three hours a day, between 9.30 and 12.30. Perhaps she was already in training for these reduced hours.

But, on a higher plane, The Economist magazine has declared that “After procrastination and paranoia, it is high time for some prime-ministerial leadership in Spain, and Mr Zapatero looks to be out of his depth.” This was, unfortunately, in an article available only to subscribers but here’s a resumé of it from Europa Press, translated by Google, with a few revisions by me . . . 

The British weekly The Economist believes that the Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, is currently "on the ropes" and must "juggle" to stay in power until the end of his term, pressed by budget deficit problems and the pressures of Catalan and Basque nationalists. However, it admits that Zapatero "is changing his attitudes and started to defend positions that "one does not expect from a socialist. "

In an article entitled 'The juggling Zapatero', the magazine notes in its latest issue that the Spanish president "came to be regarded as a political magician whose sleight of hand distracted from the problems of his country" . "However", it continues, "now the circus skill needed by the Spanish Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is that of a tightrope-walker."

"The summer holidays, the victory of Spain in the World Cup and the positive results in the bank stress tests have allowed for some calm amidst the storms that enveloped the country when the markets turned their eyes from Greece to Iberia" writes the newspaper.

"However, Zapatero must now juggle if he wants to stay in power until the end of his second term in 2012," it continues. "For the economy to survive, it must satisfy investors who have bought Spanish debt. And for the government to survive, it must satisfy the Catalan and Basque nationalists who support his minority government," it warns.

According to 'The Economist', the two immediate challenges for Zapatero will be the debate on the State Budget and the Catalan regional elections, both scheduled for autumn.

As regards the budget debate, the paper argues that, should he lose the support of the Far Left and the Catalan nationalist parties, the president will be at the mercy of the six members of the Basque Nationalist Party, which will use this advantage to try to get a number of concessions and the right to "create Basque sports teams" or the ability to "hold referendums in two small enclaves that the PNV considers to be Basque"

Additionally, according to the British weekly, the Convergence and Union (CiU) Party has a good chance of unseating the socialist government in Cataluña, which "involves adjustments in the political balance elsewhere, especially in Madrid." The president of the PP, Mariano Rajoy, wants CiU, which has been critical of Zapatero's lukewarm reforms warm, help to overthrow the government," the report added.

According to The Economist, "there are indications that the Spanish prime minister is changing his attitude. "In a revealing interview with El País on 25 July, Zapatero acknowledged that the markets had taught him a lesson" and even said that "on 9 May he had stayed up all night waiting for the opening of the Nikkei, while the European finance ministers reached an agreement to avoid a severe sovereign debt crisis on the Continent." 

"This is not the kind of comment one would expect from a socialist," said the weekly. In any case, admits The Economist, "it is unlikely that Zapatero will put forward new proposals until after the general strike on September 29, called by the two main unions."

Meanwhile, it’s August. And absolutely nothing ever happens in this month. Barring the occasional assassination of an Austrian Archduke.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Of cafés and wi-fi and things. One of those days . . .

09.00: Switch on laptop in a café in the north of the city. Await waitress. Waitress arrives and takes my order for coffee. Struggle with connection for several minutes. Switch off and on.
09.10: Go to the bar to seek the security code in case this is the problem. Waitress now tells me the wi-fi isn’t working.
09.15: Pay for pointless coffee and go in search of alternative wi-fi café.
09.25: Find one and take the precaution of asking whether the wi-fi is working. Receive the answer that it is. Order a bottle of water.
09.30: Decide the wi-fi isn’t working and mention this to the waitress. “Funny, “she says. “It was working yesterday.”
09.31: Reflect on the fact that no one has said “Sorry” so far this morning. Or anything remotely resembling it.
10.00: Arrive at house in the hills to await delivery of washing machine promised for “first thing”.
13.00: Call Carrefour to ask where it is. “Funny”, they say. “It should have been there first thing”.
13.30: Get message to say the truck is not far away and should be there by two o’clock.
15.00: Call man on truck, who says they’ll be there immediately
16.00: Truck finally arrives. Washing machine successfully installed.
17.30: Go to the station to await friend arriving from Santiago by train and finally find a wi-fi connection that’s working.
19.00: Friend calls to say he got the bus from Santiago and is now waiting outside my house.
20.00: Go to dinner with friend, who asks why the Spanish around him are as noisy as he and his colleagues in Ireland need many drinks to achieve.
20.01: Admit that I have no explanation for this. Or, indeed, for anything that’s happened today.

Other than ‘Spain is different’, of course.

23.55: Worse for wear, write and post pathetic blog and go to bed.

Monday, August 02, 2010

I signed off last night with praise for the Spanish athlete Jesús España. I couldn’t help think again of his noble attitude when I saw the headline in El Mundo to the effect that Spain’s best had been squeezed out by ‘naturalised’ athletes from other countries. I seem to recall there was a gold-winning Spanish long jumper a couple of years ago who’d originally been Cuban. Can’t recall El Mundo going big on this at the time. But maybe it did and suggested she return her medal. Can it really be that the paper objects to British and French athletes of (recent) African origin?

Yes, I know I said there wouldn’t be any more articles on bullfighting but here’s a nice one from a Spanish – indeed a Galician - writer and in English. Some readers may recall that Miguel-Anxo Murado is the author of a recent book entitled “Another Idea of Galicia” (Otra idea de Galicia) previously cited here. Which is an excellent read that I never got round to summarising for my Galicia page. Bullfighting, he says, is shrouded in nostalgia and indifference. And dying everywhere in Spain. What more needs to be said?

Much as I enjoy life in Spain, I do sometimes wonder whether I’m living in Wonderland. No more so than when I read of buildings that have been adjudicated illegal and must now be demolished. Recent examples include a massive block of flats in Vigo, a smaller block of only 144 flats in La Coruña, and today the funeral parlour that was built next to Pontevedra’s main hospital 17 years ago. The fact that many (all?) of these buildings will escape demolition adds another dimension to the fantasy world.

Then there was the local religious fiesta reported last weekend in which several of the faithful turned up in their own coffins. With help, obviously. Their legs weren’t sticking through the bottom.

All of which reminds me . . . I mentioned the other week that banks here can act as if their sister offices are on another planet. Tomorrow I have a friend arriving who’s only making the trip because he can’t get the Monforte de Lemos branch of Banco Santander to respond to any of his communications about moving his money. Over the last week, I’ve striven to get the Monforte manager to arrange for someone in Pontevedra to deal with this. His response – “Better that he comes here so we can talk face-to face.” As this is a four hour round trip, it gives a good insight into his concept of customer service. And his explanation for the bank’s failure to respond to any communication in two years? – “Change of personnel”. I can think of another change that seems to recommend itself. No doubt he'll be delightful - and fulsomely apologetic - if we do have to make the trip. But words, of course, are cheap.

Finally . . . I went to the new Los Castellanos bar today, to check out the place and to use their wi-fi before repairing to the Siglo next door for my midday wine and tapa. Not too impressed that the waitress didn’t know what wi-fi was and then wrongly told me I didn’t need a code for access. Won’t be rushing back. Though this is not what I told the head barman at the Siglo when we talked (yet again) about the need for wi-fi in the place. I sense he’s running scared and am going for the kill. This lying business can be quite useful.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

More fun on the streets of Pontevedra last night, with several more itinerant groups doing their stuff in the squares of the old quarter. Including this one of be-stilted devils and zombie drummers.

Prior to seeing these, I had to wade my way through hundreds of inebriated youngsters who’d spent the evening throwing wine both at each other and down their own throats. It says something about Spanish youth that not one drop was aimed at me as I threaded my way through the more-than-happy throng. Two questions asked themselves as I did so - Can some of the girls really be as young as they look, which is about twelve? And why does one only see young men urinating in the corners of the calles? Anyway, it was impressive to see the municipal teams already clearing up as the bacchanal progressed. Just as well, really, as the place was awash with plastic bags and bottles. All good, clean fun. Which left me with the final question of whether only a country so previously Catholic as Spain can indulge so wholeheartedly and so innocently in rites so pagan in their origin.

As for the young men peeing in the streets, there was a cartoon in El País today which centred on a Spanish spacecraft on its way to Mars. In the corner of one part of it, a damp area was labelled “Meado’s corner”. Mear meaning ‘to pee’ in Spanish. So, a national institution, I guess. Like bullfighting.

Talking of which, the second of our four annual bullfights is tonight. And here’s positively the last article on this subject. El País today reported the none-too-surprising finding that only 40% of Spaniards support the activity but 52% don’t think it should be banned. Which it probably isn’t going to be in any other part of Spain for quite some time. Though doubtless the Galician nationalists will be promoting this very soon. If they haven’t already started doing so.

I said the other day that the leader of the Opposition - son-of-Pontevedra Sr Rajoy - would be attending the corridas, as he always does. He was filmed leaving Madrid by car, talking to a colleague by his side. Neither of them was wearing the obligatory seat belt. So, what does this say about the Spanish approach to rules? Nothing new, I guess. Like all good Spaniards when caught out, he has since apologised profusely. So that’s that.

I mentioned a week or two ago a new bar in the town centre called Los Castellanos. My own favourite place, El Siglo, is next door and I was asked yesterday by one of the bar girls there whether I’d been in the new place. When I said not, she seemed surprised. “People say we’re losing customers to it”, she told me. “Why would they transfer their custom?” I asked. “Because it’s new!” she retorted, in tones which suggested I was an idiot for not appreciating this. And then I recalled how often over the last ten years I’d been told that a new place was the latest fashionable place to go to in this snobby, funcionario-ridden little provincial capital. Beats me. But Los Castellanos does have wifi and I’m now using this factor to crank up my campaign for this in El Siglo.

Finally . . . What a delightful show of Spanish nobility when Jesús España (what a name!) fulsomely congratulated Mo Farah after he’d pipped him to line to win the 5,000 metres at the European Championships yesterday.