Tuesday, December 21, 2010

There’s a couple who frequent the same café-bar as me every day and have done so for several years. We’ve never greeted each other during this entire period. Or not, as least, until yesterday, when the lady took me  by surprise by smiling at me. I, of course, reciprocated. The same thing happened today, so I guess the ice has been well and truly broken. I swear that the Gallegos are worse than the English at times.

One of the questions that’s hovered in the Spanish atmosphere for years is how solid is the acquisitive and apparently very successful Banco Santander. I have no idea but was interested to read this article (Anglo, of course) which suggests that, for macro reasons, a careful eye needs to be kept on the institution. “Banks which build themselves up to be the biggest and most diversified have always come unstuck in the end — Bank of America in the late 1980s, Citigroup and RBS in the recent crisis — partly because the challenge of risk control across such a vast portfolio of businesses becomes impossible, and partly because they become complacent believers in their own propaganda.”  We will see, I guess. Possibly after Sr Botín (now 75) finally retires.

For a number of reasons, I’ve been affected by a touch of melancholia over the past few days but nothing cheers one up more than one’s team beating a big-spending aspirant for the Premiership crown, at its home ground. As Everton did to Manchester City last night. Preventing them, it seems, going to the top of the league for more than eighty years. There must have been some disappointed Mancunians trudging home in the snow last night. But joy uncontrained in Liverpool. Or part of it anyway.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Over the years, I’ve occasionally cited advertisements for miracle products here which I suspected weren’t allowed to be promoted – or at least not in the same way – in other countries. So I wasn’t too surprised to read a week or so ago that the government intended tightening up on things in this area. I thought of this today when reading an ad in El País for a wonder cream that will rid you of your abdominal fat while you sleep. Tellingly, this was directed at men.

The decline in sales of holiday homes to foreigners here seems to be every bit as bad as that of sales to Spanish buyers, if not worse. One wonders if Spain is paying the price for all those cases of buyers being treated as gullible suckers by a combination of crooked politicians, lawyers and even notaries.

It’s interesting to note that, against the backcloth of reforms that will extend the working life of most Spaniards until 67, many thousands of employees of the savings banks that are being (forcibly) merged will be allowed to retire at 56. Doubtless on a very decent percentage of their final salary. It doesn’t seem right really. But whoever said life is fair?

Talking of luck . . .  A woman in La Coruña who lit a candle in the hope this would bring her a win on the huge Christmas lottery merely managed to set fire to her flat. I wonder if the insurance company will pay out.

Here’s an nice article on the difficulties of learning English in a Japanese context. According to the  writer – “Japanese language-education is largely a process of decoding words and analyzing syntax. Until this dreary methodology is abandoned, Japanese students will continue to find themselves disheartened and disinterested. . . . It is commonly said that Japanese people are not good at foreign languages. This is patent rubbish. The summit of that fluency mountain is accessible to people of all nationalities.” Which all seems rather familiar in a Spanish context as well. Incidentally, the writer reveals one example of the problems facing students of English – The word ‘momentarily’ means ‘soon’ in American English but ‘briefly’ British English.

Finally . . .  Two or three readers have been kind enough to advise that the show I cited the other night has also appeared in the USA and the UK. Which is something of a relief. By which I mean it’s good to know Spanish TV isn’t unique in sinking to these depths. And presumably wasn’t the first.

Friday, December 17, 2010

As the sun rises above the hills behind the city of Pontevedra, it silhouettes around 85 wind turbines on the distant ridges. Huge as they are in reality, they’re far enough away to be rendered tiny to anyone gazing from my house. And the bizarre effect, for me at least, is that of a mass crucifixion. Possibly the opening scene in some Biblical epic film.

But, anyway. . . The Galician government has announced that its new tourism theme is to be “Galicia: Will you keep me a secret”. This, at least, is one translation of the Spanish Galicia: ?Me guardas el secreto? Suggestions for better ones are most welcome. Galicia, we’re told “has the voice of a woman and her only objective is to seduce the visitor with mysteries, exoticism and tranquillity”. So, now you know. If Ryanair is flying here again next summer, why not see for yourself just how seductive the region is. After you’ve read this, of course.

Ther’s a program on Spanish TV which appears to plumb new depths of human degradation. The contestant answers Yes or No to the most remarkably personal questions and loses when he or she lies in response to one of these. To my disbelief, a woman this week answered Yes, in front of her husband, to questions such as “Do you regret marrying your husband” and “Have you ever regarded your husband as inadequate”. She lost her chance of big money when she answered No to the question “Have you ever been unfaithful to your husband” and was adjudged to have lied. I’d like to think Spain is not unique and that other countries in the world are capable of such evil prurience but I have no idea. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see the marriage surviving. Or the humiliated husband avoiding the need for psychological counselling. Unless, of course, it was all a set-up. The cynicism of the program makers and the directors of the channel which puts out the show are appalling but my guess is the viewing figures are huge. The Spanish have something of a liking for the sight of blood and gore. Albeit usually in the context of bullfights, murder reports and road accidents. After which this show must rank as the next best thing.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Carrefour is not my favourite shop but I went there tonight to buy a bed, in advance of a houseful of guests at the end of the year. The girl was charming and the transaction was duly done but, along the way, she confided that most of the things on offer in the catalogue I was perusing were no longer available. As this was a loose-leaf binder, the rejoinder was obvious. But I never made it. Paying for the bed naturally involved the showing and photocopying of my ID card, which contrasted markedly with DHL’s not asking for this when they delivered my new passport this morning. I would have thought the latter was worth more than a bed but, on the other hand, maybe I look like the sort of person the packet was addressed to and the guy just took a chance. Or maybe there’s just no logic at all.

We may be deep into an economic downturn from which Spain looks like taking a long time to emerge but there’s no end to public works all over Pontevedra. Especially disruptive roadworks. It’s been like this for at least ten years and, given the slow pace of it all, my guess is the current works will just be being finished when the first post-recession round begins. Assuming Spain has solved its debt crisis by then and can borrow enough money to throw at even more civic improvements.

Talking of the parlous economic situation, you might have expected this to be reflected in reduced sales of tickets for the two humungous lotteries that take place here at Christmas. No chance, it seems. Hope springs eternal, even if numeracy doesn’t.

So, the estimable Franz Beckebauer thinks that the FIFA voting system – under which Russia and Qatar gained the most recent World Cup awards – is a mockery. Well, he’s on pretty safe ground there. There’s probably only about twenty people in the world – plus the populations of these two countries, of course – who are going to disagree with him.

Finally . . .I wonder why you can buy a Kindle e-book reader for 98 dollars in the USA, against 200 euros (around 265 dollars) in Spain. Possibly the same reason why ADSL prices, inter alia, are so high here. Though I don’t know what this is.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Because of a painfully sensitive tooth I went to the dentist yesterday and was disappointed to be told that the earliest slot was 29 December. But, the receptionist added, there was a chance there’d be a cancellation today and she’d call me in the morning if so. Well, she didn’t but I went there anyway just after 1pm, to ask whether there was a product they’d recommend for my increasingly painful tooth. It turned out there’d been a cancellation for Thursday evening. So I booked this but repeated my enquiry about something I could put on the tooth in the meantime. Whereupon she told me that there’d also been a cancellation for 1.30 today, so I could have this if I wanted to. Which I did, of course. The lesson? In a country where everyone lives in the here and now, it’s worthwhile going on spec until something turns up. Waiting for a phone call may not be your best bet. Especially if everyone’s doing what you’re doing. In Spain, the most important customer is always the one in front of the provider. Even if he/she is interrupting someone else.

Reading John Carlin’s football column in El País last Sunday, I was again struck by how much easier it is to read articles that have been translated from English. I most commonly feel this when reading Timothy Gorton Ash’s prodigious output. Can it be that this is because much of the ‘music’ of English is maintained in the translation? Shorter sentences? Less flowery language? . . . Some professional translator (Dwight?) must have the answer to this. Assuming I’m not off beam with my observation.

Although Ryanair have cancelled all their flights from Galicia as on January 11, I still don’t believe the regional government will be so stupid as to let this happen and must be even now trying to find some face-saving solution to the problem. Just how important the airline is emerges from a report commissioned by the Santiago city council, showing that the company brings half a million visitors to the region per year. Or used to, at least. The (obviously miffed) council lays the blame for the current impasse on the Xunta’s ‘coffee-for-all’ policy of trying to spread international flights around Galicia’s three small airports. Which it then laughingly refers to as three separate terminals of a single Galician facility. You couldn’t make it up. Well, you could in a country where local rivalries are so intense.

Finally . . . The law which will ban smoking in all public places does now look as if it will come into force on the scheduled date of January 2. Just in time for those wanting to take the opportunity to give up the habit, El País has been offering an electric cigarette which comes in three flavours – mint, tobacco and ‘blond tobacco’. Never having indulged, I haven’t the faintest what the last of these is. Perhaps tobacco light.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Talking to a Spanish friend last night about my insistence that folk here lack social antennae, she told me that the Spanish use the expression poner las antenas to mean ‘to eavesdrop’.

Back to education. And to startling evidence that chucking money at a problem is rarely the real solution. Per capita spending is the USA is way above anywhere else and that of the UK is significantly higher than in countries which do far better. Most telling of all, two countries which do remarkably well – Finland and New Zealand – have low levels of per capita spend. Apart from (small) size and possibly greater social cohesion, I wonder what else they have going for them.

I’d guess everyone’s read or heard something about the wildcat strike of Spain’s air traffic controllers over last week’s long bank holiday. Ironically, it appears to have been triggered by (cackhanded?) attempts by Madrid to deal with what would be termed ‘Spanish practices’ in the UK. Or ‘intolerable privileges’ as the government here called them. It turns out there’s a long history of governmental incompetence in this area, leading to a denouement virtually guaranteed by the current administration’s habit of acting late and shooting from the hip on critical economic issues. Click here for more depth on this from Qorreo.

Locally, it’s interesting to read we may be having a Cataluña-type referendum on bullfighting here in Galicia and impressive to note that the region has regained its number one position as regards the entry into Europe of cocaine. Needs must, I guess.

Finally . . . If you’re not interested in the eurozone crisis, log off now . . . . . Otherwise, what on earth can be said, now that Germany and France have said No to the only conceivable (perceivable?) solution of a de facto debt union? Well, I guess the least we can say is that all bets are off. Our Ambrose opines, of course, that it’s “no surprise to eurosceptics that Europe should have reached this fateful point where leaders must choose between the twin traumas of EMU break-up or giving up their countries. Nor is it a surprise to an inner-core of schemers within the EU system, who have always calculated that they could exploit such a crisis to catalyse political union. However, it is a big surprise to Europe’s leaders, and they do not know what to do about it.” He goes on to say that “The reflex of the EU elites is to blame this structural mess on lack of [German] statesmanship”. But then asks “Was EMU not dysfunctional from the first day? Did it not inflict negative real interest rates on Club Med and Ireland in the boom years, driving them into disastrously pro-cyclical policies? Did it not lock in chronic imbalances between North and South? Has it not left victim states trapped in debt deflation or slumps which have gone too far to respond to an austerity cure, and from which there seems to be no escape on terms acceptable to Germany? Should we blame the current hapless leaders, or the guilty men of Maastricht who created this doomsday machine? If the project itself is rotten, surely what the eurozone needs most is an undertaker.”

We await developments with mouths open, as Europe’s politicians flounder in their attempts to defend and progress the political vision that they all bought into, without fully understanding its economic and social consequences. Meanwhile, I leave you with the views of one famous eurosceptic, while merely pointing out it’s possible to be in favour of the EU but against the premature introduction of European Monetary Union. Which, for what it’s worth, has been the stance of all British governments of recent times. Here’s just a sampler from the article, which will surely be accused of demonstrating rampant schadenfreude . . . . “All those snooty Europhile politicians and journalists who sneered at us for our doubts should be forced to crawl in penitence to Dublin Castle, scourging themselves with copies of the Maastricht Treaty. We have been vindicated, and the least they can do is admit it.” A big ask, I fear.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

As regular readers will know, the one thing that still gets my goat here is the lack of consideration for others. However, I’ve been here long enough to know this comes in at least three categories. The first (and worst) of these is the general lack of consideration for everyone, e.g. when someone parks their car across a zebra crossing. The second is when someone acts as though you aren’t there – as today when I was ordering my usual Sunday lunch and a woman from the next table got up and started talking to the waiter about her order. And the third – and least annoying – category is of the person who demonstrates the Spanish lack of antennae by doing something that isn’t meant to affect you but does. Like the lady yesterday who started reading the paper in front of me at the bar. My guess is that, if she thought about this at all, she figured that, like her, I was waiting to pay a bill at the counter. Needless to say, when I pointed out – politely – that I was actually reading the paper she was turning the pages of, she became all flustered and apologised like only the Spanish can. Thought-less but not as thoughtless as the earlier examples. 

The front page of the Business Section of El Pais today had a large foto of Mrs Merkel, with the by-line “The Boss of Europe”. Inside, an editorial took the currently fashionable line that the Germans don’t seem to understand what Europe is all about. That Mrs Merkel might be accountable to hardworking Germans fed up of subsidising other, shall we say, ‘less-productive’ Europeans didn’t rate a mention, of course.

Returning to the subject of education in the UK . . . Given what I wrote the other night, I wasn’t surprised to read today: that “The raw data reveals pupils in private schools are streets ahead of their state-school peers. The average reading score of a privately educated teenager in the UK is 553, while it is 492 for a state-educated pupil. (The OECD average last year was 493 points.)”. I can’t help wondering whether things have now gone so far in the UK that state education is a lost cause, regardless of what the present government tries to do about the failure of the last ten years of massively increased expenditure to reap rewards.

As for Wikileaks . . .  I find myself in sympathy with this trenchant view. Which distances me from The Guardian, I suspect . . .

Finally . . .  My daughter has now posted Chapter 14 out of 19 of her novel “The Second Death of Juan La Roca.” Click here for this. And for all the others.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Seeing the headline in the Culture section of a national paper that the bullfighter El Juli had won the Escapulario de Oro, I instinctively thought he’d been awarded a golden spittoon. This is because the Spanish for ‘to spit’ is escupar. Turns out, though, that un escapulario is an item of clothing - ‘scapular’ in English. Usually worn by priests, I believe.

Talking of words . . . I see that the Spanish Royal Academy had dictated that ‘rock and roll’ must now always be written as rocanrol. How quaint.

There was a flier in my mailbox today for a training course in car mechanics. Its main selling point was the one that seems to appeal most to Spaniards, viz. that you can gain a qualification without putting in a great deal of effort. I get the impression there are a lot of these courses around right now, all aimed at the unemployed young whose parents can be expected to foot the bill.

Following on from my admission yesterday that I’m not overly interested in the Wikileaks brouhaha, I was impressed by an article by Janice Turner in today’s Times. Because of the paywall, I can’t cite this but here’s a sample which demonstrates her stance . . . Julian Assange is a glamorous Macavity of the internet, who has seduced more than young women with his piratical mystique. Although WikiLeaks’ latest revelations have been little more than low-grade diplomatic tittle-tattle, he is catnip for the knee-jerk Left who see the forces of American imperialism everywhere, and have not reconstructed their politics to take into account other malevolent forces at large in the world.

When you have three international airports in your region but no Easyjet flights – plus the prospect of losing our Ryanair services from January – it’s a tad irritating to see that Bristol merits a flight to Fuerteventura. And it’s just as annoying to read that Spain and France will soon be connected by high-speed train when it will be at least another five years before we’re linked to Madrid. Or even to Oporto, just down the coast in Portugal.

Finally . . . (very) local news:- 1. They’re still cracking granite eight hours a day on the building site behind my house; 2. After nearly five years, they’re still finishing off the houses; and 3. The Great Wall of Poio remains uncompleted. Roll on the building bust in my neck of the woods. Which reminds me . . . for a negative view of the Spanish property market, click here. Just what I needed, as I seek a buyer for my preciosa house in the hills.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I have to confess to a limited interest in Wikileaks and the reaction to the documents it’s issued. But I am enjoying all the new words I’m learning as I read around the subject. Words such as Wikiblokesphere, netizens, shonky, hashtag and disintermediate. And I now know of the existence of Wookiepedia and Chickipedia. Though I’m not sure either of these will be terribly relevant to my own existence.

One of the joys of the last decade has been seeing – and experiencing – the rapid improvement in Spanish wines from regions other than that of Rioja. As the writer of an article I read this morning put it:- In the past ten years, Spain’s other wine producing regions have decided to join the party and up the quality in breathtaking style. Barely 20 years ago, Spain’s wines were the laughing stock of Europe. Unreliable, oxidised, over-sulphured and often undrinkable, no one went near them. Well, not any more. In wine terms, Spain is at the forefront, roaring ahead on a wave of quality and innovation. There are few secrets in the wine world but, if over the coming years you learn to enjoy the fruity red Mencias, remember that you heard about them here first.

Vast Scandinavian forests are being felled for newspaper and magazine articles on the euro crisis but few are as insightful as the one I’ve posted in full below, by Wolfgang Münchau, an associate editor of the Financial Times. Read and enjoy. Or not, as the case may be.

As for Spain, here’s an article from that paper which points out what we all know very well, viz. that it’s all about the banks. On which the writer has both positive and negative things to say. So, make up your own mind. I wish I could.

Finally . . .  My daughter has not only posted the 13th chapter of her novel but has also invited you to participate in the selection of its cover. Click here to do so. Incidentally, she tells me she’s named a dog in her next novel after me. My response was that ‘Colin’ was not a particularly canine moniker. To which she replied that neither was ‘Ryan’. Forcing me to point out that it'd been her who’d chosen this name, almost seventeen years ago now. Which reminds me . . . Please write if you have any tips on how to handle an incontinent dog. If you see what I mean.

By request . . .  said Ryan, coming up for his 100th birthday.

 Said article . . .

 Europe, unable to cope - By Wolfgang Münchau  

Usually I stay clear of connotation-rich German words that have no real equivalent in other languages. Their purpose is to obfuscate. But there is one that describes the eurozone’s crisis management rather well. It is überfordert. The nearest English translation is “overwhelmed”, or “not on top of something”, but those are not quite the same. You can be overwhelmed one day, and on top the next. Überfordert is as hopeless as Dante’s hell. It has an intellectual and an emotional component. If you are it today, you are it tomorrow
I am not saying that every policymaker in the eurozone is hopeless. There are a few exceptions. My point is that the system is überfordert, unable to cope. This inability has several dimensions. I have identified six.

The first, and most important, is a tendency to repeat the same mistakes. The biggest of these is the repeated attempt to address solvency problems through liquidity policies. It happened in October 2008 with bank guarantees. The European Central Bank’s never-ending liquidity support is another example. So is the Greek bail-out. And so is the European Financial Stability the €440bn ($588bn) bail-out fund. Set up in May as a mechanism to resolve financial crises, it became a cause of the Irish crisis in November. What triggered last week’s panic was the sudden realisation by investors that, with an interest rate of 6 per cent and an ongoing no-default guarantee to bank bondholders, Ireland is insolvent. 

The second is a lack of political co-ordination. All the decisions taken have one thing in common: no one takes political ownership of the whole system. Everybody inside the system is optimising their corner. International investors, by contrast, are looking at the system as a whole and cannot make sense of the cacophony. Germany’s motivation in the debate on the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the anti-crisis mechanism from 2013, was to safeguard its financial interest. That is legitimate, but the way it is done offers no solution feasible for the eurozone as a whole. 

The third is a breakdown of communication. The EU has a tendency to hype whatever it agrees. The markets first react with euphoria to the announcement, then with disappointment once they have read the small print. When Germany raised the issue of a permanent anti-crisis mechanism, it gave few details. The markets were spooked. When news came out that Germany had climbed down over the question of automatic bondholder haircuts, the markets were euphoric. Details that have come out since are again more alarming. The way the ESM is constructed will make a debt default in the eurozone dramatically more probable. There is a good case to be made for limiting taxpayers’ liability. But the scope and the details must be conveyed much more clearly. 

A fourth aspect is a tendency by governments to blame investors when something goes wrong, rather than solve the problem. The prevailing view in Paris and Berlin is that last week’s crisis was the work of nasty speculators. It is not the first time. Remember the ban on short-selling of equities? Or the “locust” debate about private equity a few years back? The point is that this time there is no George Soros-like speculator attacking the system. These are fairly normal investors who are pulling out, or regrouping. They have lost confidence in the eurozone’s crisis management. 

Fifth is the tendency to blame each other. In the spring, the Germans had a go at the Greeks. Now the Spanish and the Irish blame the Germans. Readers of this column know that I have been a frequent critic of German policy, but I think it unjustified to blame Berlin for causing the current problems. The cause of the crisis in the European periphery was the bursting of a credit bubble, and that bubble was not the work of the German government. The blame game is not a constructive way out of this crisis.
Finally, a sixth aspect is the tendency to appeal to a deus ex machina when all else fails. That would be the European Central Bank. Last week, several European politicians beseeched the ECB to act as defender of last resort. Market commentators raised expectations that the existing securities market programme would be extended from a volume of close to €70bn to €1,000bn or even €2,000bn. 

It did not happen. Or did it? It is hard to say. Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the ECB, said little, but the ECB nevertheless bought hundreds of millions of euros worth of Irish and Portuguese debt that day. Mr Trichet knows that he can prevent contagion but also that he cannot save the eurozone alone.

I do not want to play down the ECB’s role. Its liquidity policies prevented a calamity in August 2007, and later in the autumn of 2008. But it also delayed a resolution to the political crisis. Europe’s bank resolution policy is the ECB, and only the ECB. That is why this crisis is lasting so long. 

The euro is currently on an unsustainable trajectory. The political choice is either to retreat into a corner, and hope for some miracle, or to agree a big political gesture, such as a common European bond. What I hear is that such a gesture will not happen, for a very large number of very small reasons. The system is genuinely überfordert.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

I guess it’ll come as no great surprise that the top black economies in the EU are:- Greece – 25% of the official number; Italy – 22%; and Spain – 20%. And it shouldn’t come as surprise that, in its current straitened circumstances, the Spanish government (under pressure from Brussels?) has decided to do something about this sitation and its consequences for government revenues. But we’ll have to wait and see how effective their measures are. Incidentally, the UK’s ‘submerged economy’ is said to be 11%, France’s 12% and Germany’s 15%. The most surprising percentage, to me at least, is that of Belgium, at 18% - just behind Portugal at 19%. But God knows how they get these numbers.

A certain Sr Rubalcaba is being touted as the potential saviour of the PSOE governing party at the 2012 elections. Now, Sr. R is bald and bearded, and by no stretch of the imagination could be accused of being telegenic. In Anglo-Saxon politics, he’d stand no chance of becoming a leader of a main party. So, does this mean that, in this regard at least, the Spanish are less superficial than the Anglos? Which would be a surprise in a country where there’s so much talk of whether someone is handsome/beautiful or ugly. And where TV presenters are among the most glamorous in the world. Not to mention newsreaders who go on to become stunning princesses.

I was given a flier for yet another new restaurant in Pontevedra today. Which contrasted rather with the report in the local paper that custom in our bars and restaurants is now so poor that they’re essentially surviving on what they can make during two hours of a Saturday night. When, I guess, it doesn’t help that the bar staff are not charging all their friends for what they consume. But, anyway, you have to admire someone willing to open a place in the teeth of a recession and I’ll be giving it a try. If only because they have wild boar stew on the menu. These animals are pest in the hills but, surprisingly, it’s much easier to find them in Portuguese restaurants, fifty kilometres south of here, than it is in the province of Pontevedra.

Finally . . . I mentioned Spanish rapid supermarket check-out facilities last night. So here’s an amusing commentary – lifted from Private Eye – on the British variety . . 

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

It’s an up and down life for Elena Salgado, the Spanish Economy Minister(ess). The other day she was rated by the FT as being near the bottom of the class among her international peers but yesterday Eurozone ministers pronounced themselves very impressed by measures she’s announced to tackle Spain’s debt crisis. So, is this another example of Anglo-Saxon bias or does the EU have a vested interest in talking up Spain? Or both?

One group of Spaniards who can’t be at all impressed by or happy with Señora Salgado is smokers. As of January 2, they lose all right to indulge the habit in public and now the lady in question has slapped a 28% increase on the price of tobacco. I almost feel sorry for them.

Talking of Spanish vices, here’s an interesting article on prostitution, from Qorreo – with the fascinating title “What I learned in a Spanish brothel”. The writer is not the only person to have heard Spanish men assert that the ladies enjoy what they do. As much as bulls like being stabbed, I guess.

Despite ten years of massively increased investment in British state education, the country continues to slip down the OECD international rankings. Spain has recorded one or two improvements but still comes in below the average against most criteria. This is doubly depressing but at least the Spanish excuse could be relatively low per capita spend. I’ve no idea what the UK excuse might be; but one thing I’m sure of is that the results were (or would be) a lot better in the British private sector. Hence its steady growth over at least the last two decades. Generally, Asian countries do far better than their Western counterparts but Finland is an outstanding exception. I wonder what they do to get things right.

My daughter from Madrid tells me that the Express self-checkout desks in the supermarkets there are made rather less ‘express’ by the fact that everyone who wants to use this facility must first line up to show his/her ID card to an employee. Why am I not surprised?

Finally . . . Here’s the front cover to the book of my friend, Peter Missler - The Treasure Hunter of Santiago.

For those who didn’t see it last week, here’s my thoroughly merited plug for this . . . .

Peter has penned a fascinating account of one of the main characters in George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain - Benedict Mol. It’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in Santiago, Galicia or, indeed, Spain generally. And everyone else, for that matter.

Here’s the flyer and you can sample enticing extracts here:-

In August of 1838, in the middle of a devastating civil war, a grotesque figure arrived at Santiago de Compostela, the ancient pilgrimage town in the North-West of Spain. He was a former Swiss mercenary, who thirty years previously had heard a rumour about a massive hoard of church plate buried by the soldiers of Marshal Ney. A fantasy? A daydream? Just one of the many hollow legends of hidden gold that abound in Spain? Perhaps so. But, astonishingly, the Swiss vagrant did not come on his own errand. He came sponsored by Spain’s savvy Minister of Finance, Don Alejandro Mon, who for some shadowy reason of his own lent credence to the tale.

Like an historical sleuth, Peter Missler traces the tale of Benedict Mol the treasure hunter through the mists of time and a smoke-screen of cover-stories. It is a fascinating saga which takes us to Portugal with looting French soldiers, into the wild mountains of Northern Spain with the brilliant polyglot George Borrow, and – by the hand of Mol - into the darkest nooks and corners of a hospital for syphilitics. The first attempt to find the treasure toppled the government, the second ended with the murder of two peasants. But was the hoard secured? Or does it still lie waiting somewhere in a Santiago park…?
Durrant Publishing, Norfolk, UK. Available in hardcover (₤20 + postage), paperback (₤10 + postage) and eText (₤0.75). For sample chapters see http://www.durrantpublishing.co.uk/.

How to order:-

The Treasure Hunter of Santiago may be ordered from Amazon (enter ‘Missler Treasure Hunter’ into the search machine of any Amazon site).

Those who prefer to acquire the book from a bookshop may contact Graham York Rare Books, 225 High Street, Honiton, Devon, EX14 1LB England. Tel: 01 404 41727; email books@gyork.co.uk ; website http://www.gyork.co.uk/

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Most Spanish cafés and bars have a variety of local and, sometimes, national papers for their clients to peruse. But it’s rare for these to be replaced on the rack when finished with. Normally, one just goes up to the person on whose table a paper lies and uses one of several phrases to enquire whether it’s free. I now do this routinely but it took me ages to get over my British perception that it was an insult to do this, as it implied the person had been impolite in not putting the paper back on the rack. But now I know that no Spanish person is ever going to feel they’re being accused of something. Or so I thought until today, when a lady whom I approached agreed it was free and then apologised to me. You could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather. Perhaps it was the tone of my voice . . .

Going briefly back to the FIFA decision to avoid the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 jamboree to Qatar . . . Looking back, I believe the only real surprise is that they didn’t award both events to Russia.

Back here in Spain, President Zapatero is still making promises. This time that economic growth will be above the EU average from 2013. But, as someone pointed out to me this week, there surely can’t be anyone left here who still believes a word he says. That said, for a naturally sceptical people, the Spanish certainly took their time coming to this decision.

Talking of forecasts, the President of BNP Paribas Real Estate consultancy claims that Spain’s huge stock of empty new properties will be exhausted by 2016. Given that it takes up to five years to finish a place here, this means that new starts must be made from next year, if a scarcity of property – and a concomitant surge in prices – is to be avoided in the middle of the next decade. Can’t see that happening myself. But, given the unreliability of even (especially?) official statistics, it’s all a huge guessing game anyway.

Our new merged savings bank (caja/caixa) is to be called – somewhat predictably – Nova Caixa Galicia. Or, more accurately, Novacaixagalicia. For which I’m told the waggish nickname is Nocages.

Finally . . . My forecast of the, much delayed, AVE high speed train finally reaching Galicia by 2018-20 is now looking optimistic - what with the cuts and the frightfully high cost of tunnelling through our granitic mountains. A leading politician has gone off to China to seek finance from there. Which is a little ironic when you consider the US railways were constructed by gangs of indented cheap Chinese labour. How the wheel turns.

Book plug: My daughter, visiting me this Puente, has now published Chapter 13 of 19. Click here.

Friday, December 03, 2010

I’ve been wondering why my neighbour is arranging a merienda next door for me so that I can be introduced to the two friends who want to meet me. Can it be my charming personality? My good looks? My two blue eyes? Or the combination of advanced age and two houses? On balance, I’m going with the houses. Cynical, moi!?

The utter mess which is Spanish national/regional/local property planning legislation and execution finally looks like it might be taking a step in the direction of clarification. Not to mention equity. At least down in Andalucia. Click here for details. Perhaps the crisis has forced a few minds to concentrate on the future and on damage to Spain’s international reputation, rather than on making the quickest pelotazo in whatever way springs to mind. It doesn’t do much for the Priors, though. Who had their house bulldozed a couple of years ago. And were then sent the bill, I as I recall.

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again  - Poor Spain! Shackled not just with a pretty useless Prime Minister/President but also with a leader of the Opposition rated inadequate even by the guy who shoe-horned him into the job. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Or not, it seems. I’m not optimistic about the next decade here. Whoever wins the elections in 2012. Or earlier, if the current government falls.

Talking about voting . . .  It has to be said that the most amazing thing about the failed English bid to hold the 2018 World Cup is that anyone seriously believed it had any chance of winning. Can people really be so self-deluding? (self-delusory??) On the other hand, I was expecting Iberia to get it. But I suppose we can guess why Russia did, even if most of the facilities don’t yet exist. For one thing, construction is always profitable for more folk than just the constructors.

Finally . . . I’m delighted to move (temporarily) from plugging my daughter’s book to doing the same for that of my good Dutch friend, Peter Missler. Peter has penned a fascinating account of one of the most memorable characters in George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain, one Benedict Mol. It’s called The Treasure Hunter of Santiago and it’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in Santiago, Galicia or, indeed, Spain generally. And everyone else, for that matter. Here’s the flyer and you can sample enticing extracts here:-

In August of 1838, in the middle of a devastating civil war, a grotesque figure arrived at Santiago de Compostela, the ancient pilgrimage town in the North-West of Spain. He was a former Swiss mercenary, who thirty years previously had heard a rumour about a massive hoard of church plate buried by the soldiers of Marshal Ney. A fantasy? A daydream? Just one of the many hollow legends of hidden gold that abound in Spain? Perhaps so. But, astonishingly, the Swiss vagrant did not come on his own errand. He came sponsored by Spain’s savvy Minister of Finance, Don Alejandro Mon, who for some shadowy reason of his own lent credence to the tale.

Like an historical sleuth, Peter Missler traces the tale of Benedict Mol the treasure hunter through the mists of time and a smoke-screen of cover-stories. It is a fascinating saga which takes us to Portugal with looting French soldiers, into the wild mountains of Northern Spain with the brilliant polyglot George Borrow, and – by the hand of Mol - into the darkest nooks and corners of a hospital for syphilitics. The first attempt to find the treasure toppled the government, the second ended with the murder of two peasants. But was the hoard secured? Or does it still lie waiting somewhere in a Santiago park…?

Durrant Publishing, Norfolk, UK. Available in hardcover (₤20 + postage), paperback (₤10 + postage) and eText (₤0.75). For sample chapters see http://www.durrantpublishing.co.uk.

How to order

The Treasure Hunter of Santiago may be ordered from Amazon (enter ‘Missler Treasure Hunter’ into the search machine of any Amazon site).

Those who prefer to acquire the book from a bookshop may contact Graham York Rare Books, 225 High Street, Honiton, Devon, EX14 1LB England. Tel: 01 404 41727; email books@gyork.co.uk ; website www.gyork.co.uk.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Life in Spain – No. 578: When I went to my local gym to ask about their timetable and fees, I was given the option of going only in the mornings. Which would be cheaper than the more crowded evening sessions. The ‘morning’ period stretched from 7.30am to 5.30pm. Though the ‘evening’ session lasted until 11pm - just before peak TV viewing time in Spain. Incidentally, the gym caters mainly for the pijos and pijas of Pontevedra’s most expensive barrio nearby. So it’s a little ironic that the gypsy drug-dealing takes place in its shadow. Or is it?

My pupil didn’t turn up again today. But her mother did. To explain that Maria had yet another exam tomorrow. It was, in fact, the season of exams, she said. So perhaps we could leave the lessons for three or four weeks. Perhaps we should leave them forever, I replied. Which I’m sure is what will really happen. Still, I managed to get the mother interested in a place for Maria on a summer school which my elder daughter and her partner are planning to have in the UK next year. So not entirely a waste of an afternoon. Plus I was told she now had two, and not just one, friends who wanted to meet me. I do hope they don't want bloody English lessons for their rug rats..

Courtesy of my friend, Dwight, here’s a fascinating article on the myth of EU contagion, inter alia. The writer perceives Europe’s leaders to be standing in the worse place possible and taking decisions which are neither fish nor foul – with predictable results. “A currency union does not require a debt union”, he insists. Adding that “The major danger to the euro right now is that the European Central Bank is buying weak sovereign debt—not that Ireland or Spain might restructure. The euro as a currency is stronger if it is insulated from sovereign default.”

Finally . . . A foto of one of at least two bridal shops in Pontevedra. With so many other retail outlets closing, how on earth do both of these survive? Money laundering? If so, white’s an appropriate colour.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Two important commercial fusions were consummated this week. BA merged with Iberia and Caixa Galicia merged with Caixanova here in Galicia. But it seems neither new entity has a new name yet. Briberia or  BAIB, in the first case perhaps. Anyway, I’m guessing our new, fused savings bank – whatever it’s called - will have a Board of directors very much larger than that of the new international carrier.

En passant, notaries here normally base their fee on the value of the property being sold/acquired. So, I wonder what this was for the sun in the case of the Galician woman who recently registered her ownership of the planet.

I also wonder if other Spanish cities have seen the increase in the numbers of beggars and ‘street performers” we’ve witnessed here in Pontevedra recently. Perhaps one reason for existence of the latter group is that we’re blessed with a drug distribution centre in the gypsy encampment on my side of the river. In fact, I pass the ‘performers (and their dogs) so often when walking home that I suspect they realise I know what they do with the proceeds of their collections. So don’t bother to hassle me. Or maybe they've just twigged I'm a tight bastard.

Today I received yet another notice of a registered letter waiting for me at the post office. Before I could start worrying whether it could be a tax demand, I saw that it was actually addressed to my elder daughter, who lived here for a couple of years until six years ago. And I guessed it was the same letter as I’d had a couple of weeks ago, about foreigners needing to confirm residence. So why didn’t we get them at the same time? Because, I’m sure, the town hall regards our second forenames (Colin and Louise, respectively) as our surnames and has only just reached L in the alphabet.

Talking about strange Spanish practices . . .   Nick Lyne in Qorreo takes to task the Spanish Minister of Education for blaming the universal dubbing of foreign TV programs and films for poor levels of English here in Spain. The real culprit – as I well know from the teenage kids of my neighbours – is poor teaching. As Nick puts it, “The education minister has no business laying the blame for Spaniards’ poor grasp of foreign languages on the film and television industries. His ministry is chronically underfunded, as Spain’s poor showing in educational league tables highlights.” But, anyway, the article contains this deathless sentiment – “One of the few positive things to be said about Spain under Franco was how little television there was”.

On the day I read that 90% of Spaniards are unhappy with the noise pollution they’re subjected to at home – usually, I guess, from neighbours playing the TV even louder than they are – they’ve started cracking granite again on the construction site behind my house. Great.

Finally  . . . At last a consensus in the euro drama – Everything depends on Germany. And then on whether the rest of Europe accepts a union modified to fit the German model. I once told one of my teenage daughters, with whom I was engaged in the traditional father-daughter struggle, that we were on the edge of nuclear war but that her problem was I was the only one with nuclear weapons. I thought of this when reading today that the EU is now checking its arsenal for nuclear options to solve a problem that might well have gone beyond even that. But we will see. Fiscal union via a new treaty? Written only in  German in the interests of speed?