Monday, December 31, 2012

In various parts of Galicia, yesterday saw the commemoration of the journey of the bones of St James (Santiago) from Jatta in Jerusalem to their resting place in the city of Santiago de Compostela. St James is the patron saint of Galicia and, I think, Spain. Of course, you have to make a prodigious leap of faith to believe the story of St James, if only because there isn't an iota of evidence he was ever in Spain (alive or dead) or that his corpse arrived here, at Padrón, in a stone boat which had sailed from the Middle East without a crew. Still, miracles happen. As they say.

At the service in Santiago, the President of the Galician Parliament – Señora Pilar Rojo – publicly asked St James to intercede on behalf of all Spaniards and make 2013 less painful than 2012. If this were to happen, it certainly would be a miracle and St James could justifiably line up with all the others who'd want to take the credit. Possibly including Sra Rojo and her PP Party. But, if it doesn't happen, what is this going to tell us about St James? That he ignored the special pleading? That he listened but couldn't get in to see any of the three Gods of the Trinity? Or that he got in to at least one of them but had his intervention quashed? I fear we'll never know.

The other religious development of the last couple of days has been Cardinal Rouca Varela - President of the Conference of Bishops of Spain - using his pulpit to announce that we're witnessing the death of marriage “by legal means”. What he seems to mean is that, if you allow gays to wed, this will lead to the death of marriage. Presumably because all straight folk with eschew the institution once it's tainted by homosexuals. This, of course, is nonsense. There certainly won't be the death of marriage. Though there may well be the death of the Cardinal's personal concept of marriage, which he assumes to be divinely blessed. My advice to the Cardinal is to get used to the idea and to be a bit more, well, Christian in his attitudes to people. And to stop saying things like “Without true marriage, society will disintegrate.” 'False marriage' there will be, whether he likes it or not. It's just a matter of time.

Talking about hardship in 2013, the British historian, Antony Beever recently published in, Prospect magazine, a longish article entitled – Europe's Long Shadow – Will a continent turn its back on democracy. This is what he had to say about Spain - When my book on the Spanish civil war was published in 2005, journalists in Madrid asked me in all seriousness whether it could ever happen again. I replied that thank goodness the same conditions simply did not exist. The vicious circle of fear between right and left, which had originated in the extreme cruelty by both sides in the Russian civil war, did not exist. But some things have begun to change alarmingly since then. We again face the danger of a world depression and we are beginning to see mass unemployment in some countries, especially in southern Europe. Last year, the British ambassador in Madrid, pointed out how remarkable it was that despite the terrifying levels of youth unemployment in Spain, there had been an astonishingly low level of social disorder. The demonstrations of the “Indignados,” the young Spaniards who have taken to the streets to protest against austerity measures and unemployment, have been passionate but not violent. His theory is that the memory of the horrors of the Spanish civil war is acting like a nuclear threat in the background. He may well be right. 

Right or wrong, Spain is going to see its unemployment rise from 5 to 6m in 2013, with no let-up in youth unemployment, currently running at more than 50%. It's not difficult to predict a greater likelihood of civil unrest. Perhaps this is why the government has made it illegal to take pictures of the police. Beevor ended his article with the following warning:- What are the dangers and threats to parliamentary democracy in Europe? Can the fundamental contradictions in the euro project be overcome? The dynamic of the moment seems to be that political integration must be drastically accelerated to make up for the flagrant paradoxes that existed from the euro’s very foundation and were scandalously ignored. One foreign minister argued to me last autumn that the economic situation was so grave that Europe must adopt a presidential system with direct elections. That idea is now becoming general currency in top European circles. Economic and political control would be drastically centralised with virtually no accountability. This would be nothing less than an elective dictatorship bringing with it the threat of nationalism, the very thing the European project intended to avoid. See the full article here.

But anyway, and meanwhile, I wish all readers a good 2013. Indeed, a good rest of your life. And I leave you with a compendium of great 2012 goals, dedicated to my very old friend, Rick, over in New Orleans. Enjoy!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

I mentioned the other night that a contestant on Spain's version of Strictly Come Dancing spent over 8 minutes arguing with a juror. An English friend who watches it with a Spanish partner has since told me the program lasts for three and a half hours, giving ample time for such nonsense.

As everyone knows, Santiago cathedral is famous for its huge incense burner, el butafumeiro. If you've never seen this wonder in action, click here. I can vouch for the fact it passes close to the heads of those sitting in the transepts. I imagine it'd never be permitted in the UK on Health & Safety grounds. For once, I'd agree. Incidentally, the number of pilgrims from Anglo countries is well up this year, largely because of the Martin Sheen film The Way. Some of these new pilgrims may even have been religious.

Down in El Ejido, an equine-averse Moroccan has been trialled and deported for killing a horse by ramming a large pole into its rear end. I wonder if the offence would have been treated quite so seriously if he'd stabbed it between the ears, estocada fashion.

Changing Spain 1: The government has finally given shops the freedom to decide when they want to hold sales. Up to now, they've been limited to a couple of specific times a year. And in tourist areas, shops will be allowed to open when they want. It's all aimed at increasing trade, of course.

Changing Spain 2. Civil servants are to have their working hours drastically overhauled, on the model employed almost everywhere else in the world. They're to work 9 to 5 and to have only 30 minutes for lunch, not the 3 hours that's been the norm since God knows when. They'll still get three days a year for taking care of ID or driving licence renewal, though this is a reduction. There are also changes to their holiday and “sick day” entitlements. All of this is admirable in that it contributes to the modernisation of Spain but it's not going to be good for all those bars and restaurants offering menús del día near government office blocks. Unless they turn themselves into sandwich bars. I'll let you know when the first Prêt-à-Manger appears in town.

Changing Spain 3: If you're resident in Spain and have assets overseas, you'll be interested in this comprehensive list of the taxation changes the government has rushed through in the last few months. Over which there appears to have been little discussion in the media. If any.

Finally . . . I heard the word chimpín last night and assumed it was another example of an English gerund being used as a Spanish noun. I couldn't, though, imagine what it would be, other than behaving like a chimpanzee. But, no, it turns out merely to be the word for one of these. Which are not unusual in Galicia.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

According to something I read today, “Germany has an almost obsessive fascination with the bard, exemplified perhaps by the Ferdinand Freiligrath poem of 1844 that opens with the line: Deutschland ist Hamlet. There are now more productions of Shakespeare's plays in Germany every year than in England.” But that's not the only obsession with something English the Germans have; every year for 49 years now, New Year's Eve has seen the TV screening of the British film “Dinner for One”. This is an “18 minute single-take, B&W TV recording”, unknown in the UK but celebrated in Germany (and elsewhere) for its (perceived) hilariousness. It takes all sorts, I guess. Anyway, you can watch it here. Complete with German intro. I guess familiarity breeds appreciation. As with, say, Morecambe and Wise.

Still with Germany . . . A new exhibition in Berlin explores the Hitler personality cult and seeks to answer the question of how he was able to wield such an influence over the German people. Called, naturally enough, "Hitler and the Germans," it also explores how he managed to not only win power but also keep it even as "total defeat" loomed. Dubiously perhaps, the exhibition features Nazi artefacts such as propaganda posters, busts of Hitler, a card game aimed at teaching the names of top Nazis, SS cufflinks and a red swastika lampshade. Sounds like a must.

No sooner have I got over the disappointment of not seeing Tracy Emin's name cited in the article on fake culture I mentioned recently, than I see she's now been given something in the New Year's Honours. Life can be a real bitch.

I've been visiting local bookshops recently. Needless to say, there aren't as many of these as when I first came here. The one I visited today is the biggest in town but only a fraction of the size of, say, Waterstones in Leeds. Nonetheless, it's big enough to be confusing, essentially because there isn't a single indication of which books are where. I guess it helps to keep the assistants in employment. Or the customers to pass/waste more time.

What I did learn today is that there's still no consistency in Spain as to which way round the titles are written on the spines of book. Such a simple thing. And its lack can make it a headache to cover the shelves. Literally.

Finally . . . This is the most ridiculous goal scored this year. Though it's got nothing to do with Germany.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Let's kick off with a positive comment – on Spanish literature:- To an English-speaking audience, the 16th and 17th centuries are the era of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson and co - the undisputed master dramatists of their age. Yet for power and sheer productivity, the Spanish Golden Age - the Siglo de Oro, 1580-1680 - is more than a match. Extant plays in Castilian outnumber, by many hundreds, all the work of the playwrights of Elizabethan and Stuart England put together.

Over in the UK, the Queen has had a memorably good year. Here in Spain, though, things couldn't be more different. A King who popularised himself by safeguarding democracy has dealt himself a couple of blows from which, say some, the monarchy may not recover. During straitened times at home, he was photographed shooting elephants in East Africa. In the company of a woman who wasn't his wife. Having then fallen down and been hospitalised, he was rumoured to be having relations with a young woman teacher of German. If that wasn't enough, his son-in-law is being investigated for corruption and has not appeared in any family fotos since early in the year. The ranks of republicans are not yet massed but, as everyone agrees 2013 will be even worse than 2012, I guess anything could happen.

By the way, Spanish speakers might like to know of a new satirical magazine called Mongolia. Its April issue was entitled:- The King could rape you: 100 things the King can do and you can’t.

Sticking with the bad news . . . A leading firm in the property field has forecast that prices in Spain's major cities will fall another 30% over the next 5 or 6 years. Things in the main coastal resort areas are forecast to be even worse, with the decline in prices dragging on for 10 to 15 years. Yet worse, there are parts of Spain in which empty properties will never sell and will have to be demolished. More here.

Bankia has featured here before. It's one of Spain's largest banks, fused (under government duress) from one large savings banks and 6 or 7 smaller ones. It's been a farce from the outset and has now been officially declared worse than worthless. Being valued as -€4.2 billion. I say farce but it's been a tragedy for 350,000 small investors who were inveigled by their bank managers into buying shares now worth nothing. One the company's Directors, by the way, has admitted that she was incapable of understanding the company accounts, despite earning a humongous salary of €374,000 in 2011. She is now a witness in the trial of various of her colleagues.

I've more than once expressed my amazement that Galicia – with a population of less than 3 million - somehow supports 13 or 14 daily newspapers. My fellow blogger, Trevor, up in Barcelona has sent me this article, revealing that – in a 'completely opaque' way – the Galician Xunta has dished out almost 800,000 of taxpayers' money to publishing companies. One wonders why. And how grateful the editors will prove.

Finally . . . An Iranian friend recently described her granddaughter as 'sheitan'. Or 'little devil'. The quick among you will have realised this is the word we get 'satan' from. Or so they say. It could be just a coincidence.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Economist has again briefly reviewed the performance of the famous son of Pontevedra and Spanish President, Mariano Rajoy. He has broken all his key pledges, the magazine says. But, then, who but the naïve really believed them? The magazine adds that, despite the new taxes and the widespread cuts, the national performance deteriorated in 2012 and will be even worse next year. Read the full review here.

Just before Xmas I sent out a (non-religious) eCard to my close friends. I always feel there's something ironic about this as I define 'close friends' as those I'm in touch with regularly. Who really should be the last people I need to write to at Xmas. But, anyway, the recipients had the chance to click a button and send me a card back. This had a message on it, reading “I am blessed to have someone like you in my life, to fill it with moments of beauty, thought and reflection.” To be honest, I can't believe any of them can have read this before sending the card. No one, that is, except my brother-in-law, who said he was “more bollocksed than blessed”. But he's a fellow Evertonian and so can be forgiven anything. We Toffees need to stick together. Plus he's from Liverpool, where insults are compliments.

When I got in my car today, there was a snail on my dashboard. I thought this was distinctly odd. But then I read this evening that the south of England is now infested with Spanish 'super slugs'. These are said to be 4 inches(10cm) long and to have mated with puny British slugs to create a mutant which is devouring the countryside. So was my snail a coincidence? I think not.

In my travels over the decades, I've collected several mementos. These include 6 silver napkin rings and six silver goblets from Iran, and 12 carved Mandarin coat buttons in the shape of the creatures of the Chinese zodiac. Or, rather, that's what I should have but, in fact, I have 5 rings, 5 goblets and 11 buttons. I detect a pattern here but am completely lost as to what's going on.

If you watch the credits of an American TV program, it's quite normal to see names from all over the world and it's safe to assume they're third or fourth generation immigrants, and so thoroughly American. Carrying out the same exercise with a British program would yield fewer non-Anglo names. But not so with the BBC's hugely successful Strictly Come Dancing, where most of the professional dancers aren't British. All of this is a prelude to a thought that they must have been employed because they were the very best. Which is as it should be. Meritocratic. Someone who's watched it over the years can tell me if the same is true of the Spanish version of the show – Mira Quién Baila. I have to admit the only thing I know about this show is that it was won one year by the 'celebrity' Belén Esteban. To say the least, she was not one of the best contenders. If you want, you can see her here arguing, at some length, with the judges. Unimaginable in the UK. I'm tempted to say it's evidence of the fact that the only thing the Spanish like more than talking is arguing. But that would possibly be unfair. Especially as you could probably say the same about me.

Finally . . . A couple of people have asked whether I really spent some time with Rajoy the other day. Well, I've been instructed to say that I didn't. Hope that clears things up.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In 1956, the UK's Grand National horserace witnessed something of a surprise in the very final stages of this gruelling steeplechase. One of the nags running was the Queen Mother's Devon Loch. With 50 metres to go, the horse was in the lead and the commentator excitedly pronounced that it couldn't possibly lose. Click here to see what happened next. By the way, if you read Dick Francis novels, yes it is him in the saddle.

For me this race was memorable for something else. I'd bet on Royal Tan, which came in third. But my alcoholic, horse-betting, pub-licensee grandmother somehow managed to avoid paying me my winnings. I think she told me Royal Tan came in fourth. Which, in other circumstances, it would have done, of course. I still pine for the shilling I felt I was robbed of. It's the sort of thing you never get over.

I've arrived at a new theory as to why the Spanish are so noisy. It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that children here are allowed to do pretty much what they like. This includes staying up late with the adults. So it was that on Monday kids of 2 to 16 were a constant presence at a dinner which started at 10pm and went on until past 2am. And, of course, they didn't comport themselves as deaf mutes. Meaning that the adults' conversation had to be shouted over the base level of noise from the younger diners, fighting and shouting in the sitting area. I guess that, after a year or two of this, the default mode of parents will be to converse at 70 decibels. Simultaneously, usually.

Finally . . . A bit of Spanish culture. I've known for some time that it's an Xmas tradition in Cataluña (and neighbouring areas) to put defecating figurines (caganers) in the family crib. However, I hadn't heard of the tradition – also Catalán - of the defecating log, or caga tío. In someone else's words . . . This involves creating a character out of a small log - often complete with a grinning face and hat – which sits on the dining room table during the fortnight leading up to Christmas. It has to be fed every day with fruit, nuts and sweets, and then – on Christmas Eve – the entire family beats the log with sticks, while singing traditional songs, forcing the log to excrete its treats. And why not? Anything to put more smiles on the face of the world. But origins . . . .'???

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Two things of note came to Pontevedra during the last few days. More accurately to my barrio of Boa Vista:-

1. 36m euros, won by a local gynaecologist and all those he gave parts of his Xmas lottery ticket to. Which didn't include me.


2. President Rajoy, who spent yesterday with his Pontevedra family and today came to lunch with his in-laws.

I spent several hours with Rajoy this afternoon, trying to put him straight on the management of Spain. He was a good  listener, so things should start improving pretty soon.

You heard it here first.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Yesterday afternoon my other lovely neighbour – Amparo, wife of Toni – very kindly invited me to the first of the festive season's five big meals tonight. This may seem a bit belated to Anglo readers but two years ago I got the invitation after the party had started. Sadly, I wasn't then in a state of mind to take it up. But this time I've said that I'll happily poll up around 9.30 to 10.00.

I was going to evince a degree at schadenfreude over all the molehills I saw in Toni's back lawn this morning but I suspect this would now seem a tad ungracious.

There's been reports in the UK of a boy called Neon. This is the first time I've heard this name and it's got me wondering What next? Arcton? Helium? Krypton? Radon, even? Anyway, would you believe there's a site call Namipedia? Of course you would. Click here.

I'm finally beginning to work out how the prescription system works in the Spanish health service. Basically, the doctor needs to put all your monthly medication on his computer, which feeds into the computers at the pharmacy. If he makes a mistake of omission, then the “Shit in, shit out” principle operates and the pharmacist will decline to give you your medication, sending you back to the doctor for another waste of a couple of hours. And, if the doctor only notes one box when you need three a month, this will send you to the pharmacy three times a month, wasting more time. Until you next see your doctor and tell him or her very politely (they're still gods here) that he's made a mistake or two. To which the usual response is what we technically call 'medical silence'. And a sullen tap or two on the keyboard.

Talking of matters medical – Nurses in the UK's NHS are not renowned for their humanity towards their patients. In fact, say some, this has been jettisoned en route to the 'professionalisation' of nursing based on graduate courses. Right now in the UK, there's widespread disgust at the shocking neglect of patients at one large hospital, over many years. Here in Spain, it's taken for granted that the nurses will show constant care and that they'll have learnt the basic things such feeding, bathing and lifting, which British nurses now seem to regard as below them. Leaving them to nurses brought in from ex-colonies in Africa and India. More recently, there's been an influx of Iberian nurses, reflecting the difficulty of getting or keeping jobs in Portugal and Spain. In fact, thanks to targeted campaigns, the number of nurses from Portugal and Spain registering to work in the UK has increased 15-fold in the last four years. The Spanish nurses find it tougher and my guess is this is because they'll have a much lower proficiency in English than their Portuguese colleagues. Which is a shame.

Finally . . . Looking at immigration into Spain, Madrid has done a deal with Brussels allowing Spain to restrict the number of Rumanians coming into the country. This is, of course, totally against the principle of free movement of people within the EU but I suppose there's a limit to the number of beggars who can be absorbed. Not to mention the gangs which go around breaking into flats. And the phoney chuggers.

I'm off food shopping. Have a great Xmas Eve and Xmas day. I leave you with a foto of my two beautiful daughters and me, enjoying one we prepared earlier. They really don't deserve me. As I'm sure they'd agree.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

I see the Pope believes the future of mankind is at stake over gay marriage. Since it looks unlikely that gays will outbreed and destroy all the straights, one wonders what he means by this? That shocked and sickened straights will eschew both marriage and procreation and so die out? If you know, please tell the rest of us. Or me, at least.

I went to pick up my framed fotos at the picture-framers' shop yesterday. But it was closed again. Maybe it never opens on a Saturday morning. Or always closes earlier than 1.15. It'd be nice to be able to tell from an horario on the door but there isn't one. Possibly deliberately.

Talking of things that are framed . . . I have a nine-panel artefact on the wall near the guests' bathroom. It portrays the process for making Javanese batik cloth. Wiping it this morning, it struck me that in 12 years not a single visitor has asked what it was. Maybe it's obvious.

The latest example of an English gerund entering the Spanish language as a noun seems to be un spanking. No prizes for guessing which literary phenomenon lies behind this. Or in front of it, if you prefer.

It's a fact that male reindeer lose their antlers in the winter, whereas female deer don't. So all those millions of pictures of Rudolph and his hearty mates are really of their wives. Unless, of course, their antlers were screwed on. Like the roots of an Xmas tree I once bought in Jakarta. As they were with the replacement they gave me when I took it back.

Some Random Quotes:-
  • Most diplomats need only to hear the noise in their own kitchen to conclude that, if two Englishmen constitute a club, three Serbs constitute a civil war.
      Sir Archibald Wilson, Ambassador to Yugoslavia, 1964
  • The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.
      William Osler
Today's papers feature a foto or two of a model called Eugenia Silva, who is 36 and has just come out of her 8th failed relationship. Since she's getting on a bit now, she could do worse than give me a call. Life can be increasingly cruel to (once) beautiful women.

In the bar I took my midday wine in yesterday – after finishing my Xmas shopping – there was a list of 36 gins, ranging in price from 6 to 11 euros a shot. Which is quite pricey but, believe me, Spanish shots are a lot bigger than British ones. Anyway, the gins came from the UK, France and Spain. But not, apparently, from Holland. Which was a tad ironic. One of them was made from grapes and one – Platú – hailed from Pontevedra. Understandably, the Spanish gin – Larios – was down at the bottom of the price range. But so was Bombay Sapphire. Which won't have gone down well with the makers back in the UK.

Finally . . . This is a site where Brits make fun of national foibles. Non-Brits can laugh at it and Brits with it.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

El Gordo is Spain's annual Xmas lottery, offering total prize money in the billions of euros. As the government strives to raise tax revenue from every conceivable source, this year will be the last when winners get their cash tax-free. As of January, there'll be a 20% deduction and this will quickly hit the next big draw, El Niño, on January 6th.

Another unusual source of government revenue will be payment for 'non urgent' ambulance journeys. As with (the new) prescription charges, what you pay will be linked to your income and one wonders how it will all be calculated. And when. Will the paramedics have a credit card machine at the door? If so, it will surely call for ID and the signing of a chit. Even if you have a broken hand.

This time of year sees an influx of cars to our street, as my neighbours' relatives arrive for the five huge meals of the next week or two. Or at least for those on the 24th and the 25th. Which means I can't find any space to park, even though my frontage – as it were – is larger than most. Especially when inconsiderate bastards leave 2 to 3 metres between themselves and the cars in front and behind them,

My friend Jon has told me of a beggar with an interesting USP – “I am Spanish and still on the street.” Jon was sufficiently impressed to cough up.

I've ben re-visiting the Frasier comedy series. I'd (almost) forgotten how beautifully they were constructed and how witty and funny they were. Perhaps only Lee Mac'ks Not Going Out in the UK matches them for the laugh quotient. But other nominations would be well received. 

Talking of TV, tonight saw the final of the BBC's hugely – and justifiably – popular Strictly Come Dancing. As I write, I don't know the winners but I do know it's been the best series I've seen. And I know – but can't quite believe - I've just applauded a dance in my own salón. On my own . . . 

Finally . . . This site will take you on a tour of Spanish cities with Jewish connections, including Ribadavia here in Galicia and possibly Tui here in the province of Pontevedra. This has been done in association with Google and there's some info on what that means here.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Well, the begging industry here in Pontevedra reached a new high today. Or should that be a new low? Walking back from the main square, I was met by two midgets. Well, by one of them; the other was accosting someone a couple of metres away. I immediately recalled the warning I'd read about practitioners of the old phoney charity racket. One where the chuggers indicate they're deaf and dumb, handily hiding the fact they're Rumanian and can't speak Spanish. I raised my gaze and took my leave.

In the UK, the neighbours of a woman who constantly shouts at her husband have succeeded in getting a 'noise abatement order' slapped on her. Here in Spain we can only dream of such things.

To the disappointment of some, the world didn't shuffle off its mortal coil today. But no doubt some other date will now be chosen by those who hold apocalyptic views. I guess no one will be surprised to hear there are more of these in America than anywhere else. Astonishingly, some 55% of Americans are said to believe in the Rapture, which is the bodily ascent to Heaven of the saved. And which was pilloried in a recent edition of Family Guy on the BBC.

I read somewhere today that Brussels thinks that austerity is doing the trick in Spain, in that unit wage costs have started to fall towards German levels. Perhaps, but one wonders how much this owes to salary and bonus reductions in the public sector, as opposed to the private sector, where competitiveness matters rather more. I say this after reading in today's Voz de Galicia that the region's civil servants are to be hit with a third reduction (of 7%) inside two years.

The Voz also told us of a 3.4% increase in water charges as of January. Way above inflation. We won't get any information from the company, of course. We never do. I should say 'companies' as I read last week that water charges are different in each of Galicia's cities. And surely no single company could operate this way, could it? Especially as rates are twice as high in Vigo as in Ourense.

Cádiz is a major port on the west coast of Spain, famous as the place where the navies of both France and Spain hid from Nelson for several months, before someone had the bright idea to throw caution to the winds and bolt for the Mediterranean. Anyway, over the years, it's received many millions of euros from the EU, to invest in its zona franca, or free port. Surprisingly, this didn't run to the cost of a decent accountant because, when Brussels asked where their money had gone, no one could say. So now the management has been asked to pay back 80% of what they got. Reportedly, they've admitted that the money was spent on vanity projects, wages, the financing of outstanding bank debt (currently 150m euros), utility bills and “otherwise just fizzled away”. Whelk stalls spring to mind. Anyway, what chance is there of any money heading back north? And how long before we hear complaints that Brussels is 'not showing solidarity”?

Finally . . . A nice Spanish joke doing the rounds:- The Guinness Book of World Records decides to call in record-holders, so they can prove they still merit the garland. So, record holder no. 1 goes in and comes out with a smile. Ditto no. 2 and no. 3. Then comes the turn of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. The door opens and out comes an enraged Ali Baba, spitting out the question – Who the fuck is Bankía?

For those not in the know – Bankía is a fusion of several of Spain's piss-poor regional savings banks and several of its board members are arraigned on various charges. More here

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Well, the Crisis has had at least one positive consequence - At last something is being done about the exorbitant salaries of mayors around Spain. In future they'll be based, not on the whim of the job holders and their placemen, but on the number of inhabitants in their cities or towns. And a salary will never exceed that of a Secretary of State, or c.68,000 euros. Thousands of unhappy mayors will see their earnings plummet – particularly those of Madrid and Barcelona, currently on more than 100,000 euros a year. My own suggestion would be that a close watch be kept on those mayors who've lost out, as they may soon be investigating compensatory schemes. Meanwhile, I have a suspicion this measure may end up in the Constitutional Court.

Talking of which, these are the matters this noble body is currently considering:-
  • Are the government's pension reforms constitutional?
  • Can the government force the regions/provinces/towns not to pay the extra month's salary usually received by civil servants at Christmas?
  • Can the government stop Cataluña imposing a tax on bank deposits?
  • Can the government stop regions other than the Basque Country providing healthcare to people 'without papers'?
The Court has recently found it unconstitutional for the government to try to stop regional governments giving healthcare to 'people without papers', whom I understand to be illegal immigrants. The government has responded with the claim that this judgement applies only to the Basque Country but we will see.

I mentioned the other day that the Spanish tourism and export sectors were both defying the Crisis and growing well. There's a third business which is clearly expanding - begging. On my way to the main square today, I passed five sorry-looking folk sitting passively on the steps of shops that have closed, behind little placards that spell out their woes. And to sit outside any bar now is to invite the attentions of a stream of panhandlers. Finally, it's not possible to park in any public place in town without someone seeking payment for effectively doing nothing. I'm guessing that, since the dole stops after two years, if you have no family to rely on, begging is your only option in country of 26% unemployment, and rising. But I could be wrong. It could all be a vast (Rumanian?) business. Whatever, I wonder how many other European cities are afflicted by this phenomenon.

On a happier note, I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of the New Orleans Gospel Chorale last night. It confirmed that the Devil certainly doesn't have all the best tunes. The evening began well, with me winning a bet that it wouldn't start on time. And then with the laughter of a phone ringing five minutes after we'd been asked to switch them all off. And after the soloist had started singing. But, hey, we take these things in our stride in Spain and they didn't stop the evening being a joy.

Finally . . . Courtesy of Prospect magazine, here's a comparison of some English words and phrases and their equivalents in Indian English, or Hinglish. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did:-

English             Hinglish
Huge mistake - Himalayan blunder
100% - Cent per cent
Arrested - Charge-sheeted
Naughty - Badmash
In need of a drink - Glassy
Nepotism - Son stroke
Something was ruined - Gone for a six
Sexual harassment - Eve teasing
Out of town - Out of station
To graduate - To pass out
To go haywire - To go for a toss
Leisure activity lacking purpose - Timepass
Blister - Shoebite
Sunglasses - Goggles
Playing hard to get - Acting pricey.

How appropriate son stroke would be for Spain.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In this Guardian article, the British philosopher, Roger Scruton, claims that high culture is being corrupted by a culture of fakes. I read it with great interest but was disappointed not to see names like Hirst and Tracey cited. Perhaps in the follow up.

The BBC last week aired a program by its Economics Editor, Paul Mason, entitled The Great Spanish Crash. If you can fool the BBC into thinking you live in the UK (zombie URL?), you can get it on the BBC iPlayer. If not, you'll have to make do with this.

Just a rider to my comment about Spain moving (back) to GMT . . . One Spanish commentator encapsulated the case like this - “We have to stop eating when others are working. And vice versa.” It put me in mind of an interview given to a friend of mine, when she was told that English clients were 'funny' about the company's employees not being available for three hours in the afternoon and then expecting them to take calls at 8 or even 9 o'clock at night. Marching to the beat of a different drum.

I was a tad shocked this morning to read that Galicia has the two most dangerous roads in Spain. And that the next most perilous region is Asturias. Which is rather worrying for those of us who drive regularly through both of these to the north coast and beyond. Thank God we can relax when we get to Cantabria.

I read last week of a prompt resignation from the ranks of the PP party and thought about citing it. Maybe I did. But, anyway, here's Graeme from South of Watford doing justice to the subject.

Which reminds me . . . The recent (aborted) trial of Chinese mafia members operating in Spain has thrown up a list of prominent Spanish persons accused of laundering money on a grand scale. According to El País, The list of well-known people who reportedly used the alleged money-laundering network to obtain money from abroad reads like a who’s who of the gossip press. Names of well-known businessmen, high society figures and even some members of the extended Spanish Royal Family appear in the file. They would go to Malka for help to secretly bring back money they had stashed away in tax havens long ago. This, of course, is the backcloth against which ordinary Spaniards are being asked to pay higher taxes and receive lower benefits. Will they continue to merely shrug their shoulders and mutter “That's the way things are here.”?

Finally . . . There's at least one place in Spain – Palencia – where the city's patron is Nuestra Señora de La Calle. Or Our Lady of the Street. An unfortunate phrase, which would have some of us thinking of Mary Magdalene, rather than the mother of God.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I see the Pope is now on Twitter. I normally wouldn't expect to see the words 'Pope' and Twitter in the same sentence but, then, you don't get to be the most successful organisation in the world without embracing every new technology that comes along. And quite a few old ones as well.

Which reminds me . . . Up in La Coruña, the city council have decided to hit the university there with annual municipal taxes based on property values. But not the Catholic Church. Which has friends in high places, one assumes.

But on to larger matters . . . Mario Draghi – who's head of the ECB - has said that “Things are improving in Spain and that 2013 will see another year of painful progress.” To which El País has retorted “What improvement?”, adding that this year will see a 1.5% fall in GDP, with at least the same for next year. The data, the paper points out, are directly opposed to Draghi's message of optimism. All that can be agreed is that there'll be more pain.

So, where will see (painful) progress next year?
  • Will the economy grow at all? No, it will continue to decline.
  • Will Spain need a bail-out? Yes.
  • Will we see unemployment fall? No.
  • Will we see fewer suicides? Probably not.
  • Will we see fewer beggars on the street? Almost certainly not.
  • Will we see Barcelona put an end to the unsettling talk of secession? No.
  • Will there be reforms to the Spanish 4-tier governmental set-up? No.
  • Will Spain put an end to its crazy split day? No.
  • Will Madrid get control of spending in the regions? No.
  • Will taxes rise even further? Yes.
  • Will salary growth be restricted? Yes.
So, where are the grounds for optimism? Well,
  • Tourism should continue to grow.
  • Likewise exports.
  • Spain will finally seek and get the bail-out but with tight strings attached.
  • More celebrity crooks will be join the parade through the courts.
  • Some may end up in gaol.
All in all, a pretty negative balance, I'd say. With no one claiming it will get much better for several years yet.

Talking of change . . . I see that someone has at last proposed that Spain moves to GMT. In other words, puts itself on the same time as the UK to the north and Portugal to the south. I should say 'moves back,' as Spain was on GMT until 1942, when Franco changed things to Central European Time, as a gesture of solidarity with Hitler's Germany. I've always supposed that Spain would never go back on GMT because only Cataluña could then justify remaining on CET. And I doubt Madrid would want to breathe any wind into the sails of independence. But who knows. If Spain can change its working hours, it can surely change its clock. Some convergence at last!

Galicia turns out to be the second most litigious region in Spain, after Aragón. No wonder I hear constant talk of denuncias (law suits) here. Of which there are currently 160,000 in process.

Finally . . . Here's a nice article by Alan Murphy of IberoSphere. Its main focus is the Spanish educational sphere but Murphy also touches on one or two other aspects of what he calls this “vast, sleaze-plagued land”.

At dinner on Friday night, one of my Spanish friends expressed disgust that a senior member of the government had shoe-horned her husband into a job in the administration. “Ah, yes”, said another, “but this guy is good businessman and that makes all the difference.” No one disagreed. Or, rather, I did but I kept my mouth shut. I wasn't going to convince anybody that this wasn't the point.

An English friend asked me recently why I thought President Rajoy hadn't bowed to the inevitable and sought a bail-out from the EU. I replied that I felt it had to do with face and pride, not to mention the avoidance of control of the Spanish economy from Brussels. Or do I mean Berlin?

You have to feel sorry for Rajoy. On the one hand, he's struggling not to do what Brussels/Berlin wants him to do and, on the other, he's struggling to get Spain's profligate regions to do what he wants them to do. Reportedly, he has tried to initiate reforms to Spain's over-layered system of government, only to be told to row back by the regional barons of his own party. And there are other regions defying him over the introduction of a small charge for prescriptions and over the cancellation of the 13th month salary usually payed to civil servants at Christmas. As I regularly say, it's no way to run a country at the best of times and only makes things worse at the worst. Anyway, here's The Economist's take on the challenges Sr Rajoy faces. And here's Iberosphere's review of his first year in office. As they say - “His favourite sport is following the route that others set for him and letting time pass, trusting that some invisible hand will compensate for his impotence.” Mrs Merkel would surely agree.

The EU, it's said, is all about convergence. Presumably to something that looks rather like Germany. When the recession-cum-depression is finally over, it'll be interesting to ask two key questions? 1. Is Spain any more like Germany than it was in, say, 2000. And 2. Has Spain progressed or regressed since, say, 2000. Of course, right now no one knows, not just what the answers to these questions are, but when we will be able to ask them with any hope of getting clear answers. Meanwhile, we have The Economist's comment that Spain has experienced a sickening fall from the ranks of Europe’s new rich to those of its new poor.

Finally . . . I can tell you that, even if you are a multiple non-appearer for your medical appointments, this won't be held against you. You can go on doing it with impunity. Live and let live.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A final example of the Spanish attitude to personal space (Proxemics) . . . I dined with some Spanish friends last night and when we entered the restaurant, the only other diners were a couple sitting in one corner of a room of fourteen tables. Under my influence, we sat on the other side of it. Two other couples came in while we were there and each sat in the same place as the first couple, making it a rather crowded – and, of course, noisy - corner. We remained in splendid isolation. 

Strangely, I noted the same aggregation behaviour in a largely empty underground car park this morning, where most of the cars were parked unnecessarily beside others. Running the risk of scratches.

No one, of course, knows what's going to happen in Europe – other than, thanks purely to the Nobel-winning EU, there's not going to be a Third World War anytime soon. But as regards Britain's departure option, The Economist opines that:- The most likely outcome would be that Britain would find itself as a scratchy outsider with somewhat limited access to the single market, almost no influence and few friends. And one certainty: that having once departed, it would be all but impossible to get back in again.” For the reasoning behind this glum prediction click here.

In an even more interesting article, historian Antony Beever asks Will a continent turn its back on democracy. I could quote at length from this but, instead, will give you this reference.

On the inner workings of the EU – specifically the German-French axis – I read this comment of a senior German player the other day:- We only call the French once we've agreed a common position with other countries. Once we start talking to the French the trouble begins. This reminded me of a Europe-wide survey of some years ago as to who was best and worst to do business with across the continent. There were differences of opinion as to which country was the best but none on which was the worst.

So, finally here's another Economist article, entitled “The time bomb at the heart of Europe'. It's a special report on France. Which won't have made good bedtime reading for President Holland. If the intro grabs you, note there are links to several additional sections.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The medication saga continues. After getting the prescription from the doctor on Thursday, after my involuntary impression of a cripple, I tried again last night to get the tablets. “No go”, said the pharmacist, “There's nothing in the computer”. So, I left it until today, when I tried another pharmacy. Same result - “The computer says No”. So, I expressed my annoyance and showed the pharmacist the print-out the doctor had given me. Whereupon I witnessed the countervailing side of the Spanish inefficiency coin . . . “I shouldn't do this, she said, “but I'll give you them even though they don't show on the computer.” All's well that ends well, as they say. I'm guessing I've no chance of finding what went wrong. After all, the doctor's hardly likely to admit he made a mistake. Twice.

I introduced the concept of Proxemics yesterday. This morning my mother – who doesn't read my blog - told me about going to an Italian restaurant with my sister last night. The place was empty apart from them - until two Italians came in and sat right next to them. So it's a Latin thing, this aggregation. I guess.

A Pontevedra lady friend today confirmed the high fashion status of wellies, particularly those from Hunter selling at 150 euros a pair. Plus special socks at 30 euros. A snip. Incidentally one bizarre Spanish term for wellies is katiuskas. Which is Russian for Catalinas or Kates. So, I wonder which Russian(?) woman they're named after, as Wellington boots are after the Duke of Wellington. Catherine the Great?

Talking of Hunters . . . In 1968 an RAF pilot flew a Hawker Hunter just above the river Thames and then under the top spars of Tower Bridge, in protest against government policy towards the air force. Sad to relate, there was no one with a camera or phone to capture the amazing stunt for us. Not even the BBC. Anyway, he was never court-martialled but retired on health grounds, as he came down with double pneumonia just after the flight. What a guy and what an achievement to be remembered for.

Finally . . . Nancy Lublin is the founder of the US organisation and here she talks entertainingly about young folk (those below 25) and how they operate in today's on-line world. Of particular interest is the Phone Baby app and its effect on the young women who tried it, against the background of measures that had failed to impress them.