Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cataluña; Fighting corruption. Or not; Criminal lèse-majesté; Galician airports; Pianos; & European states.

So, Spain's Constitutional Court - famed for its lethargy - took less than a day to declare Cataluña's imminent independence referendum illegal. "Supersonic", as the Catalan President noted. The next step? Who knows. Theoretically, the Nov. 9 referendum has been suspended by the court for up to 5 months, while it considers the options for going forward. Meanwhile, the Spanish President has recorded his pain that Cataluña's actions are 'profoundly undemocratic'. Which is rich, coming from a party which is not known for its adherence to the concept of democracy and which - true to form - is currently trying to rig mayoral elections in its favour. Inter alia.

Which reminds me . . . Every now and again, someone writes a heartfelt letter to a Spanish paper complaining about the extraordinary levels of corruption here and stressing (correctly) that there's no political will to do anything about it. Today's was in El País. All that said, the governing PP party is reported to be trying to agree a pact with the opposition PSOE party. But I doubt anyone in the country sees this as anything but a smokescreen, ahead of next year's elections. When we're bound to get "We're cleaner than you" claims in abundance. The parties may not actually do anything about corruption but they know it seriously concerns the voters.

Talking about Spanish laws . . . I'm not sure I believe I'm writing this but 2 Catalans who burnt a foto of the last king face heavy fines for the 'crime' of lèse-majesté, or 'violating the dignity of a head of state'. Presumably, they couldn't have been charged with this medieval offence if they'd burnt the foto a minute after Juan Carlos had abdicated. But who knows.

Galicia's 3 (barely) international airports - for fewer than 3m people - continue to lose money and rack up debt. The chances of any sensible action to address this problem - i. e. closure(s) - seem as remote as ever, since there are municipal faces to save. Incidentally, I say '3m people' but most of us in southern Galicia at least regard Porto's much better facility as our main option. Which is why it advertises itself as "The airport for all Galicians.".

Words: Yesterday I thought I saw the expression piano en plano, ('flat piano') which I assumed meant 'grand piano'. But checking in the dictionary, I see the right Spanish translation is piano de cola ('piano with a tail'). Which I have to say is even odder. But admirably accurate and down-to-earth.

Finally . . . In a BBC podcast today, I heard there were around 170 states in Europe, only 28 of which formed the EU. But Wikipedia says there are only 50. Maybe I misheard. Still, who can list the 50?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Marco Polo v. Chris Columbus; Cataluña; Opus Dei folk; Local graft; Good news; & Coffee capers.

So, it seems Marco Polo may well have hit (North) America a couple of hundred years before Columbus hit the Caribbean, in mistake for India. This will surely disturb the residents of the 10-20 towns around the world - including mine - who insist the latter was born there. Also disgruntled will be the Danes, if it's convincingly established that Polo got to the eponymous Bering Strait 400 years before their Vitus Bering.

The Spanish President is sticking to his mantra that the Catalans won't be allowed to hold a November referendum on independence. Though no one yet knows what effective action he'll take to stop it. Should the Constitutional Court pronounce against it - a racing certainty - the Catalan President will probably call early regional elections, as an effective plebiscite on the issue.

I mentioned Opus Dei a couple of days ago. The (Spanish) bishop who headed this right-wing (fascist?) organisation was beatified last week in his home town, en route to sainthood. The founder of Opus Dei (also Spanish) was declared a saint by the Vatican 12 years ago on the back of a miracle that happened when the parents of a very sick baby prayed for his intercession and the baby subsequently recovered. Nothing was said about all the non-miracles which occurred when other parents prayed to him and their children nonetheless died. One wonders what criteria are used by (would-be) saints. Or whether God gives them an allowance of X miracles a year.

One of our local papers - there are at least 12! - has trumpeted than one of the large corruption cases in process has thrown up evidence that dozens of Galician mayors and regional politicians were involved in croneyism and the traffic of influence. No one has fainted in surprise. One very local case involves the compulsory purchase of land owned by the regional president's family for the purposes of a motorway spur. I'll leave you to guess just how much above a fair market price was paid.

Some good news for Spain. 1. The number of foreign visitors topped 9m in August, the highest number ever and up 9% on the same month last year. 2. The government says it will create 350,000 jobs next year. I'm not sure this will bring the unemployment rate crashing down from 26% but every little helps.

Finally . . . The coffee I bought from the 24/7 shop yesterday was a brand - Bellarom - I didn't recognise and cost €2.50. I saw on the packet it was produced for the cheap German supermarket, Lidl. The price in 2010 was €0.99. So, very good business, even buying it retail and selling it on. Still, who can blame them? Who'd go to a 24/7 shop in Spain unless they were desperate. In other words, on a Sunday.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Cataluña and Scotland; England; Grimpers; In-laws; & Vermin.

The plan to hold a referendum on Catalan Independence on Nov. 9 continues apace. And the Spanish government has finally come out of the long grass and said it'll take the issue to the Constitutional Court on 2 counts. Chances are high (100%?) it'll get the judgments it wants but whether this will bring a halt to proceedings is anyone's guess. Quite possibly not. Meanwhile, the leader of the main opposition party has said that this 'serious problem' needs to be addressed by a major revision of the post-Franco 1978 Constitution. Who'd argue with that? Well, the government, I suspect.

Speaking of Constitutions . . . In the UK, confusion still surrounds the issues of what extra powers Scotland will get and whether devolution to England will mean a federal state. One things's for sure, these questions can't really be answered in the time-frame set by David Cameron. Which primarily reflects the fact of a general election in 8 months time. The political commentator Timothy Gorton Ash (The Guardian and El País) has suggested a Constitutional Convention would take 4 years, not 4 or 5 months, and has asked "How on earth can we talk about a federal settlement for Britain without discussing the powers that belong to Europe?". Which is surely valid.

Some years ago I invented the word grimper, as the name for the claw-like tool with which you remove staples. Sad to relate, it hasn't yet made Webster's dictionary. And isn't known by my visiting daughter. So, fortune still beckons.

Talking of words . . . One way of referring to your in-laws in Spain is los suegros. Last night I heard another: la familia política. Which rather says it all.

Finally . . . My visiting daughter this morning saw a very black rat shine up a narrow metal pole to get at the bird seed tray. Taking a leaf out of the book of horreo construction, I solved this problem with a circle of cardboard below the tray. And then put out both a humane trap and a less-than-humane trap. Neither have succeeded. Worse, the latter has been sprung and the bait purloined. But we have caught 5 more hornets in the fireplace. So much for the fire I lit a week ago to smoke them out.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Psycho cyclists; Elision; TV English; Motoring in Portugal; Opus Dei; & Café carping.

On Porto's lovely beachfront of Foz (English:Foz; Portuguese: Foshzz; Spanish: Foth) there's a wide strolling path and a decent sized cycling path. Cyclists, as is their right, whiz up and down the latter. Or the vast majority at least. But there's a small percentage of clowns who think it's fun to weave in and out of the pedestrians at full speed. We should all be licensed to shoot them. Or at least maim them with whatever comes to hand.

By the way . . . Elision is only supposed to occur in stress-timed languages such as English, German, Dutch and Russian. Whereas it's not supposed to occur in Romance languages, such as Spanish, which are syllable-timed. Portuguese seems to be an exception in that, though a Romance language, it's stress-based and abounds in elision.

Which reminds me . . . I'm guessing that, when native English speakers fail to understand those corporate strap-lines in English in Spanish TV adverts, it's because they're being spoken - with syllable timing - by a Spaniard who doesn't understand what he/she is saying. I hope Trevor of Kalebeul will correct me, if I'm wrong. Or that bloody know-all, Alfie Mittington.

My latest trip down into Portugal has endorsed my conviction they have a fondness here for (usually black) estate cars/station wagons. Still got no idea why. I've also noticed that, if you travel at 120kph, you'll be passed by many more drivers than in Spain these days. I assume the Portuguese government can't afford speed cameras every few miles and haven't yet imposed swingeing fines.

I'd guess that the secretive, far-right Catholic outfit, Opus Dei, is as strong down here in Portugal as it is in Spain. That said, it's reported to be losing power in the latter. Not before time, in a country in which only 13% of people attend Mass. Apparently, it doesn't fit alongside the current Pope's assertion that "The Church must end its obsession with teachings on abortion, contraception and homosexuality and become more merciful." A fatal papal accident, anyone?

I watched The Big Lebowski with my daughter this week. I think it says something about us that neither was embarrassed at the 271 uses of the the world fuck in the film's 117 minutes.

Finally . . . In one of the sea-front café-cum-bars in Foz there's a Zon-Fon Free internet. When you try to connect, it tells you how much you have to pay for the various packages. There's also an unsmiling waitress. Who, in a good example of the elision which makes aural Portuguese so difficult, told me the wi-fi password was praidouz. Except it isn't; it's praia da luz.

A presidential mistake; Pinpricks; Satnav rage; & Spanish stereotypes.

The Spanish news agency EFE today referred to President Mariano Rajoy as RajoyMariquita. Or 'Rajoy the fairy'. In his hometown of Pontevedra this came as no surprise, as he's generally thought to be gay here. Despite this, EFE apologised profusely for its gaffe.

My daughter and I are down in Oporto tonight, visiting a friend of hers from university. It was a day of pinprick trials and tribulations. Firstly an entire hour wasted on the web trying to decode the byzantine system of booth-less tolls installed by the Portuguese government; then 10 minutes failing to master the dispensing of coffee from a machine in a service station; then grappling with a satnav which didn't recognise the street we were heading for; and finally trying to get into a hotel which hid its entrance with consummate success and then didn't live up to its boast of '24 hour reception' service. All in all, I was glad to sit down for lunch in a nearby place where they took an age to take my order and even longer to bring it. But by this time I'd a glass of wine with which to console myself. And when I finally got into the hotel, the receptionist reversed my day be telling me my pronunciation of Obrigado was perfect. Which I'm sure was sincere.

That said . . . All of the above was later topped by my satnav trying - twice - to send me down the narrowest street in the world en route to a restaurant. In the end I gave up and asked someone where it was. About 50m away, was the answer.

I continue to be amazed at what Spanish TV viewers will tolerate. When I watched an episode of the dour 'Broadchurch' series this week, I was astonished at the regular appearance in one corner of a happy chappie advertising some later program. Truly has it been said that we get the TV we deserve.

Finally . . .My thanks to Lenox of Business Over Tapas for pointing me to these 12 Untruths about the Spanish and these 12 Truths. All pretty accurate. And probably surprising if you don't live here. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

FIFA farce; Madrid madness; Spanish names; An idiom; & The Windows scam again.

After 2 years and an expenditure of €6m, FIFA has finally produced a report on corruption among its executives, with particular regard to the preposterous award to Qatar of World Cup rights. All well and good. Except that no one is going to see it. Or so says FIFA. The reaction to this has naturally been severe and there must be hope of a change of heart.

Talking of money not terribly well spent . . . . After 'investing' €500m on a large judicial complex, the Madrid government has abandoned it after only one building has been finished - The Institute of Legal Medicine. I wonder whether anyone will resign. Or pay back the commissions. Just joking.

La Crisis may finally be over in Pontevedra. I see we now have a Sushi bar. Plus a few new - or re-opened - estate agents.

Just returning to the subject of Spanish names . . . I discussed insurance this evening with a lady call Cuqui (Kookee). This turns out to be the diminutive of Concepción. Your guess is as good as mine as to why. But this is often the way with Spanish diminutives. 'Paco' for Francisco, for example. And 'Pepe' for José.

Spanish Idioms Section: Una fiesta que os habéis pegado - 'What a good time you had'. Maybe.

Finally . . . I had the Windows-scam call again today. I managed to get as far as the Indian gentleman (in 'San Francisco') asking me to read out the message on the screen after pressing the Windows key and the R key. When I told him it was Fuck off, he put the phone down at something in excess of the speed of light.

A resignation!; Female names; Bones v. Ashes; Villages for sale; & Boorish Brits.

Is this a first for Spain? The Justice Minister has resigned after the President announced the long-expected abortion of the former's abortion bill, which found favour with a mere 20% of the electorate. Was the sword he fell on supplied by Opus Dei, I wonder.

Walking around a small parish cemetery yesterday, there was the usual evidence that some names were pretty common among the females of the community - the most frequent being Maria Carmen, Rosa, Rosalia, Maria and Manuela. On the other hand, there were single examples of old (Catholic) names that you don't hear these days - Hortensia, Prudencia, Josefa and Concepción. Then there were 1 or 2 odd names, such as Primitiva, Ermitas, Herminia and (would you believe) Generosa. And, there were 2 names which my Dutch friend, Peter, says are of Visigoth origin - Edelmira and Cumersinda (also Gumersinda). He may be right; he sometimes is. Of modern names, there were just 2 - Susana and Emma. The latter is odd, as double letters are not common in Spanish and the second M isn't strictly necessary. A foreigner, then?

One other odd thing in the cemetery was the refrain "Here lie the ashes of . . ." on gravestones or niche walls. My friend Peter (again) said that the word 'ashes' (as opposed to 'remains' or 'bones') was also used in English. This is certainly true of, e. g. , Dorothy Parker. But, then, she was cremated.

There are said to be around 3,000 'ghost' villages in Spain, places which have been abandoned to nature. A hundred of these are for sale as a job lot, of which a fair proportion are here in Galicia. Anyone interested can contact me.

Nice phrase I saw today:- The hystero-sphere of Twitter and Facebook.

Finally, a bit of good news from Spain: August tourist numbers were a record, at 9% more than last year. Thank God for foreigners. Unless they actually move here. As Lenox regularly reminds us, this seriously diminishes their importance, no matter how much money they bring or generate. Especially those who buy houses in the south. Ask the Priors.

Finally . . . Britain is generally regarded as a place of good manners. This article - by a Brit - would suggest, though, that things are in serious decline, thanks to "spitters, seat-hoggers, queue-jumpers, excessive phone-users and please and thank-you abusers". The British, says the author, have become a nation of poorly mannered ingrates. Comments welcome.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Localism v centralism; South America; Inheritance tax; Galician excess; & Galician xenophobia?

As I've said before, there are 2 distinct zeitgeists in Europe. One is the desire for greater local democracy and control (Scotland, Cataluña, Flanders, Corsica, etc.) and the other is the creation of a 'truly democratic' EU supra-state. It's hard to see how they can co-exist. Hence the euphoria in Brussels when the majority vote in Scotland was for continued union with the rest of the UK. We will next see this tension played out in England, where one answer to the demand for greater local democracy is to create a layer of regional government. Since this would fit with the EU's infamous map for a future Europe, we can expect it to be resisted. Not only for this reason but also because it would create - a la España - another layer of expensive (but useless?) politicians and bureaucrats. The alternative is greater powers to the existing counties and cities/metropolitan areas. Interesting times.

I've talked about Spanish family fiefdoms - Santander Bank and El Corte Inglés - but nothing can match the Argentineans when it comes to this sort of thing. The last President was Sr Kirchner. The current President is his (hapless) widow, and the next President, she tells us, will be their son. Almost as bad as the Ghandis in India. But Argentina doubtless considers itself part of the developed world. Maybe it is.

Talking of South America, a Venezuelan friend tells me, in tones of disgust, that the late Hugo Chavez, the anti-US, socialist champion of the poor, has been found to have had a personal fortune of 200m dollars. Possibly thrust upon him in gratitude by said poor. Maybe his family will give it back.

If you live in Spain and if you want your heirs to get maximum benefit, you need to ensure you're resident in the right community. This is because Spain is a patchwork of laws, with each of the 17 regions ('autonomous communities') having the right to set their own rules. Near term, you also need to ensure that your beneficiaries are resident anywhere in Spain. For, higher rates of tax apply to non-residents. The EU has declared this illegal and things might change soon. But I don't think anything has yet been said by Brussels about differential rates between the regions.

Galicia has a population of just under 3m. All of these can avail themselves of 3 international airports, though many of them use the superior facility down in Oporto in North Portugal. Another area of excess would appear to be tertiary education, in that the region has 5 (public) universities - In Vigo, Pontevedra, Santiago, La Coruña and Ourense. In fact, the only city which does't have its own university is Lugo, though it does have a Santiago Uni. campus there.

Which, sadly, reminds me that the news this week is that Spain and Italy ranked joint bottom in an OECD assessment of literacy and numeracy among graduates. Only 12% of them achieved a 'high level'. Another case of more meaning less?

Finally . . . A local paper reports that 67% of the milk we drink in Galicia comes from 'foreigners' - Portugal, France and the next-door Spanish region Asturias.

Cataluña; The EU; Rules?; Asinine Archbishop; Spanish; & scammer stringing.

Catalan independence: A couple of quotes:-
  • Madrid is going to block their vote and it may lead to Ghandi-style civic resistance that could bring Catalan cities to a standstill.”
  • I see no way out. Nothing is going to stop the Catalan movement. We’re heading for a train wreck.”
There are some here in Galicia - i. e. the nationalists who call it Galiza - who are very disappointed the Scottish vote went the way it did. For they were hoping to take Scotland's place in the the UK. This was presumably seen as less than independence but better than being part of Spain. Anyway, here's their (amusing) petition to David Cameron.

The EU: Is Brussels' relief at the Scottish vote misplaced?: A couple of quotes:-
  • "Alex Salmond may not have won the day but he has reshuffled the European pack in ways nobody could have imagined."
  • "Europe will never be the same after Scotland's vote. Nor will British euroscepticism." More here.

Rules: Down in Pontevedra's Parking Central, there's a sign telling you not to park in the yellow zones. Just in case you can't read (I guess), there's a metal barrier on each such zone. See here:-

The outgoing Archbishop of Madrid - a notorious right winger, most recently famous for calling women who have sex outside marriage 'whores' - has told his successor that he wants to stay in the archiepiscopal palace - on the best floor - and that he wants to retain his car, his chauffeur, a secretary and the 2 nuns who look after him. I can think of nothing better calculated to drive austerity-afflicted Spaniards from the pews. Those few that remain.

Bits of Spanish:
1. Yerro, yerras. etc.: Present tense of Errar - To err.
2. Pavo royal: Royal turkey. Peacock. Not Prince Charles.

Finally . . . Yesterday I mentioned the "Windows Service Department" scam. Here and here are a couple of videos in which the caller is strung along for more time than I managed.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Scotland; Spanish surprises; Corruption; Noise again; & A call from Windows

Scotland: If the Spanish press is anything to go by, the sigh of relief here and in the EU at large has been even greater than in the UK. There seems to be a belief that the result has holed all secessionist aspirations below the water line. And here in Spain there's great admiration for a truly democratic process executed without tribalism and rancour. Above all, though, there's slack-jawed astonishment - and envy - that a politician could resign in the wake of failure. This is unheard of in this self-professed young democracy. Which now waits to see whether the Spanish Cabinet will this week announce something that resembles a real strategy in respect of Catalan plans for independence, starting with their "illegal" referendum in November.

UKIP's Nigel Farage is a man of contentious statements. During the referendum run-up, he claimed that 54% of Scots were on benefits. Astonishingly, this turns out to be true. But, as this figure includes state pensions, it's 53% in England and much the same in Wales. As my old Contract Law professor used to say: 'There's nothing as deceptive as a half-truth'.

Spain is a country of regular surprises. The Godfather of Catalan politics was recently found - courtesy of an angry daughter-in-law - to have many millions in secret accounts around the world. This week the country's Anti-Corruption body announced that it didn't believe his claim he'd acquired this via an inheritance from his father. Meanwhile, his son has pleaded not guilty to obtaining his own fortune via corrupt practices. How embarrassing would it be to be an honest member of this family?

Which reminds me . . . If I said I doubted there was a single honest politician in, say, India, I guess you wouldn't be terribly surprised. But Spain? Perhaps the Podemos new kids on the block. But we will see.

Noise again: There was a heartfelt letter in today's El País from a woman who'd suffered nights of poor sleep from happy folk out in the street all night. If they'd just been playing ludo or chess, she might have been able to get the police to do something. But, as it was, it was one of her town's annual fiestas, when the keynote is fun and so anything goes. Except the law. Or especially the law.

Finally . . . I had another call from the "Windows Service Department" today. It went like this:
[Chinese accent, female] Hello. This is the Windows Service Department.
We've had a lot of reports of problems with your computer.
Is your computer switched on?
Could you switch it on.
Is it on?
Do you see a CNTRL key in the bottom left corner?
Do you see a Windows key next to it?
OK. Please press this together with the R key.
What do you see on your screen?
OK. Please try again.
What do you see now?
Nothing. . . . Perhaps it's because I don't have Windows.
[Unfazed by the fact she's told me she's calling from Windows]. Do you have a Mac?
Please wait a moment.
At which point I feel I can't string her along any further and hang up. The phone rings a minute or two later but I ignore it. I feel disappointed I haven't been able to get more of her criminal spiel. Perhaps next time. Meanwhile, I'll try and get details of the Windows expert who managed to keep them on the line for a lot longer than I did.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Devolution Max/Min; Catalan independence?; Lampposts; & Noise rules.

Now that most of us Brits have heaved a huge sigh of relief over the decision of (most of) the Scots not to go with independence, reality is breaking in, shining a light and revealing a huge mess. And it's one which can't possibly be cleared up in the (cynical?) timeframe posited by David Cameron. At worst, there's a Gordian knot. At best, there's possibly years of political wrangling over what powers will be devolved, first, to Scotland and, then, to the English regions. These would be the equivalent of the Spanish Autonomous Communities, I guess. And they don't yet exist, never mind wield power. As of today - terrified by the prospect that (Labour) Scottish MPs won't be allowed to vote in an English forum - the Labour party leader is accusing the Prime Minister of gimmicky precipitate action in promising constitutional reform for the English. So Labour don't just reject the timetable but also the principle. They had to do it, of course, but it won't go down well. But when you've been painted into a corner, you have to get your feet sticky. This show could run and run. And there's not long to go before the next general election. Hey ho.

Things in Spain are even more interesting. Which is not something often said about constitutional issues. Yesterday the Catalan parliament confirmed that the region/country/nation will go ahead with a referendum on independence in November. So the Spanish Cabinet will hold an emergency meeting this weekend to decide on what action - short of sending in the tanks - to take in response. Let's hope it doesn't involve Vladimir Putin. Having been confused/bemused by whatever President Rajoy's strategy has been, I rather liked this comment from an El Mundo columnist today:- "If the [Catalan] consultation approves a separatist program, it won't be because of the merits of the independistas - who have none at all - but because of the stupidity of their opponents, who have this in abundance."

Spanish lampposts have been in the national news this week, following the death of one young person who just leant against one and a second who rashly urinated on one. And here's a video of a lamppost in a town along our coast which appears to double up as a (leeky) water reservoir. I've often wondered about Spanish wiring over the years but will now be doubly cautious. Where are Health & Safety when, for once, you really need them.

Finally . . . My impression is that it's generally recognised that Spain is a quilt-work of 'authorities' and that it would be foolish to expect them to act, or even legislate, in the same way in matters for which they have authority. The end result, of course, is a certain arbitrariness. I say this after reading that 8 young people were each fined €101 for playing Ludo late at night in Malaga. The police said they'd received complaints from neighbours about the "noise made by the dice". Elsewhere in Spain, it seems, a noise level 10 times greater than this is perfectly OK. Especially if you're an idiot on a scooter that's had its silencer removed.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland; Spain; & Daughters.

So, Scotland - or the majority of it, anyway - has today shown common sense and voted to stay in the United Kingdom, doubtless effecting a massive sigh of relief around Europe and the rest of the world. Now we wait to see whether Cataluña shows its own famous common sense - seny - in November. Assuming a referendum ever take place there. Or even just a plebiscite.

As for me, the three-quarters of me which is English, Irish and Welsh is delighted. But the quarter which is Scottish is ever so slightly disappointed. On the other hand, all of me is impressed at the accuracy of my prediction. Give me a call, Mr Gallup.

I'm not sure Britain has ever had a Constitutional Commission but there may well be one now, as the commitment to "Devo-Max" is fulfilled. Not just for Scotland but for all the other UK constituent parts. Perhaps the famous West Midlothian Question will finally be answered. Interesting times. A curse for politicians.

There will be hundreds of questions arising now but, for me, one obvious one is whether Glasgow will declare UDI, on the back of significant majority for independence. In sharp contrast with Edinburgh.

Back here in Spain, things proceed as normal. A diplomat who sold visas in the Congo has been arrested and now faces prison. And a senior tax official down in Andalucia has been nabbed for a multi-million fraud around EU subventions for training courses. Hey ho.

Finally . . . My elder daughter is visiting for a couple of weeks. On the evidence of 20 corpses among the ashes, she suspects there's a hornets' nest in the chimney. "With daughters," I told her "you always have a hornets' nest in the house." "And a plentiful supply of serpents' teeth". She was decidedly unamused.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scotland again; Cataluña; Cultural traditions; Orwell; & Beggars.

Well, thank God the shouting's over. Now we await the verdict. And my prediction of a 5-10 point margin for the No camp stands. 

Looking back 3 months - before it all got frantic - here's the view of the estimable Simon Heffer. As he says, some of us saw the Labour party' cynical initiation of the devolution process as inevitably leading to the break up of the United Kingdom. And, as someone has said, this is now going to happen whatever the result announced Friday. 

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of a depressing saga is that, if Scotland becomes independent, the Orkney islands will then seek independence from Scotland. Blame oil. The same thing will surely happen in parts of Cataluña and the Basque Country which wish to stay Spanish.

A here's a nice list of the 5 consolations the rest of the UK will have if Scotland goes it own way.

Spain's government warned on Wednesday that fellow European Union members would not welcome a yes vote in Thursday's referendum on Scottish independence, and a new state could not expect swift readmission to the bloc. And today the President upped the tempo by saying independence movements were torpedoing the EU. Not much comfort there for Scotland if it breaks loose of the UK and seeks EU membership. And government.

Spain's Foreign Minister, Motormouth Margallo, insists the Spanish government will use "all means necessary" to stop the planned independence referendum in Catalonia, including stripping the region of its autonomous powers. But they won't be sending in the tanks because "it's not in the Constitution". There's a surprise. 

It's a funny thing, the EU. It seems that, though it can tell you and me what strength vacuum cleaner to use, it can't do anything about cruelty in the shape of cultural events which centre on lancing a bull to death or setting fire to kindling tied to its horns. Or chucking fighting cocks together. The issue of animal cruelty, like health, is delegated to nations and the Spanish nation - as opposed to the Spanish people - doesn't want anything done about these 'cultural traditions' from previous centuries. 

Which sort of reminds me . . . The military dictatorship in Thailand has made the reading of Orwell's 1984 a criminal offence, being an act of 'passive resistance'. You couldn't make it up. 

Finally . . . There's no greater indication that summer's over than Pontevedra's beggars doing their rounds quicker than ever. Which means you have little time after refusing one before the next one is at your table, with his/her hand held out. As with flies, winter will bring some relief from these pests, when we're driven indoors.

Francophilia; New words; Driving around the world; & Scotland.

It been illegal for quite a while to display symbols of the Franco regime in Spain. But here in Galicia alone there are more than 50 on walls in the major cities. Here's one of those still remaining here in Pontevedra:

Talking of signs . . . One town in Galicia had had to replace all its wooden yellow-arrow Camino signs because they were being stolen as quickly as they were replaced. They're going with granite. Something similar happened at the bottom of Penny Lane in Liverpool. Where the street name is now painted in black on the red sandstone wall. 

I don't read many novels but I've just embarked on one - Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale. In the first 20 pages he's used 5 words I didn't know:-
Gimp:- 'Twisted silk, worsted, or cotton with cord or wire running through it, used chiefly as upholstery trimming.'
Doxology - 'An expression of praise to God.'
Unliable - 'Not liable'.
Cheval glass - 'A tall mirror fitted at its middle to an upright frame so it can be tilted.'
Drugget:- 'A heavy felted fabric of wool or wool and cotton, used as a floor covering.' 

Bennett also calls the North Sea 'the German Ocean". Perhaps everyone did back in 1904, before the First World War. As with the Alsatian dog. 

On the past 2 mornings, as I've walked into town, I've nearly been hit in the middle of a particular zebra crossing. OK, it's a new one and it's placed at the top of a side road, as it slopes down, making it slightly hard to see from the main road, but there was no excuse for nearly mowing me down and one of the drivers had the decency to apologise. But, anyway, these 2 near-injury experiences got me thinking about driving in different cities around the world. The conclusion - Where it's terrible (Tehran and Jakarta, for example) you take this as the norm and just deal with it, taking on local practices in order to survive and prosper. Where it's good (say the UK), you take this for granted and get annoyed at the occasional lapses by other drivers. Here in Spain, where there's a mixture of the two extremes, your reaction also gets to be mixed. Sometimes (e. g. bizarre signalling) you just shrug but sometimes (e. g. tail-gating) you get annoyed. Así son las cosas. Maybe one day I'll just shrug at everything. 

Finally . . . Scotland: As D Day approaches: 

1. "If the UK survives on Friday, new powers for Scotland will be necessary but not sufficient. England itself must change too. And so must the way we all do politics. Back under the duvet is not an option".

2. Here's a beautifully crafted cri-de-coeur from Melanie Reid, in the un-citeable Times:- As I write this in the sun, overlooking the mountains of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, hearing only the mewl of buzzards and the bleat of sheep, I reckon I’m in one of the most idyllic places possible. To my left, beyond the wee wood, is the village, a happy, peaceful community where everyone knows everyone, where our children went to primary school and where our community-owned shop thrives.

Yet right now all I feel is wretched. Scared and absurdly powerless, like a child in trouble. The way you might feel if you heard your parents quarrelling every night or observed a really bad patch in the marriage of dear friends. In Scotland, you see, we’re at the point where the time for rational arguments and the counselling has passed: all that’s left is a slender hope that they decide to stay together. For their sake, yes.

But mostly, if you’re honest, for yours.

For those of us lucky enough to live in this lovely country, who are emotionally British, the threat of divorce from the UK is genuinely devastating. For us it is the forced destruction of our personal national identity. It’s terrifying. The news a week ago that the Yes campaign was ahead in the polls was seismic. I actually felt my world jolt. I felt physically queasy; found myself looking around the room for reassurance. Other friends said they burst into tears, overwhelmed with a sense of impending loss. Suddenly, all we could see was upheaval. Our future. House, pensions, jobs, savings. Every security that I had worked for as a UK citizen, taken for granted in one of the most tolerant, benign, democratic, prosperous and, yes, bloody wonderful countries in the world, was no longer secure.

Suddenly this was personal. It was about me and mine.

Let me tell you about my grandfather because he’s my touchstone on this. William Reid was born in 1883 into a dirt-poor crofting family in the northeast of Scotland. Real poverty-porn stuff. When he was 11 his father died, leaving William to support his mother and five younger siblings. My grandfather went to work straight away as a millwright’s apprentice to feed the whole family. In the evenings his mentor, the village schoolteacher, gave him lessons.

William was a man driven by brains and social purpose. He became a travelling millwright; always saving, sending money home to his mother. From his boyhood he was aware of the rampant poverty around him, the hordes of indigent women, unwanted children, limited horizons, the ruin of alcohol on men. He never drank. By the 1910s he was a successful engineer based in Liverpool and Belfast, installing passenger lifts on the Titanic and her sister ships. As soon as he could he bought his mother and sisters a house. By the 1920s my grandfather was rising, literally, in the employment of the multinational engineering company Waygood-Otis. He was in charge of putting the lifts in the liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and in the Empire State building.

Between the wars he did the same on much of the London Underground. He never learnt to drive and family legend tells how he was chauffeured all over the city through the night, the only time the work could be done, supervising those very escalator shafts that today millions tread. By the end of his career the humble man from rank poverty, one of Kipling’s Sons of Martha, was managing director.

For an autodidact he was knowledgeable in literature, painting, religions, finance, gardening, world affairs. In his retirement in Harpenden, my sister remembers his unfaltering quotations from Shakespeare next to the strawberry patch. He had socialist leanings, but feared anarchy. Self-betterment was the way to fight poverty and the degradation that went with it. He told my sister she should become a social worker.

Without overplaying it I think you could say he and his wife, my grandmother, a farmer’s daughter from his home area, were part of the Scottish diaspora that helped to build the modern world. I’m proud of what he constructed for Scotland, for Great Britain, for shared values of humanity. He was possibly the least inward-looking man you could ever imagine: he loved his country but saw it for what it was: a small, tough, poor place, integral to a larger whole. I think we can safely say, on both intellectual and emotional grounds, he would consider independence wilful madness.

The thought of blaming Westminster, or by extension the English, for Scotland’s plight would never have occurred to him. Life was about outreach, enlightenment, opportunity, not seeking someone to hold responsible for his plight. I bet there are several million families in Britain with similar stories to mine of intermingled lives and the export and input of enterprise. 

William Reid brought his family prosperity. His son, my father, was born in England. My father married a Northern Irish woman and I was born in London with a deep sense of British, Northern Irish and Scottish heritage. The way the wheel turns, I chose to go to university in Edinburgh. My parents were pleased: I think it satisfied my father’s romantic yearning to return. As a naive 18-year-old, I expected the Scots to understand that I was pretty core Scottish as well. I thought I’d fit in. I wasn’t some aristocrat’s daughter: I was descended from soil and grit and graft. I got a shock. Because I have a neutral accent I was automatically labelled 1) posh and 2) English by ordinary Scots. The deadly double whammy. Always an outsider. 

I’ve been here nearly 40 years. I married a Glaswegian, for God’s sake. You can’t get more Scottish than that. I stayed because it’s a wonderful place and hopefully over the years I have put something of my grandfather back into the country. But because I don’t sound like them I’ve come to realise that Scottish was the last thing I would ever be allowed to be. Yes, that kind of ignorance, that two-bob racism, prevails. 

Research in 2003 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Union of the Crowns indicated that one quarter of English people living in Scotland were victims of antagonism, harassment and prejudice. One third considered the Scots basically Anglophobic. I wonder what the figures would be if you did the same poll right now. 

Being reasonable can be a curse. Despite my comfortable middle-class life I have always tried to walk a mile in other people’s shoes. Today I understand perfectly why young Scots, newly enfranchised 16 and 17-year-olds, are being seduced by political fantasy as surely as the children of Hamelin were lured from their town by the pied piper and led deep into the mountain never to be seen again.

I fully grasp why the Labour voters in Glasgow, taken for granted as electoral fodder for generations, are beginning to follow the piper too. The siren call that says forget the rotten housing, life expectancy lower than the Gaza Strip, intractable social problems and 50 per cent unemployment, just come and vote “yes” and we’ll transform your lives. Of course anyone in their situation would follow the music. The young and the poor, those that don’t know better and those who have nothing to lose will project on to Alex Salmond’s deliberately empty canvas all their dreams. But they are being conned. It’s economic fantasy. They’re being led over a cliff. The teenagers are the poor saps that will have to pay for everything when they hit the ground. How dare the Yes campaign infect our children’s generation with the insanity of their false promises, their la-la land? The clever ones will simply leave; the rest will be trapped. 

How can nationalists be so inward-looking at a time when this tiny world of ours has never been more threatened by dark forces? And how dare they imply that No supporters, by setting out the realities of global finance, are somehow blocking greater social justice? As if we are all fat, neoliberal, poor-bashing Tories. I mean, grow up! If we are going to talk about social injustice, then the Yes campaign is surely guilty of cruelly manipulating the least wise, educated and articulate people in society. 

Almost 40 years from the day I first arrived in Edinburgh, completing a sentimental family circle of immigration, and unpacked my suitcase, I’m scared. I love this country for all it has given me: quality of life, people, peace, humour, beauty, freedom, roots. I am both British and Scottish. I am my grandfather’s descendant. The Yes campaign has no monopoly on passion. I have the right to care. Scotland is mine too.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bull baiting; English toilets; El Corte Ingjés; Spanglish; Abortion; & Injudicious judges.

Tordesillas is a Spanish city famous for several things. One of them, sadly, is annual 'festival' based on the torture until death of a terrified bull which is chased and lanced continuously by braves on foot and horseback. Even aficionados of the bullfight (La fiesta nacional) find this disgusting and the good news is that there was a huge demonstration against it in Madrid at the weekend. With luck and a fair wind, its days are numbered.

Just when you thought the Portuguese were our friends, an academic returning home there has produced a book in which he has painted the English as promiscuous, dirty and drunken. Everywhere he went, he says, the toilets were filthier than his grandma's hen coop. Well, I must have visited thousands of toilets in England over the years and I can honestly say I don't recall meeting a filthy one. And if you were to ask me about Portuguese public toilets, I'd reply that it's not uncommon to find (as in Spain) that they are without paper. Nor, sadly, have I come across much promiscuity in England. Nor drunkenness, for that matter. Maybe we haunt different places. Or he was getting down and dirty only with students. More here.

Another doyen of Spanish commerce has died in the last few days - the president of El Corte Inglés. As with the president of Santander bank, he was of an age (79) well past that of normal retirement. And he is to be succeeded by a relative. El Corte Inglés is Spain's biggest department store, essentially because it's the only one. Even little Cyprus has two. Luxembourg also has only one. I suspect without a hint of irony, it's called Monopol.

Bits of Spanish.
1. To separate the wheat from the chaff - Separar el grano de la paja
2. A lobbyist - Un lobist
3. Relay switch - Un relé

The EU: One of Spain's top politicos-cum-eurocrat has pronounced that the new government of Mr Junker is 'revolutionary'. Ye gods!

With a general election next year, Spain's PP government - as I predicted - has scrapped its plans for a controversial abortion bill. God knows why it ever thought it was smart to initiate it in the first place. The relevant minister should be sacked. But won't be.

Finally . . . An association of Spanish judges has warned the Catalan president that he could face up to 15 years in jail if he goes ahead with the vote on Catalan independence in November. Since when did judges involve themselves in a political process? Or perhaps the question here should be - Since when didn't they?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Scotland v. Scotland; England v. Scotland; Carolina Ortera; & Welsh news.

Scotland: A couple of views from the media:-
And here's a view from me . . . Not long now until we know what the Scots have decided. If they do, at the last minute, plump for independence, then this is a list of all the things that should immediately be implemented in London, in no particular order:
  • All Scottish MPs at Westminster to be sent home.
  • All Scottish broadcasters and journalists to be sacked - Kirsty Walk, Andrew Marr, Andrew Neil, etc., etc.
  • All government posts manned by Scots - quite a lot - to be immediately vacated. Can't have foreigners in these.
  • Bagpipe music to be banned, on penalty of death.
  • Similarly the wearing of tartan, especially in the form of kilts.
  • Importation or manufacture of haggis to be banned (a long-standing goal) and offenders hung, drawn and quartered, with their guts then being made into haggises, to be sold to the Scots.
  • A ban to be introduced on the import of Scottish products such as whisky and shortbread.
  • All RUK customers of Scottish banks and insurance companies to be compelled to quit them, even if they move their head offices to London.
  • All Scottish bands and groups to be banned, especially that one with the trousers that ended mid-calf. Oh, and Annie Lennox and the bloody Pretenders.
  • All MPs in RUK who are Scots to resign immediately to that they can be replaced by citizens of the RUK
  • Scotland - like Ireland - to be removed from the RUK weather forecasts.
  • All BBC transmissions to Scotland to be stopped, especially Strictly Come Dancing and the X Factor.
  • A ban to be introduced on all Scottish comedians, even Frankie Boyle, but especially the ones I can't understand. Which is most of them.
  • Toll booths to be set up on the England-Scotland border, with free entry into Scotland but a toll of 100 pounds for Scots who want to come to England. Who cares if the Scots retaliate? No one will be going there except returning Scots no longer wanted in England.
  • A ban on all Scottish students at RUK universities. With transitional arrangements, obviously.
  • Closure of the RUK's submarine base in Scotland and the transfer of its 3,000 jobs to RUK.
  • A death sentence on Alex Salmond, to be implemented if he ever sets foot in the RUK.
Watching both Alex Salmond and George Galloway on TV this morning, something strange happened. I came away with some respect for the latter. Never thought I'd write that.

And here's a courageous (foolhardy? reckless?) forecast: The No camp will win by more than 5 points, quite possibly even 10.

Now, it's time to give long overdue recognition to Carolina Ortera, of Pontevedra province, even if I'd never heard of her until this today. She seems to have been quite a gal around the turn of the 19th century. I quote:- Ortera grew to be the most sought after woman in all of Europe. She was serving, by this time, as a courtesan to wealthy and powerful men of the day, and she chose her lovers carefully. She associated herself with the likes of Prince Albert I of Monaco, King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, Kings of Serbia, and Kings of Spain as well as Russian Grand Dukes Peter and Nicholas, the Duke of Westminster and writer Gabriele D'Annunzio. Her love affairs made her infamous, and the envy of many other notable female personalities of the day. Here she is in a famously scandalous film of 1898. You'd have to say tastes in women have clearly changed. At least in my house. You can also see a film based on her life on Youtube, in parts. Here's Part 1.

Finally . . . Here's a headline you don't see very often, on 4 counts: Hundreds of micro pigs shot after running wild in Wales.

The least popular EU member; The popular EU; Pontevedra news; A new camino; & Ad nonsense.

A decade or two ago, I read of a European survey of attitudes towards businesspersons of other countries. There was no real uniformity around which country had the best people to deal with but there certainly was unanimity on the worst. France. I thought of this yesterday when I read that only 1 out of 27 EU members didn't want the UK (in whatever shape) to remain a member. Guess which. L'exception française, I guess.

Talking about the EU . . . President Junker has announced his new Commissioners, essentially the "better than ever" government of the burgeoning superstate. Needless to say, none of them is known and even fewer have been elected to their powerful positions. Essentially they're gravy-train riders, bent on increasing the size of the locomotive and all its carriages. Not to mention salaries and pensions you and I can only dream of. After all the lawyers, they should be second on the scaffold. Or guillotine, if you want to make an exception for the French individual who has the Economy portfolio. Why not? Look how well France is doing right now.

And talking of France and the EU . . . I see that Paris is again making a mockery of the EU limit budget deficit of 3%. And refusing to take stock of Brussels' edict that they lower it. As Groucho Marx might have said of the EU - "Who'd join a union that would have France as a member?"

With only a couple of minutes reflection, I can think of 16 places in Pontevedra city where parking has been reduced in the last 14 years. The latest is Reina Victoria street, where the town hall insisted a few weeks ago that changes there would cost only 3 parking places. This assurance seems to have lacked: ' . . . on one side of the street and about 6 on the other'. "What is truth?" said Pilot, and departed smiling.

There's scarcely a road in Galicia's Rías Baixas which isn't designated a Ruta de Vino. Or 'Wine Route'. And now we have a proliferating Camino de Santiago, or 'Way of St James'. It's all about tourist cash, of course, and there's nowt wrong with that. But I was amused to see you can now leave Pontevedra in one of two directions as you head for Santiago on the Portuguese Route, up from Oporto or Lisbon. The first is the old one, which goes up through Caldas de Reis and Padrón and the second is the new "Spiritual Variant", which passes through previously-deprived places such as Meis, Cambados, Ribadumia and Vilanova de Arousa. My suspicion is that most Galicians would think these places already do OK from the occasional importation of Columbian produce, for distribution throughout Europe. Especially the last one.

Talking of the Camino . . . Passing the city's pilgrims' hostel today, I thought I'd take a look at it. And pretty clean and impressive it was too, if you don't mind sleeping in the same room as 40-60 others. One confusing thing was that the large plaque outside giving historical details of the Camino was entirely in Gallego, whereas none of the notices inside were; they were in 6 other languages. Maybe the Xunta paid for the plaque..

Finally . . . In July this year, the Spanish traffic police lowered the permissible margin above the official speed limits. The objective was to ensure they reached their annual fines target of close to €350m. They just forgot to tell the public. Which would certainly increase their chances of success. But, anyway, what I really want to say is that this relentless campaign against drivers contrasts markedly with the lack of one against those cyclists who ride on pavements or on roads without lights. Or ride the wrong way down one-way streets. I can only assume it's because cyclists have less money and/or would be a hassle to prosecute.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Singing nuns?; Scotland; Text books; Bloody cyclists; & Rear-endings.

Religions have been responsible for a lot of nonsense (and some good) down the centuries but perhaps this one takes the biscuit - In the 19th century, such was the antipathy to women participating in music that an order of nuns was compelled to sing in silence, merely mouthing the words of the hymns. Minute 4.20 here. Must have been peaceful to hear.

So narrow will be the result of the Scottish independence referendum next week, there's bound to be bitterness on the part of the losing side. One wonders, therefore, why a two thirds majority in favour of constitutional reform wasn't demanded. This seems to be the norm elsewhere for far-reaching changes. As it is, this was just one of the critical issues ignored when the whole thing kicked off years ago. When London thought it could rely on the sensible Scots to reject independence by a large margin. And, to be fair, so it seemed for quite a while. Anyway, the political commentator Matthew Parris of The Times feels that, whoever wins, the Union is dead. And I agree with him. Damaged beyond repair. The fascinating questions are - What will replace it and how much pain will be caused along the way?

Life in Spain
It costs a lot to send a kid back to school at the start of the academic year here, largely because parents have to fork out for text books in each of maybe 12 subjects. And these are changed every year, making the previous books obsolete and unsaleable. Some say this is a deliberate strategy, aimed at keeping Spain's publishers solvent. But now the EU says it's illegal to charge for books as it's a basic right of children to have a free education. Just another Brussels dictate to be ignored for as long as possible.

Life in Pontevedra
  • Over the last couple of years, at least 6 of the roads I regularly use in town have been converted to one-way or have had their single direction reversed. I can't say I understand why but, then, I'm not a professional town planner. Here's a foto of one of these.
  • The road on the right used to go from L to R but now comes R to L, from behind the wall. The upshot is you can't see the oncoming traffic as you edge forward. Brilliant.
  • I continue to be astonished at how tolerant pedestrians are of cyclists on the pavement here. Today I saw a group of 4 twenty-somethings nonchalantly part in the middle, while still talking, as a cyclist bore down on them at 20kph. If my experience in Hamburg is anything to go by, things are the opposite in Germany. There, if you wander into the cycle lane at the edge of the pavement, you'll be mown down by a very angry and vociferous cyclist. I suspect this is compulsory.
Finally . . . The Spanish word alcance means 'scope', 'range' or 'reach'. Hence, the phrase un accidente por alcance means 'a rear-end collision'.

Banco Santander; The Tour of Spain; Independence here and there; Not-the-UK; & Bird trouble.

El País today had 8 pages of reportage on the passing of the president of Santander Bank. Plus the lead item on the front age. And an editorial. Finally, a dedicated opinion column. Appropriately, he was referred to as the 'emperor' of Spanish banking. But why not 'Caudillo? At times like this one wonders how long it will take Spain to move away from worship of the Big Man. Or el cacique. Meanwhile, his eldest child has inherited the fiefdom which is Santander Bank, masquerading as a public, listed company. But I don't suppose there'll be a shareholder revolt. Even though the chances of her getting the job in a meritocratic recruitment process would probably not be all that high. Perhaps they're confident all the other not-so-big men to keep her in her place.

I saw the Tour de España pass me twice today. Or, to be honest, just the once - as I blinked the second time. But, anyway, it was good to see that my shout of encouragement to Chris Froome was effective, as he stormed up to second place in the rankings. Here is is. Somewhere.

Independence? 1: Scotland: Former Nato chief Lord Robertson warns that the residual UK would be distracted for years by a messy divorce. "The world" he says "has not yet caught up with the full and dramatic implications of what is going on." Has anyone?

Independence? 2: Cataluña: The region/country's President has said that "If the Catalan population wants to vote on its future, it's practically impossible to stop that forever." He's probably right. Though Spain's President forcefully disagrees. At the moment.

Alternative names for the (possible) new United Kingdom:
Smaller UK - SUK
Residual UK - RUK
Truncated UK - TUK
Failed UK - FUK
My thanks to all contributors.

Finally . . . My younger daughter today saw a pigeon struck by a kestrel or (more likely) a sparrow-hawk in her garden. Instead of hitting the badly damaged bird on the head, she took it to a vet. I despair of today's youth. A pigeon, for God's sake!