Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Spanish obsession with regional identity took another step forward this week, with the playing of several football matches between Autonomous Communities and international teams. Galicia, for example, played Uruguay. And won. This is impressive but, if you translate it into UK terms and envisage, say, Cornwall playing Austria, it just sounds daft. And I certainly couldn’t see Cornwall winning. Maybe, though, a baseball match between Texas and Japan wouldn’t be too ridiculous. Or Bavaria against Iceland. On second thoughts…

Yet another impressive obituary in one of the national newspapers. This time of Gordon Duncan, referred to as ‘The irreverent bagpipe player’. I don’t really know why he was awarded this accolade but I don’t suppose it means he used the instrument to make farting noises.

Finally, my best wishes for 2006 for all of those who find themselves reading this blog. Especially those whose arrival is intended.

Friday, December 30, 2005

From Sunday, we’ll have the toughest anti-smoking law in Europe. As with all comprehensive laws, there are queries about its application. Given the prevalence of smoking in Spain – where an astonishing 70% of adults claim they never smoke! – there’s widespread concern about where lighting-up will still be permitted. Here are some of places cited in the media as having been the subject of queries to the relevant ministry:-
A funeral home - Answer: No, the living merit some consideration even if the corpse doesn’t
The cabin of a lorry you are driving – Yes, you can smoke.
The balcony of your office - It depends
A prostitute’s room in a brothel - Yes, it’s private
The cubicle of sex shop - No, it’s a public place
A telepizza outlet – Yes, it’s not really a restaurant
A firework factory – Err, No.

The governments of Spain and Catalunia are nearing the end of their negotiations around a new Constitution [El Estatut] which will determine the legal relationship between them. The parties involved are so numerous and the issues so arcane, it’s impossible to say where exactly things are. The view of the left-wing paper, El Pais, is that it’s all over bar agreement on such trivial issues as finance, whereas the right-wing paper, El Mundo, feels the parties are so far apart there’s no chance of them reaching an agreement. So, take your pick.

The one thing both papers seem to agree on is that the [false] Spanish economic boom of the last few years is approaching its end and tougher times lie ahead. What neither of them has come out and said is that Spain can ill afford to be distracted by these [in every sense] peripheral games when it’s rapidly losing what international competitiveness it has. Rome and burning are the words which spring to mind.

I see the latest European rocket will be a major step in establishing a GPS just for the EU. I imagine this will prove most useful when you find yourself on a Spanish road with 3 numbers which didn’t exist last time you came this way.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

My nice-but-noisy neighbour, Tony, cut his lawn this morning, dressed in pyjamas, a dressing gown and a Santa Claus cap. This is something he’s done very regularly since he bought the lawn mower last month, though not always attired so eccentrically. The problem is that, since there’s little grass on oil tankers, he has no idea of blade height and so is scalping the lawn each time. Consequently, it’s a dull brown - against the lush green of those on either side. It’s actually all my fault; when I saw him last month cutting his metre-long grass with what looked like a pair of scissors and offered to lend him my mower, he replied he could easily afford to buy one. Obviously true; but reading the instructions was clearly beyond him.

The German Chancellor, Mrs Merkel, says she wants to increase the powers of the central government at the expense of those of the regions. Spain, of course, is trending in the opposite direction. I guess the aim of both governments is to make their countries stronger and more efficient. The difference, perhaps, is that Germany is a net contributor to the EU and has a sluggish economy that needs to be revitalised. Spain, on the other hand, has a booming economy, benefits from a bank rate which is inappropriately low relative to its economic fundamentals and [for reasons beyond me] will be a net beneficiary of EU funds until 2014. So I guess there’s a stronger case [or, at least, opportunity] here for playing constitutional games that could well render Spain even less able to compete with, say, China and India. Time will surely tell and it will be interesting to see where the two countries are – especially their economic rankings – in 10 and 20 years’ time. Meanwhile, the great irony is it’s largely unhappy German taxpayers who are funding the grants to happy Spain. Not to mention the Dutch and those dastardly British who won’t give up their rebate.

In yet another of those right-on-cue surveys, Spain has been identified as having the longest working hours but the lowest productivity in Europe. This, I’m sure, will eventually change, in both directions. But not, I suspect, until life gets a lot harder here and Spain is making its own way in the world, without handouts from Brussels.

Post Office Tale no. 37: In two parts, involving first my friend, Andrew, and then his wife, Angela:-

Part 1
I’d like to send this parcel to Venezuela
OK. It’s 2 kilos so the cost will be 35 euros.
No. According to your tariff, for Zone D it should be around 15 euros.
What tariff?
The yellow booklet published by the Post Office.
I don’t know anything about that. [Turning to colleague] Do you know about it?
No.
So it’s 35 euros
Well, I’m not paying that [Or words to that effect]. Give me back the parcel.

Part 2
I’d like to send this parcel to Venezuela
OK. It’s 2 kilos so it’s 35 euros.
No. According to your tariff, for Zone D it should be around 15 euros.
What tariff?
This one here in my hand.
Let me have a look. Yes, but that’s only for companies.
Show me where it says that.
OK, but that’s the rate for parcels, not letters.
What the hell do you think this object wrapped in brown paper is?
OK. 15 euros.

Spanish pragmatism. The Pontevedra council last year landscaped an area in the centre of town. This involved several grassy areas alongside the paths. A fair percentage of pedestrians found it too inconvenient to use the latter and so wore out the grass taking short cuts across the lawns. This week the council admitted defeat, cemented over the bare earth and labelled them new paths. Of course, the aesthetics of the place have been destroyed but, in this practical country, everyone is now happy enough.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The day started well. I checked the 6 euro lottery ticket someone had given me against the seemingly endless list of winners and was thrilled to see I’d won 1000 euros. Then I called my Spanish lady friend and she patiently explained that each 6 euro ticket has 133 divisions. So what I’d actually won was a trifling 7.52 euros. This, of course, is better than a kick in the head but I’m glad I didn’t race down to the lottery store and demand my thousand euros. I’m pretty sure the story of the mad Englishman would have made the local papers.

Needless the say - as part of 30 page analyses in every paper - the results are always broken down by regions, provinces, towns, villages, parishes, etc. This, of course, serves to increase the envy between the less and more fortunate parts of the country. This year’s big winner was Catalunia, which garnered both the first and the third of the five humongous prizes. This should, at least, allow them to drink enough of their champagne [Cava] to compensate for the boycott which continues in the rest of the country as a protest against their anti-Spain secessionist plans.

And still on Catalunia, a parliamentary committee there has recommended that a national radio station be prosecuted for ‘denigrating Catalunia and its political representatives’. Interesting to get a glimpse of how these self-important proponents of independence for the region would operate democracy once they had total control. I have this vision of Catalunia achieving the status to which they aspire and then immediately being booted out of the EU for being a fascist state.

Possibly because there’s no jury system in Spain, we often get prosecution and defence positions stated in the media well in advance of a trial. This week three youths were arrested for killing a beggar by dousing her in a solvent and setting fire to her. The defence lawyer appeared on TV to insist they’d got the can from a nearby building site and had thought it contained only water. This might just have sounded plausible if the father of one the accused hadn’t said they’d only meant to set light to a pool of the liquid near the woman – ‘just to scare her’ – but the can had slipped. Take your pick.

Meanwhile, over in the UK – now that memories of George Best’s death have faded – the main item on Sky News over the past few days has been the plight of a bloody penguin stolen from a zoo. Thank-God it didn’t happen during the funeral, creating a selection crisis for them.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The government has announced Telefonica’s fixed charges will rise by only 2% next year. For this relief much thanks. They’ve only grown 46% since I signed up in 2000, when the market was ‘liberalised’. This is what competition means in Continental Europe, it seems.

No great surprise to read that Galicia leads Spain in the percentage of road accidents attributed to excess speed. I suspect the fatal combination is speed, bends and wet surfaces but I guess the accuracy of my observation makes little difference to those who end up dead. Or, worse, bereaved.

As regular readers will have appreciated, there’s no shortage of surveys in Spain. And one of the consequences of the regionalism/localism I often talk about is an obsession with ranking oneself against everyone else, even to the point of absurdity. So, in one if today’s headlines, we read that ‘Galicia is the 7th worst region in Spain as regards loss of students from public universities’. There’s a steady stream of this sort of stuff but I suppose it’s inevitable when there are 4 or 5 local papers which bring out issues every single day of the year.

Just in case you were still wondering, the general view in Spain is that what she got from the EU budget fight was better than anything previously forecasted or expected. The opposition, on the other hand, is still trying to convince us the outcome was ‘worse for Spain than the battle of Trafalgar or the Cuban War with the USA.’ The former saw the destruction of the entire Spanish fleet and the latter the loss of Spain’s last colony. Frankly, I think they’re urinating against the wind.

Some of you might be confused by the last paragraph, in view of Spain’s continued possession of Ceuta and Melilla in Africa. This would be because you don’t appreciate that these are not colonies but enclaves. Unlike Gibraltar, of course.

In a market today, I saw jackets on sale celebrating the achievements of young Fernando Alonso, the Formula 1 World Champion. It came as a surprise to me but it seems he drives for that well-known French company, Renaull.

Today was the day of Spain’s big Christmas lottery – El Gordo, The Fat One - when vast amounts of money are distributed. The numbers are drawn in an elaborate, morning-long ceremony which involves the chanting of the number by young choristers. When I first saw this, I was quite charmed. Now I wish I had a machine gun handy. Could this be age?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The father of Julio Iglesias has died, aged 90, just a few months before the birth of his 4th child. As it was a heart attack, one wonders whether he was going for his 5th. Well, this one does, anyway.

I commented the other day on the time it takes to get anything constructed here. Right on cue, there’s a report in today’s local paper about some bridge work which is more than two and a half years delayed in beginning, never mind ending. So it’s anyone’s guess how late the latter will be.

There’s an awful lot of bureaucracy in Spain but the good news, as I’ve said before, is that, if you have any sort of personal connection with the funcionario in front of you, the barriers vanish instantly. And where everyone knows almost everyone else, this is frequently the case. Failing a personal connection, it’s always worth giving charm a try. Or what passes for charm in my case. The lady at the Post Office today refused to give me a parcel for my daughter and said I’d have to send the form to Madrid for her to write an authorisation on it and mail it back. But when I said it was a Christmas gift and [more truthfully] it’d take 2 weeks for us to do this, she relented and together we concocted a forged note from my daughter authorising me to pick up the parcel. And a good thing, too, for I was about to try tears. I can’t see any of this having worked in the UK. But then there I would never have been asked to complete any formalities in the first place. The very fact that I had the Post Office advice note would have been enough.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Banking tale no. 267: A month or more ago, I applied for a credit card and went through a process which involved me twice faxing a copy of my identity card. I eventually received the card but discovered my surname was spelled wrongly. So I went through the process again. I am still waiting for the replacement. But it’s not all bad news; they did send me the PIN two weeks ago. So, if the card ever does arrive, I’m in an excellent position to use it.

A columnist in El Mundo yesterday argued that Spain should go on receiving its traditional level of subsidies from the EU because ‘Although it appears to be a much richer country now, it doesn’t really have a competitive economy’. Well, whose fault is that?, one might ask. Not much of an incentive to improve, is there, when you can go on living off someone else’s money in perpetuity. Welfare dependency on an international scale.

Galicia is a place of myths. I wonder if these include one to the effect that some trees have magnetic properties. For, at 6am on Sunday morning, yet another car carrying two young men smashed into a tree when taking a sharp bend. Four hours earlier, a couple of women leaving a restaurant after a Christmas dinner were killed when they were hit broadsides by a car doing 160kph [100mph] on a local road. I suppose this sort of incident will reduce in time, though possibly only when there are no young men left in Galicia.

I see the Red Army Ensemble [‘of St Petersburg] will again be performing here next week. If I don’t get to see them on the stage, I will surely see them, like last time, clearing the shelves at the supermarket.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Spanish press seems well-satisfied with what Spain got from the EU budget negotiations. These include the continued status of net beneficiary until after 2013 and a new fund just for Spain. But the formulae being as arcane as they are, the opposition party is able to argue the talks were a complete failure for the President as ‘Spain will unfairly finance 25% of the EU expansion’. There seems to be a widespread view that every country conceded something in order to achieve a compromise but, for the life of me, I can’t figure out France gave beyond a vague promise to have talks in 2008, after Chirac has departed the scene. Maybe they withdrew some outlandish demand that was never going to be met. Perhaps that Tony Blair be hung, drawn and quartered. Talking of Chirac, he seems to have offended Spanish sensibilities by ditching his alliance with Spain in favour of one with Germany only 24 hours after forming it. What on earth did they expect?

I’ve mentioned that Chinese ‘bazaars’ are cropping up all over the city. These have been met with consternation and now by concern on the part of local shopkeepers. The latter, of course, are in business for themselves and not for their customers. So, as they regard hard-working, lower-priced, open-more-hours competitors as unacceptable, they’ve taken the traditional route to meet the challenge. They’ve persuaded the local council to pass a law preventing the Chinese shops from opening longer than them. Stuff the customers.

After two nights of partying next door, I can make another observation on why Spain is such a noisy country. Not only does everyone just love to talk; everyone loves to talk at the same time as everyone else. Actually, I doubt this is new observation on my part. But it did strike me in Sintra, touring a palace behind a group of Spaniards, that very few of them have the sort of reticence that others have about their voiced thoughts being thought of as stupid. You can guess the result.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Well, 77% of Spaniards support the new anti-smoking law; but 70% of them don’t believe it will be implemented. So it seems my concerns are widely shared. Vamos a ver. I hope we’re wrong. I’m tired of eating smoked tapas dishes.

Spain has been issued with the second EU court threat within a week. This time they’ve been told to start charging the Catholic Church value-added tax [IVA in Spain] on all their purchases. My guess is it’ll take years for this to happen.

And talking of sloth, I wrote some time ago of a crossing in Pontevedra where 7 roads met but there were no indications at all as to who had right of way. Over the last few months, an enormous roundabout [circle] has been under construction here and I think I can forecast accurately that the accident rate at this spot will shortly rocket up. Meanwhile, I am again astonished at just how long things are taking. One obvious reason is that I hardly ever see anyone at work there. My guess is the men are simultaneously working on several other challenges and so spreading themselves very thinly. During the sort of construction boom we’ve had for a number of years now, this must mean things actually take longer to complete than in the less frenetic times that are always supposed to be around the corner.

I can’t say I was surprised to read in a UK newspaper that about one British million couples who are in a permanent relationship live apart so as to be able make higher benefit claims. And, on the same subject of welfare-driven corruption, I also read that - among UK government employees – 39% of local government officers, 25% of teachers and 22 per cent of civil servants retire well before 60, ostensibly because of ill health. Astonishingly enough, their health then improves so as to give them higher life expectancies than people who don’t collapse because of illness. Who’d have thought it.

Sky News yesterday told us that reaching an EU budget deal had been a ‘vast achievement’ for Tony Blair. Since was this was managed by Britain being the only country to make concessions, leaving the ludicrous CAP budget untouched, I wonder what form failure would have taken.

Quote of the Week

The greatest tragedy of Tony Blair is that he has always been the instrument of somebody else’s political vision — Gordon Brown’s in his very early days, Peter Mandelson’s in the middle years and George W. Bush’s towards the end.

Friday, December 16, 2005

I said yesterday the Spanish press regarded M. Chirac as a certain loser in the current EU budget negotiations. Today’s news is that Mr Zapatero, having pocketed Tony Blair’s concession to Spain, promptly formed an alliance with France to ambush the UK over their proposals to revise the Common Agricultural Policy. Needless to say, these are the biggest beneficiaries therefrom. Given his record, I’m sure TB will slip out from between the rock and a hard place but it’ll be interesting to see how he does it. How he must regret saying in ’97 he would place Britain at the heart of the EU.

Within a couple of weeks, Spain will have the most draconian anti-smoking law in Europe, if not the world. And this in a country with close to the highest consumption of tobacco in Europe. Indeed, the penalties are so harsh, questions have naturally been raised as to whether the law is enforceable. This was, anyway, always going to be a problem in a country where laws tend to be ignored if they are personally inconvenient. My hope is that my regular café will soon become a far more salubrious place but I’m gearing up for disappointment.

The President of the Valencian government has said the pending EU court case around their illegal land development laws has nothing to do with them but is a matter for the party which is about to be prosecuted – the Spanish state. Not surprisingly, a member of the opposition has accused him of telling porkies. Yesterday it emerged that a total of 85 new golf courses are planned for the Valencian coast, which rather puts to shame the 17 ‘planned’ for Galicia.

I’ve taken to peering into passing cars to see whether the driver is wearing a dog on his/her lap. I could get arrested soon but, meanwhile, I’m pleased to report none of the canines has been using a mobile phone while in the driving seat. Smarter than their owners, obviously. Or at least more law-abiding.

Could anyone with queries about buying property in Galicia please write direct to me on colindavies@terra.es as I prefer not to use my blog for this.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Mr Blair’s latest proposal for the EU budget secures Spain’s subventions until 2014. Suddenly the media here seems full of articles admitting Blair is not really the Devil incarnate and suggesting France is now isolated and heading for defeat. And the finger of blame for obstruction is now being pointed at Poland. Perhaps this because they’re about to take over from Spain as the biggest beneficiary of Brussels’ largesse.

In 1994 a land development law was introduced in Valencia, giving the local authorities power to not only compulsorily purchase properties but to compel the [ex]owners to contribute to the cost of developing the land taken from them. Abuse of this law – for reasons we can only guess at – was so scandalously extensive it finally led to the EU Commission ordering the Spanish government to put a stop to it. As nothing was done, the Commission yesterday gave Spain a deadline of 3 weeks, after which it will be taken to court. With impeccable timing, the Galician government yesterday announced it’s considering the introduction of a similar law. Meanwhile, though, most of the local councils along the coast have announced they will be re-designating significant stretches of land so as to ‘give legitimacy to arrangements already made with developers’. Maybe we really will have the 17 new golf courses mentioned in yesterday’s press reports. To go with the 2½ we’ve already got.

A fourth Galician trawler in a month has been arrested for illegal fishing, this time by the Irish government. Conspiracy theorists here are suggesting it’s all a ruse to blacken Spain’s name before the next round of negotiations on EU quotas. I suppose this lies within the realms of possibility. Not that you’d get many takers in Spain itself, I suspect. Especially in Vigo.

After the third instance in three days, it’s clear I’ve missed the announcement that it’s now compulsory to have a dog on your lap while driving a car in Pontevedra. Thank God for the little bitch from the forest who adopted me a few days ago: Ryan would have been far too heavy. Plus he would have tried to drive the car.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I’ve been adopted by a little dog which was either abandoned or lost in the forest behind my house. Astonishingly, the ever-jealous Ryan seems to have accepted it, though it is a bitch. This morning, as I was walking them up the hill, I was greeted by a couple driving down as if I were an old friend. As I didn’t know them from Adam, I assumed this was because they were dog lovers. I wasn’t far off: both the passenger and the driver had a small canine on their laps.

The wife of my nice-but-noisy neighbour, Tony, has taken delivery of a new car. She is a doctor and so has bought an Audi A4, which seems to be the compulsory choice of all professionals in Spain. I happened to be outside when she arrived in it, followed shortly by Tony in their old Seat Ibiza. It took him all of 2 seconds – well, possibly 3 – to volunteer exactly how much the new car had cost. His wife feigned horror but Tony responded firmly that we were men and, therefore, in the habit of discussing such things openly. I refrained from saying that, even so, it might have been more couth to wait until the question had been put.

There were critical reports in the press today of the annual ‘sacrifice’ of 50,000 greyhounds once the hunting season is over. Spain is now the only country in Europe where this breed is still used for hunting. And it’s possibly the only place where anyone can be reported as saying “These dogs are not human beings but weapons. When they cease to be useful, they’re eliminated.” Though I fancy I’ve heard something similar said about fox hounds in the UK.

Can anything be more illustrative of EU madness than the name under which Macedonia now goes – ‘The ex Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia’? Whatever it’s called, it seems that France is about to veto its membership of the club, in a knee-jerk reaction to its failed referendum on the EU Constitution. Hardly worth becoming independent.

Galicia is said to have almost 50,000 illegal houses, i. e. places built without a licence. A property developer who was asked to comment justified this wholesale breach of the law on the grounds that “Galicia doesn’t have enough land zoned for building”. Presumably his response to being caught speeding at 180kph would be that Spain doesn’t have enough roads where he can drive at any speed he likes. Very Spanish. The law wasn’t personally very convenient: so I ignored it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

One of the joys of travelling in Portugal was to hear English song and film titles correctly pronounced on the radio. This rather contrasts with Spain, where they are usually contorted into unintelligibility. On the other hand, a major strike against the Portuguese is that even more of them than in Spain appear to regard it as the pinnacle of wit to have an illuminated Santa climbing up the front of their house. In one village we passed through, virtually every dwelling had one of these. Hilarious.

I mentioned yesterday I have to go to Madrid to sign papers around my daughter’s mortgage. My guess is this will take place in a notary’s office and there’ll be a cast of hundreds, if not thousands. The major reason for all this face-to-face formality – not to mention expense and waste of time – is that no one much trusts anyone else in Spain. And, if you are cheated, recourse to the courts is not usually a serious option. So there’s an enormous premium on compelling people to prove they are who they say they are and then having them sign the numerous documents that surround every transaction in Spain. It’s for similar reasons that you can’t get connected to utility suppliers without attending their offices in person, proving who you and your parents are and authorising direct debits. It’s no way to run a business in the 21st century but I guess it’s understandable.

Almost a hundred people were killed on Spain’s roads last week, when there were 2 bank holidays. The only surprising thing about this total is that it’s higher than last year’s, suggesting recent extensive safety campaigns have been less than effective. Actually, Spain’s average weekly death toll was 91 in 2004 so the reporting of these holiday figures is not as newsworthy as all the attention would suggest. For the record, Spain’s per capita mortality rate is 9% higher than Portugal’s and more than twice that of the UK. However, that’s nothing compared to the USA’s, which is almost 3 times the UK’s. A reader kindly wrote on this a few months ago but I’ve forgotten if he explained why this is so.

Accustomed as we Anglo-Saxons are to hearing that Spanish families are very much closer than our own, it came as a bit of a shock to read today that a young man had pushed his way through the police and paramedics at the scene of a car crash so that he could beat up his injured brother for taking their mother’s car without permission and then writing it off.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Following the Catalunian example, the Galician nationalist party has prepared a revised Constitution which refers to the region as a nation. Not content with this, they’ve included a provision which expresses the aim that what are currently bits of Asturias and Castile y León will one day become part of Galicia, in recognition of their ‘historical, cultural and economic character’. Perhaps there’ll be an Anschluss next. Needless to say, the Presidents of Asturias and C y L have not responded too enthusiastically to this naked land grab. It’s at times like this that one wonders when Spain will enter the 21st century and stop playing these divisive games.

And talking of ancient practices …. My daughter is finalising the purchase of a flat in Madrid. This involves a mortgage and as, at 29, she’s not considered an independent adult here, I have to guarantee this. Astonishingly, things being so face-to-face in this very personal culture, I have to make a 10 hour round trip to Madrid to sign the relevant piece of paper. I have entered into hundreds of contracts in my life but this is the first time I’ve had to travel so that all parties can sign in the same room and at the same time. Dickensian is the word which springs to mind.

Mr Blair and his EU budget proposals continue to get a very bad press here in Spain but it’s warming to see one of two commentators saying it’s time Spain recognised it no longer deserves handouts from other countries and, in the interests of a larger, stronger Europe, should move gracefully to the status of a net contributor. Maybe so but I can’t see Mr Zapatero taking this line.

It’s amazing how lasting cultural symbols can be. It an article on the demise of the London Routemaster buses, one of the Spanish papers said they are as ‘emblematic of the city as one of the dense fogs coming up from the Thames.’ Hardly, given that the last of these must have been before the Routemaster was introduced in the 60s.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

A few observations on my return from Portugal:-
- Sintra, near Lisbon, is enchanting. As you will all know, Byron loved it and started Childe Harold there.
- There are more than enough palaces and gardens in Sintra to keep you occupied for a couple of days or more. But also worth a visit is the royal palace 25km further north in Mafra. This enormous pile houses one of the world’s greatest libraries, albeit at the end of a long guided tour through seemingly endless odd rooms.
- Like the Dutch, the Portuguese all seem to speak excellent English, even the kids. Perhaps it comes of an acceptance of the fact that your own language, rightly or wrongly, is not widely spoken. Whatever, it contrasts with Spain.
- On the road, there’s little to chose between the Spanish and the Portuguese but, otherwise, the latter are a quieter and more reserved people than their Iberian neighbours. Though equally friendly. The Spanish, of course, consider them even duller than the English. But dullness can be attractive, especially late at night when you’re trying to sleep. And when slamming doors and chatting at the top of your voice in the corridor can wake a baby, who then starts to cry and disturbs everyone else in the place. For example.
- One shared feature of the two countries is that restaurants are empty at 9.30pm. In Portugal this is because everyone has gone home by this time. Whereas in Spain, no one has yet arrived.
- Portuguese architecture – and their affection for gardens – has great appeal but I more than once felt it would be a good idea if the entire population could club together and buy some paint. Or at least some whitewash. The photo below is of a lovely building which rather illustrates the point.
- As in Spain, EU-financed road building has proceeded apace over the last decade. So it can be a challenge identifying exactly where you are. This is true even if you have the latest maps. However, this is speculation on my part as I make it a point to complicate my life by never having one of these.
- The Portuguese seem to like dogs. Or border collies, at least. Ryan got a lot of attention but, as ever, responded by studiously ignoring everybody who showed any interest in him. I was not given the opportunity.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

It’s a public holiday in Spain today [What’s-Left-of-The- Constitution Day] and I am about to depart for a few days in Portugal. So here’s a valedictory tale, poached entirely from a British newspaper - Prakash Parekh and his 23-year-old fiancée, Nehu, were due to be married in Gujarat this week but Prakash decided first to take Nehu for a ride in his new car. Stopping by the side of the road, he asked her how much she loved him. She replied that she would die for him. So he told her to lie down on the ground - which she did - and then he drove over her three times.

And you thought you had problems.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Perspective and principles. El Pais today opined that, if Tony Blair succeeds in his attempts to reduce the EU budget and preserve most of the cheque británico, this will be to the detriment of the ‘strengthening, cohesion and internal solidarity’ of the EU. In contrast, Spain’s attempts to reverse previous agreements to reduce from 2006 the subsidies flowing this way will, it seems, only redound to the eternal benefit of the EU. What really seemed to upset the leader writer of El Pais was the prospect that, unless Mr Zapatero gets tough, Spain could become a net contributor to the EU budget by 2013, a mere 35 years after first getting access to the trough. God forbid.

By and large, Galicia seems a pretty crime-free place. So it comes as a bit of a shock to read that 2 young man were murdered by contract killers yesterday in a ‘settling of accounts’ among drug dealers. This came two nights after the discovery of the burned-out remains of a speedboat and 4x4, the favoured vehicles of the local narcotraficos. And today there were calls for action from the local police in order to prevent Galicia becoming ‘another Sicily’. Let’s hope they’re more effective in this than the police there. Not that the local drug barons aren’t all very nice people.

Someone has made an analysis of the email services provided by the likes of Google, Yahoo and Hotmail. I can’t say it came as any great surprise to read that the provider with the slowest and least efficient offering gloried in the name of ‘Latinmail’. At least no one could say they hadn’t been warned. Though ‘Mañanamail’ might have been a bit more honest.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

One of the local papers today had a 3 page spread on the failings of the town’s drivers. Six or eight senior policemen told us, in various ways, they were ill-mannered, rule-averse and inconsiderate towards others. As this is hardly news, the only reason I mention it here is because, 5 minutes after reading it and waiting at a T-junction for a car to pass, I noticed the driver had a Yorkshire Terrier sitting on his left shoulder.

I read that the number of British men using prostitutes has doubled over the last decade from 2 to 4% of the [male] population. This is truly appalling but the figure must still be low compared with [Catholic] Spain.

Here’s another thought-provoking statistic – Spain has 4.7 doctors per 1000 people. This compares with 1.6 in the UK, which is only marginally better than Turkey at 1.2 and Albania at 1.3. No wonder British doctors work so hard and suffer such high rates of alcoholism and suicide. And all to ensure the NHS remains ‘the envy of the world’. Poor sods.

And here’s a couple of creative gems from the person employed to translate English film titles into Spanish:-
Bend it like Beckham – I want to be like Beckham
Being Julia – Knowing Julia

And a new piece of Spanglish:–
Los carvings - Curved skis, I believe.

Galicians are reported to be the least stressed people in Spain. The region also had the lowest rate of ‘industrial growth’ in 2004. I wonder if there’s a direct relationship between these facts.

British TV today reported today on an event in Liverpool which, they said, might well have given the city the world record for the ‘highest amount’ of Father Christmas’s involved in a road race. As they were all in costume, I guess they might well have produced a world record ‘number’ of sweat.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Along with all other 24 hour providers, Sky News is not averse to a little tautology in order to fill the endless hours during which they have to entertain – sorry, inform – us. So, for example, we learnt this morning that George Best’s funeral would be attended by God, the Pope, the Dalai Lama, John Lennon and ‘something like 35,000 people, or thereabouts’.

My favourite company, Telefonica, is currently running an ad for which the strapline is “The first time is always easier when you have someone to help you”. It shows a father in formal dress helping his adult son with his tie. The father is wearing a bow tie and so one’s immediate assumption is that the son is too. But he isn’t; he’s wearing a normal tie and it’s this which his father is knotting for him. My first thought was this was a stupid mistake on the part of Telefonica, quite in keeping with its approach to its customers. But then it dawned on me that, such is the informality of Spanish life, it would be perfectly possible for a male to reach 25 without ever having worn a tie. Plus, of course, Spanish adult children think nothing of living with their parents until well into their 20s or even 30s and so wouldn’t feel any embarrassment about having one of them help with their clothes. All of which was readily confirmed by Spanish friends at the English Speaking Society dinner last night. Indeed one of them – in his 40s – proudly boasted he’d never worn a tie in his life, even for his wedding.

And talking of Spanish culture, one thing you might feel you’d be sure of is that its senior citizens would be well cared for by their ‘much closer’ families. So it was a bit of a shock to read today that more than a third of women over 65 live alone and on a pension of less than 400 euros [275 pounds] a month. Or 69 pounds a week. Mind you, I fear the UK basic pension is around this and the cost of living there is 40% higher.

The Galician Xunta says it wants to make Vigo the ‘motor of the Galician economy’. This will do nothing for the long-standing rivalry between this upstart city-without-a-cathedral and Pontevedra, whose burghers tend to believe nothing much has changed since the Middle Ages as regards urban supremacy.

Friday, December 02, 2005

I see George Best has now been deified to the point of resurrection. Sky News told us this morning that he – not just his body – had been flown to Northern Ireland for what amounts to a state funeral in Stormont Castle. I know Northern Ireland has had little to smile about for the last 40 years but what on earth would they do for someone really significant to the course of human history? And I don’t deny he was a brilliant footballer, albeit for far fewer years than should have been the case.

I touched on safety the other day, expressing pleasure that we don’t have anything like the Health & Safety Gestapo here. But I did admit there was another side to this. I was reminded of this when I read today we’d had the second fatal work accident within a week here in Pontevedra. This was on a construction site, where a combination of rule-aversion and machismo seems to mean levels of risk-taking that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere.

And on the same theme, I read today of a car crash yesterday in which a 31 year old local civil servant was killed in at 10.30 in the morning. As is often the case, the report said his car ‘swerved into a car coming the other way for reasons as yet unknown’. But, as he was young, male, Spanish and driving a powerful BMW on a wet, winding road, I think we can be excused for hazarding a guess that he was driving too fast. The good news is that he didn’t kill the driver coming the other way. Who could have been me, of course.

And still on the subject of accidents - The President of the opposition PP party, Mariano Rajoy, escaped death yesterday when his helicopter crashed shortly after taking off from the centre of a bullring. Mr Rajoy is actually from Galicia – Pontevedra, in fact – and here the local PP is undergoing a succession process which is even longer and more confrontational than that of the Conservative party in the UK. Passions are running high, as several candidates seek to fill the gap left by the previous President, ‘Don’ Manuel Fraga, who – in true dictatorial fashion – spent several decades ensuring there was no one to take over from him. [Well, he is a friend of Mr Castro.] So imagine how fevered things would have become if Mr Rajoy had gone to meet his maker and the political spoils had increased. Mr Rajoy will be here next August for the town’s annual bullfights, by which time someone will surely have come up with some good black jokes. Perhaps these will even amuse the bulls who are about to die.

And talking of dying, I was impressed [and touched] to see affectionate obituaries of The Shadows’ drummer, Tony Meehan, in both El Mundo and El Pais. I got to wondering why The Shadows and, after them, The Beatles had developed such a wide fan base in Spain. Rightly or wrongly, I concluded it was all to do with escaping from the suffocation of the Franco years. Something which reached its apogee in the hedonistic late 70s and 80s.

My daughter Faye, who lives in Madrid, called to tell me she’d been charged extra to send a card to her sister in the UK because the envelope was yellow. ‘Put it in your blog!’, she insisted. But I’ve long given up doing what my wives and daughters tell me to do.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

The education Bill passed it first stage of the parliamentary process on Monday night, with concessions on all sides. One interesting change made late in the process was that teachers of religion [paid for by the state but hired and fired by Catholic archbishops] would henceforth have the same protection against unfair dismissal as other teachers. This possibly results from the celebrated peremptory sacking a year or so a go of a teacher simply for divorcing and remarrying.

I was explaining to a Spanish friend yesterday that, though I love living here, Spain can be a frustratingly inefficient place and I wouldn’t want to be in business here. A good example of this was my attempt today to find which of the just-introduced digital TV stations I can receive. I won’t bore you with details of the difficulties I had trying to get information from the relevant web page. Suffice to say, I conceded defeat after 45 minutes. What I should have done, of course, is give up as soon as I met problems just accessing the site and gone off for a drink. No self-respecting Spaniard would have been dumb enough to persist. Pointlessly, as it turned out.

The beauty of languages. Vito Gonzaga has suggested the Spanish word exequias for the English obsequy. But it turns out English has stolen this word as well! As with exequias in Spanish and obsequy in English, the English word exequies also means funeral rites. We British are nothing if not thorough in our poaching. No wonder we boast of the world’s largest vocabulary. Not that we actually invented much of it.

Well, I’m not sure I’ll make it to gloat over my pedestrian mortality prediction. Last night I was almost hit twice crossing a zebra crossing. And I do mean ‘a’ zebra crossing. In a new low for me, having just missed being crushed on one side, I was then nearly plastered on the other. I suspect Pontevedra would be a much safer place if we shot all the policemen now busy directing us to these places of specious security.

Languageism + Localism: In a newspaper report today, witnesses to a bank robbery were reported as saying ‘They spoke Spanish is a Spanish accent’. This, of course, means ‘They weren’t from round ‘ere; they was “foreigners”.’

I took my new, bank-donated umbrella for its debut today. Within 5 minutes a not-particularly-strong gust of wind had blown it inside out and broken two of the spokes. So, when the rain had stopped, I broke the shaft in two, folded it up and shoved it in the bin beside the ATM in the entrance to the bank. I do hope the cleaners don’t remove it before the manager arrives tomorrow morning. Not, of course, that he’ll have the presence of mind to appreciate the significance of my gesture. But it left me feeling a lot better.

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