Friday, August 31, 2007

Well, that didn’t last long. Within less than 24 hours, the Economy Minister slapped down the Housing Minister, saying her plans for tax incentives to boost the rental market were ‘just thoughts’ at this stage. Could this be evidence of the lack of experience I cited yesterday? Though, of course, she’s not now as wet behind the ears as she was 48 hours ago.


I see a hefty fine has been imposed on BAA for its failure to achieve targets for moving passengers through security checks. Several Spanish readers have taken rather badly the complaints against BAA and insisted they’ve arisen only because the company is Spanish-owned. I even saw an article in one of the heavy papers suggesting it was indicative of British commercial chauvinism, though the author rather undermined his case by failing to cite any similarly ‘unjustified’ criticism of the American, German, French, etc. companies which own huge swathes of British industry. So his real accusation was, presumably, anti-Spanish attitudes. Personally, I think this is nonsense and evidence of victimist thinking. Heathrow and Gatwick have been hellholes for ages and it’s impossible to believe Ferrovial weren’t aware of this and didn’t know what they were getting into. If the imminent inquiry proves they really did cut investment in passenger services, then they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. And anti-Spanish attitudes will have had nothing to do with it. Vamos a ver. Meanwhile, BAA has said their new chief operating officer’s task will be to “bring substantial improvements to our operational performance.” Which sounds like a bit of an admission to me. Click here for more on the Spanish connection. As the article says, “Why Ferrovial chose to take on BAA and in particular Heathrow - one of the world's least favourite airports - remains a mystery”.


I also read that in the UK “Energy companies are cashing in on Government subsidies by building wind farms that will never make any money because they are being constructed on sites with not enough wind”. I have to admit this is a suspicion which crosses my mind every time I drive up into the hills and see yet more of these ugly giants disfiguring the skyline. In the UK, it’s reported that “To meet EU targets for renewable energy, the Government has subsidised the wind turbine industry by half a billion pounds. Yet companies have not managed to deliver even 0.5 per cent of Britain's electricity needs”. I wonder what the numbers are for Spain.


I’ve become aware this week that the Google ads on my screen are not the same as those on other readers' screens. So I guess Google is using all the data they have on me to target what the computer says are my interests or needs. But how on earth does it know I’m considering buying a horse? All very eerie. I think I’ll test the theory by writing numerous emails to myself about, say, buying a penguin.

Talking of emails and eeriness, there’s been a massive drop in spam messages to my Terra address over recent days. But I await the storm after the calm. Perhaps the first sign was a message this morning offering me a job with a Latvian company, signed by their CEO, Dik Stain. Which is not a name I’d be proud of.

An article in the August edition of Prospect magazine says that the USA and the UK may end up getting none of Iraq’s oil, once it is flowing again. I wonder what the war-for-oil conspiracy thinkers will come up with then.

Finally, a better-than-average list of odd arrival routes for this month:-
is ‘queered’ valid in scrabble?
E.U. babel whore
Doomed to be Stoned in Sludge Swamp
spaniards white socks
Riot nacionalidad The Brethren Of The Long House
spain running of the midgets
why are galician people different than the spanish people
spanish holiday sardines in a casket
gay policeman porn

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Old habits die hard. Especially for old men. As if the opposition PP party didn’t have a big enough challenge ahead of next spring’s general elections, the ex-Franco minister and retired president of the Galician Xunta, Manuel Fraga [now approaching 150] has stuck his oar into the debate on the party’s leadership, effectively undermining the current incumbent. Feathers all over the dovecote now, of course, with leading party members straining to keep their response to this gratuitous interference within diplomatic limits.


Housing is a major issue in Spain, one factor being the low level of rental properties available. The relevant Minister has said she’s going to introduce tax measures to incentivise owners to rent out empty properties but, unless something is done about the major disincentive of poor legal redress against defaulting tenants, I doubt these will achieve much. Incidentally, am I being ‘youthist’ to wonder whether someone aged 36 has enough experience to run such an important ministry? Or just old?


A Spanish reader recently made a positive comment or two about the Arab [‘Moorish’] influence on Spain. Apparently – though not very surprisingly - this didn’t go down well with some of his compatriots. Undaunted, I quote here the start of a blog post from a non-Spaniard on this subject - Were I a Spaniard with a name denoting Arab blood, my pride would be insufferable because of the cultivation brought to Spain by the Saracen. What was Europe in the Eighth and Ninth Century? A waste in which crouched dumb races, either fallen from the recently banished Roman Culture or never having developed. If you want to read the rest, click here.


The Voz de Galicia seems to me to be a fine newspaper but I noticed this morning its internet edition has the following order for its sections:-

The front page

Galicia

Sport

Society

Finance

Spain

The world

So, I’m left wondering what this says, if anything, about the priorities of Galician readers.


Talking of the Voz, there was an article in yesterday’s edition on the issue of teaching the Galician national anthem to kids in kindergartens. The writer questioned whether there could be any other reason for this than the sort of indoctrination previously associated with proselytising religions and well known political regimes. Which seems a fair question to me.


The writer/journalist Francisco Umbral was given fulsome praise in all newspapers yesterday, regardless of political stamp. El Pais called him the voice of irony and said he filled his prose with lyricism, a cheeky irreverence, humour, sarcasm and irony. Which, apart from my imperfect Spanish, explains why I could hardly ever understand what he was going on about. Unless you’re fluent in a language, irony is a hard thing to get. As I know only too well from the angry comments I get in English broken enough to suggest the writer has the same problem with my stuff as I had with Umbral’s. I’ll probably now be accused of arrogantly equating them. Hey ho.


Finally, here’s another article which might help to enlighten non-Brits on the breakdown of authority and respect in the UK. Spanish readers will possibly be confused by the fact that riding bicycles on the pavement is considered wrong in Britain, as here it never takes place anywhere else. It may even be legal, as it is in Japan. Though I doubt it; just permitted.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I see the writer/journalist Francisco Umbral has died at only 72, following an illness that might have had something to do with the heavy drinking he was reputed to indulge in. This is a great shame as I was hoping that one day I could meet him and get an explanation of at least one of the impenetrable columns he wrote for the back page of El Mundo.


I think it’s been said before that one defining characteristic of the Spanish – perhaps the defining characteristic – is their ability to party. I thought of this yesterday when I read that senior Galician politicians had held a gala dinner in order to celebrate the end of the holidays and the fiesta period. And then again when I saw the preparations for our Medieval Fair next week. When I came here almost 7 years ago, this ‘tradition’ was in its second year and occupied only one or two small streets in our old quarter. Now, it takes over the entire quarter and, for the first time this year, will extend across one of the bridges into parts of the ‘new’ town. The vast majority of participants will dress up, meaning there are now numerous shops around town specialising in appropriate costumes. These, of course, play to the odd fancy for cross-dressing that appears to consume many of our young men at times like this. All very impressive. In one way or another.


On a more serious note - With a general election around the corner, evidence is growing that the socialist government is planning – Blair style – to colonise the middle ground and caricature the PP opposition party as right wing extremists. In this, they’ve been given considerable help by the PP’s strident calls over the last few years for or against one thing or another. In addition, it’s certainly noticeable - to me at least – that the government is backtracking a little in its support for Spain’s various ‘nationalist’ parties. Though some would say this is a little late as the genie is already well out of the bottle. And, of course, the government has been forced to drop its earlier ‘soft’ stance against the ETA terrorists and will surely benefit from the many ETA arrests since the Madrid airport bombings at the end of last year. All in all, if you’re a betting man, I’d recommend a punt on the socialist government retaining power.


I dined yesterday lunchtime in a restaurant whose menu was a joy to read. One factor was a breadth unusual for Galicia but the main reason was that it had been translated by the village idiot on an off day. Among the many gems were:-

Sucking pig to the oven of fuelwood

Algae with shrimps salad

and

Razors


But these ranked far behind the following in terms of incomprehensibility:-

Grilled sea crac

Galician swinming crac

Small shells

Cut in sauce of small prawns (fish)

and

Skewer of snuff with prawns


And my absolute favourites:-

Bream to the sailor’s blouse

and

Bend to the oven


There is a huge prize for the first reader to come up with the correct names for all these exotic dishes. Trawling the internet won’t help you this time. Use your imagination. Answers some time soon.


Finally, those readers acquainted with Galicia’s excellent albariño wines may like to know I’ve just discovered that some bodegas produce a barrica version, meaning it’s been aged in oak barrels, albeit only for a few months. And I read yesterday there’s also a ‘champagne’ version but I suspect this merely means more effervescence.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The New York Times had a nice article on Galicia this week. More accurately, on the Ribeiro wine-growing region up near Ourense. I couldn’t really fault it on anything material, though it’s a little unsettling to read about Galicia’s white wine industry without coming across any reference to Albariño production along the coast. The author calls Galicia “Spain’s Quiet Corner.” Which is OK as a generalisation but, then, she doesn’t live with nice-but-noisy-Tony on one side and four screaming Catalan kids visiting for the summer on the other. Not to mention the granite-smashing machines for eight hours a day. Quiet? I think not.


As it’s not April, I guess it’s true the Vatican has started up its own low-cost airline to fly the faithful to various pilgrimage spots, including Santiago here in Galicia. All sorts of questions are raised. For example, will there be oxygen masks and life belts or will everyone be given the last rights just before departure and told they’re going to Lourdes or, failing that, straight to Heaven? And will the company’s motto be ‘Nearer, my God, to thee” – last sung with gusto when the Titanic went down? Right now, we only know the seats will be covered with a cloth that sports the legend “I’m searching for your face, Lord”. Which doesn’t sound very reassuring to me. Sitting in a plane, I’d rather he was searching for mine.


A reader of El Mundo has written to complain about the growing media practice of calling Spain ‘El Estado español’ [The Spanish state]. Or even just ‘El Estado’. But, as El Mundo is a right-of-centre paper, this will probably be seen in many quarters as a demand for a return to Francoist repression.


Which reminds me . . . The President of the Galician Nationalist Party seems angrier than ever at the refusal of both his socialist coalition partners and the opposition to support his proposal that kids in kindergartens be taught the Galician national anthem. Playing to his gallery at this week’s congress, he accused the socialists of ‘intellectual weakness’ and promised to ensure ‘no one achieves what Franco failed to do in this country’ and ban the singing of the tune. I have to admit I find myself envying his simple me-good-you-fascist view of politics. Though I have some difficulty with the logic of his contention that, if something is not made compulsory, it’s effectively banned. I do sometimes wonder if he recognises the concept of freedom of choice. And not just on this issue.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Coming across a Spanish couple taking photos of each other on the steps of our basilica yesterday morning, I offered to snap both of them together. This done, I walked on, reflecting that a fair percentage of British couples would have declined my offer – an act that the Spanish would regard as ungracious. Why some Brits react like this, I’m not sure. Some, I guess, have an instinctive dislike of ‘bothering’ people but others appear to be suspicious of any offer of assistance. Which is why I’ve given up trying to help out those of my compatriots who seem lost in our old quarter. I’m tired of being looked at as if I were a timeshare salesman on the make. Chance would be a fine thing.


Consternation in my regular café-bar on Saturday, when the tapa with my midday glass of Rioja was a generous portion of octopus. This was the first time this had happened in almost 7 years and I was forced to admit I don’t much like pulpo. Especially when covered in the ubiquitous paprika sauce. Now, this is considered something of a crime here but all was forgiven and, of course, I was quickly brought an alternative from the kitchen. Albeit by someone who could scarcely conceal her incredulity. At least the staff now have something apart from my Spanish accent to laugh at.


Spain’s high-speed train, the AVE, is slow coming to the north west of the country. Today’s Voz de Galicia tells us that, after 6 years of work, only 153 of its 700km have been completed. And 101 of these are between Madrid and Valladolid, a long way from Galicia. From memory, the AVE was originally scheduled to be operational next year but the latest forecast is 2014. Which may yet prove optimistic. Coincidentally, a Polish woman on the BBC last week complained about the EU giving priority to investment in high speed trains when local trains there were in such a poor state. A letter-writer to El Pais made the same point about Spain last week but I suspect she was writing from beleaguered Barcelona, where the commuter trains seem to be in something of a mess.


For those interested, here’s another article on the issue of the moment – the decay of key segments of British society. On this, incidentally, an unhappy reader yesterday cited Tom Sharpe’s view that everything was down to the Brits losing their empire, as “This puts one in a bad temper.” Well, yes. Why didn’t I think of that? That’s probably why the Brits are in Afghanistan and Iraq. To re-establish an empire and get their sense of humour back. The reader also suggests Tom Sharpe is far funnier and less self-complacent than me but I suspect he’s on firmer ground here.


I wonder if it really is true that Fernando Alonso paid one of his mechanics to put a nail in Lewis Hamilton’s tyre. I find it hard to believe. It must surely be another example of insane conspiracy thinking. Possibly on my part.


Finally . . The noise in Spain . . .


Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Spanish consumers’ association warns that many families here have reached their limit when it comes to paying their mortgage. And this is ahead of the next bank rate increase due in early September. Hard times, then.


Back in the UK, analysis of GCSE results reveals that the teaching of European languages in British schools is in decline, whereas numbers are increasing for Mandarin, Turkish, Bengali, Urdu, Cantonese, Arabic and Japanese. The writer of the article I read on this did stress that ‘Spanish is gaining ground’ but, rather polemically, added that “Given that 86% of the world’s 325 million Hispanohablantes live in the New World, it can hardly be reckoned a European language”. I would have thought the same could be said of English, though I suppose the writer was talking of all languages except this one.


Possibly to the irritation of British readers, I regularly talk about the decline of UK society. Or, as an English neighbour puts it for Spanish friends - ‘A place where the stereotype of the ‘ooligan has won out over the stereotype of the English gentleman”. Against this backcloth, it’s not hard to understand how an 8 year old in Liverpool can be shot down by a teenager in broad daylight. Depressing but not difficult. But, for those still confused, here’s an article which talks of the toxic mix of cultural liberalism, welfarism and multiculturalism which has wreaked such damage to Britain’s social fabric. The writer is the same age as me and looks back over the same span of years as I do, to a time when the British prided themselves on the gentleness of their public life. Specifically, he quotes an anthropologist writing in 1955 on the British character - "When we think of our faults, we put first, and by a long way, any lapse from our standards of non-aggression, bad temper, nagging, swearing and the like. Public life is more gentle than that reported for any society of comparable size and industrial complexity." Sic transit gloria Britannicae.


The writer ends his article on a note of hope but, meanwhile, is it any wonder people are fleeing the UK in record numbers? Or that Spain is a preferred destination for many of them? Who can blame them for wanting, as I did, to regain the values of a lost era. Which certainly won’t return in my lifetime. If ever. History will be very unkind to the well-intentioned vandals of the liberal 60s and 70s. And their disciples.


On that depressing note, I will finish for today and set off for the flea market in Pontevedra and then a rapa das bestas in the hills. Which is not quite the zoophilic event it sounds like.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

I talked recently about attitudes to risk, saying they're different here in Spain. One reader effectively accused me of racism but no matter because the thin end of the ‘ealthnsafety wedge has just made its appearance in one of the final events of our August fiesta extravaganza. The Devil who chases kids round the old quarter of the city used to chuck little firecrackers at them. As of this year it’s flour. But we all know this can get in your eyes so within 10 years I imagine it will just be harsh words. And then a nasty grimace.


As I expected, Galician friends last night confirmed that the author of yesterday’s quoted article wants more education in Gallego so that the masses can learn to speak the codified form which is currently the preserve of only the ‘cultivated’ few. For me, the most interesting thing about the ensuing discussion was the resentment felt by all of them at attempts to foist on them an ‘artificial’ language different from the one they all spoke at home as kids. And still do whenever the want or need to. One of them even felt strict logic demanded that codification included a return to Portuguese spelling, as in Espanha. Not that he was advocating this reintegrista approach. Whenever I report this sort of thing, I get angry letters from Galician nationalists/Nationalists whom I take to be relatively young and idealist. My response is that I’m only recording what I hear. They’re all free to post alternative views, without needing to question my parenthood.


Anyway, I guess the writer of the article would agree with the VP of the Galician government, the Xunta, who’s said he wants the community’s ‘national’ anthem to be taught to children in our kindergartens. Sadly for him, he appears to be getting no support from his socialist coalition partner in the position of Minister of Education. Needless to say, when the President of the right-of-centre party criticised the proposal, he got the stock divisive accusation of being a pawn of Madrid.


Spain’s central bank says that, like Ireland, Spain has lost competitiveness over the last decade. It attributes this to high inflation and the weakening of the dollar. I suppose it’s possible to argue this wouldn’t have happened if the EU bank rate hadn’t been so ridiculously low for the Spanish economy, producing not only this result but also massive structural distortions such as the exploding property market. Which is now more explosive than exploding. Or is it vice versa? Or even implosive?


Pontevedra Book Club Recommendation: I’ve just finished a delightful book, Casa Nostra, by an Englishwoman – Caroline Seller Manzo – who married into an eccentric Sicilian family [are there any others?] and took on the challenge of converting part of the villa-cum-castle which her husband and his idiosyncratic siblings each owned some of. It’s beautifully written and full of anecdotes that will resonate with anyone living in Spain. Even Galicia, even though this is not normally regarded as having a terribly Mediterranean culture. Here’s a reference. One interesting comment is that, despite being close to Italy’s largest fishing port, the Manzo family could not avail itself of cheap or even high quality seafood and shellfish, as this all went off to the rich cities in northern Italy. I suspect this is true for us as well, despite the proximity of Vigo.

Friday, August 24, 2007

I’ve seen some inconsiderate parking here in Spain but I’ve never felt like assaulting any of the perpetrators. Earlier this week, though, a fight developed in our local resort, Sanxenxo [‘The Marbella of Galicia] when one young man took exception to the parking of another. The affair ending with a stabbing and, when I read that the knife-wielder was a ‘foreigner’, I feared the worst. Colombian gangs along our coast. But it turned out he was only from Madrid. So not that foreign.


When I came to Spain, my new bank charged me handsomely for taking my savings into their coffers. To say the least, this rather annoyed me. So I was pleased to later hear this practice had died out. But yesterday I read the Bank of Spain had given 45 financial institutes the right to reintroduce it. So, all you Brits fleeing the UK are now forewarned. Coincidentally, yesterday’s papers spoke of a significant rise in bank profits. In the past, I mean. Not in the future.


Well, Spain may not have achieved its Kyoto commitment but I’m pleased to say that, according to our local paper, the city of Pontevedra can make this proud boast. The world can sleep calmer in its bed tonight.


Galicia Facts: It now costs an average of 8.1 times your salary to buy a flat in Galicia, up from 3.1 twenty years ago. This might explain why there are said to be 214,000 empty flats here. Though I don’t know how they can know this, given the general reluctance to be over-accurate with tax submissions. Or any submissions, for that matter.


Spain’s statistics bureau says that fires in the country can be attributed in the following percentages:

Irresponsible farmers – 31

Negligent cattle farmers – 22

Pyromaniacs – 8

Careless folk - 7

Conflictive asocial individuals – 3 [Feuding neighbours?]

Important ‘Señores’ – 3

Interested ‘Misters’ – 1 [Money bag symbol. Dollar, of course]


Interestingly, only 1% of those responsible are caught.


Finally, once more into the breach . . . A couple of days ago, there was an article about Gallego in the Voz de Galicia, by Xavier Alcalá. Here’s a translation but, as it was actually in Gallego, I can’t guarantee its accuracy. I had hoped to cite the original – for checking by Xoan Carlos – but the archives of the paper don’t appear to have it. What I really want to know is - What is the author recommending? More imposition? Or less? Greater compulsion or more freedom? Is the tone one of resignation or one of determination that things must change for the protection and advancement of Gallego? Compulsory night-school classes for recidivist Spanish or Castrapo speakers?


Agonising Bilinguism

A French travel magazine says “The Galician patois greatly resembles Portuguese”. An Argentinean writer, visiting the land of his ancestors, insists “Gallego is Spanish larded with Portuguese words”. A Romanian philologist on a summer course given by Impais asks why – based on her knowledge of Spanish brought from Romania – she understands Gallego-speakers better than others. An engineer from Braga [in Portugal] insists that when he hears Gallego well spoken, with its own vocabulary and pronunciation, it seems to him he’s listening to Portuguese.


The main problem for Gallego is that it doesn’t exist as a unified language based on a social mass with sufficient size to feed or create speaking norms. Although it is clearly codified and available for general use, only a cultivated group uses it in accordance with this code, less so for the majority who spoil it in various ways; everyone has his own private ‘patois’, one or other form of Castrapo [mixture of Spanish and Gallego] more or less akin to Spanish.


In the face of this anarchy there can only be the discipline with which all languages become fixed and grow within a community; its study. This obviously appears inimical to the ‘Harmonic bilinguism’ [more accurately, ‘Agonising bilinguism’] of the last few decades. But, when the country’s signatories[?’sinaturas’?] and declarations of the Defenders of the People [Ombudsmen] and other big-wigs [señorias] oppose impositions, one is entitled to wonder if anyone wants there to be ‘Correct bilinguism’: With two languages spoken correctly, studied, letting each person chose his/her primary language for his feelings and thoughts

Thursday, August 23, 2007

According to a WHO report, possibly 2% of deaths from heart disease are caused by stress related to noise. Which means, some say, “Thousands of people in Britain might be dying from a lack of peace and quiet.” Applied to Spain, this would surely mean the demise of the entire population within a few decades. Except, it wouldn’t, as the Spanish are apparently born with filters in their inner ears. Or – like the baby at the deafening rock concert I recently mentioned – develop them during their early years.


I often say there’s a different attitude towards risk here in Spain. I guess this is inevitable in a country where a leading cultural event – the bullfight – is the equivalent of ballet dancing among trip wires connected to a machine gun post. But everything is relative and a recent TV report on a place in Mexico put things in perspective. Instead of the 6 bulls that are loosed down the streets of wimpy Pamplona, this town revels in 23. Hardly surprising that this year’s participants suffered one death and three very serious injury cases.


Although August’s road deaths toll in Spain has been a depressing disaster compared with last year, the relevant minister has rightly stressed that tougher rules have saved more than 500 lives so far. To me, even more significant are the many hundreds of thousands of family members whose lives have not been destroyed by the premature loss of a loved one. If even stiffer laws are required to reduce the totals even further, bring them on.


I wasn’t too surprised to read yesterday that chemical castration of paedophiles wouldn’t be possible under Spanish law. We wait to see whether it really is in France. Which does sometimes act like a country subject to the same laws as all the other members of the EU.


Here in Galicia, there’s some very good news this week. A weevil belonging to the coleopteran clan [me neither] is munching its way through the eucalyptus trees on the peninsula south of Pontevedra and rapidly heading our way. All strength to their mandibles. Though I don’t know what they will turn to when they’ve run out of their normal diet. Perhaps this needs a re-think. Over to my friend Biopolitical for a definitive view.


Finally, I have another new Galician friend, José of Raxó. Stopping off for a coffee yesterday, I was quizzed on Ryan’s gender and his suitability as a stud for José’s bitch. As ever, this led to a half-hour conversation - more accurately ‘un listening’ for me. So I was grateful he spoke in Spanish and so didn’t expose the failings in my Gallego.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Yesterday – in the context of the infrastructure problems in Catalunia – I was planning to write this sort of thing always happens when there is [over?]rapid economic growth. In the event, I decided this was perhaps a little negative. But our power cut last night has rather changed my perspective.


The death occurred last week of a priest who was sympathetic to ETA and who was famous for saying things like ‘ETA may kill people but it’s fighting a war and, unlike its opponents, doesn’t use torture’. I had wondered how his views squared with those of the Catholic Church and the fact that he committed suicide served merely to endorse this question. As did the sight of a nun or two following his coffin.


A recent survey in the UK identified the over-65s as the happiest group in that society. I wonder if this is because half of them are already living in Spain or Rumania. And the other half are planning to move soon.


This year’s required mark for entering university medical faculties has risen to 8.4. Here in Galicia, home-grown candidates are concerned applicants from nearby Portugal are edging them out. The suggestion of a ‘language barrier’ has been made, compelling them to pass an exam in Gallego. But the answer has come down that, since this isn’t done for people from the rest of Spain, it would be illegal. Interestingly, it seems those aspirants who don’t achieve the cut-off mark for medicine opt for nursing instead. Which would be unimaginable in the UK, I suspect.


Yesterday I queried whether anti-crime measures proposed by President Sarkozy in France could ever see the light of day in the UK. This morning comes the news that the Human Rights Act of 2000 will prevent the killer of a headmaster being deported to his country of birth, even though he’s still "a genuine and present risk" to the public. His lawyers have successfully argued that he has a right to life with his family. Which is more than was granted to his victim, of course.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Like Mr Brown in the UK, Mr Zapatero is talking and acting as if he fears he’s gone too far in devolving power to the regions, leading to the weakening of national bonds. Previously, of course, this was a concern only of right-of-centre politicians. Or ‘fascists’ as they’re called in Spain. Of course, it’s no coincidence there’s a general election around the corner in Spain. And there might be in the UK too. Time to wrap the cloak of Britishness or Spanishness around oneself.


One of the accusations regularly made in Spain against Gibraltar is that it’s a financial cess-pit and so a cancer on the Iberian body. A bit ironic, then, to read yesterday that Spain is now the country of choice for the Colombian drug barons when it comes to laundering their ill-gotten cash. One wonders why. Perhaps it has something to do with lax application of EU regulations. Which would make it a large glass house.


To be more positive, time again to express my admiration for the internationalism of Spain’s serious press. In the last week, they’ve run obituaries not only on the doyen of the British press, Bill Deedes, but also on ‘Mr Manchester’, Tony Wilson.


I’ve discovered there’s a fine web site giving details of all of Galicia’s numerous festivals. I’d cite it here but I’m a bit concerned the most prominent and numerous ads on the home page are for male and female whores. I suppose it is possible to define fiesta/party quite widely. At least here in Spain.


Another of those regular social surveys suggests 30% of Spaniards don’t think the Sunday obligation is enough as they spend their entire vacation month with ‘family and friends’. And 58% of Spaniards avoid discussing politics within this same group, as they don’t want people falling out with each other. I imagine, though, that the other 42% more than make up for this reluctance on the part of the majority. In Galicia, they probably lay off the subject of [scarce] land so as to avoid mass sibling slaughter.


Resident Sarkozy is reported to be introducing a law giving convicted paedophiles the choice between chemical castration or the rest of their lives in a special hospital/prison. He may not succeed, of course, but, if he does, I for one will be left wondering why this doesn’t infringe EU/International Human Rights laws in France, when it clearly would in the UK.


Finally, for a sensible comment on the madness of the bloated, over-moneyed British Premier League, click here. How long will it take, one wonders, before technology is used to stop the nonsense that follows every controversial referee decision.

Monday, August 20, 2007

I’m not sure whether this is a reflection of Spanish attitudes to risk; or to a live-and-let-live philosophy; or even to the admirable pragmatism which pervades this society – perhaps all three – but I was once again surprised last night to see a mother fail to react at all when a young cyclist on the pavement swerved to avoid her toddler and then almost hit the woman herself. I feel sure that, in similar circumstances, most Anglo mothers would have been screaming in rage. Both reactions are extreme perhaps. But the Spanish one possibly fits more with probabilities and accident statistics.


On a similar note, it regularly shocks me to see visiting British parents who’ve been conditioned to see a paedophile lurking behind every bush. As I’ve said before, I doubt UK statistics are worse than those of Spain. But the levels of fear are clearly vastly greater there.


Still on the UK . . . For any ‘foreigners’ wondering why so many of us Brits feel UK society is heading for Hell in a handcart, try this article on the chronic welfare dependency which the writer says “sits at the core of the debilitating collapse of civic order in Britain.” I’m old enough to recall Keith Joseph trying to get to grips with this issue as far back 1974, and destroying his political career in the process. History will not be kind to the liberal progressives who took over Britain in that decade and who, with the very best of intentions, set about destroying it. As if the weather wasn’t a big enough disincentive for living there. And I write from Galicia!


I’ve been musing recently on just how much unnecessary plastic we get. Around individual red peppers or hands of bananas, for example. At the local fair last night, I bought 3 laminated pictures which were rolled up and placed in a plastic bag. Driving home, it struck me a simple elastic band would have been enough. Sure enough, when I got in and opened the bag, there was one of these around the roll as well. Has anyone yet formed the Anti-Plastic Association?


Finally, for anyone interested, here are photos taken during the ten days it took the dove chicks outside my bedroom window to turn from hopeless bundles of bone and feathers to efficient flying machines.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The woman who heads up the Ministry of Development is still under fire for Catalunia’s widespread infrastructure problems. Not that this region has a monopoly of these; just maximum visibility. Plus, of course, highly vocal groups of Nationalists who’ve been taking Victimhood lessons since birth. At a recent grilling in parliament, the Minister was labelled by one of these an ‘Andalucian señorita’, implying she was haughty, arrogant and disrespectful towards the hard-working Catalans. To say the least, she was not well pleased. I guess the British equivalent would be someone from the Scottish Nationalist party claiming a UK minister was unfit for her job simply because she was from the Welsh or English landed aristocracy. Tribal nonsense in other words. But it plays well back home, I guess. Anyway, I suspect the lady in question is not long for the chop, if only because Catalunia is now seen as President Zapatero’s biggest challenge ahead of the March general elections. And ‘something has to be done’. I give her a month, max.


The Spanish state television and radio broadcaster has announced that for the first time in 51 years it won’t be covering the imminent bullfighting season. I’m not sure of the significance of this but it follows hard on the heels of news that a campaign has begun in France against the corridas that take place there. So, will Pontevedra’s bullring close in my lifetime? I rather doubt it.


Talking of France, I see it’s grabbed both first and second places in a survey conducted among British holidaymakers. The theme of this, though, was the world’s most disappointing tourist traps. Here’s the top ten:-

1. The Eiffel Tower

2. The Louvre (Mona Lisa)

3. Times Square

4. Las Ramblas, Barcelona

5. The Statue of Liberty

6. The Spanish Steps, Rome

7. The White House

8. The Pyramids, Egypt

9. The Brandenburg Gate, Germany

10. The Leaning Tower of Pisa


It’s good to see this gives the Catalans another reason to bitch. Ironically, though, if you take the Catalan Nationalist view that ‘Catalunia is not Spain’, Spanish involvement in this black list is otherwise only tangential. So, Spain is different; it never disappoints. Stay with that thought. Unless you regard sleeping as an essential element of a good holiday.


BTW, both Friday and Saturday's posts were very late. So may have been missed . . .

Saturday, August 18, 2007

If, like me, you feel the old political terms of Right and Left have limited utility these days and want to know where you where you fit on a Left-Right, authoritarian-libertarian graph, click here. You might or might not be surprised.


As for politics here in Galicia - On the hilltops on the north eastern outskirts of Santiago, there is emerging a large white elephant called The City of Culture. My impression is this a tribute to the affection in which the last Xunta President was held. In particular, perhaps, by himself. I speak of Manoel Fraga, the ex-Franco minister who coined the phrase Spain is different and who now, aged 112, sits in the Senate. Anyway, El Pais tells us today the budget for this collection of what-the-hell-are- we-going-to-do-with-them-now modernist buildings was originally 120m euros, against the current forecast of 370m. The paper also reports that some of the companies profiting from this monumental expenditure are owned by members of the previous administration. This shocked me almost as much as last week’s report that stone for the construction is coming from an unlicensed, illegal quarry. It can only end in tears.


Meanwhile, the plague of voles down in Castilla is now threatening vineyards there and, having failed to burn the rodents to perdition, the desperate farmers have resorted to a huge roller, so as to flatten them out of existence. Alas, it appears to be too heavy for the tractors they have and the voles have taken to laughing at their inability to get things rolling. And crushing.


Talking of creatures taking the Mickey – The humane rat trap I have at the bottom of my garden has not been spectacularly successful of late. But I have caught – and then released – three robins. Or possibly one bold but very dense bird three times.


My piano-learning in Argentinean-accented Spanish is further complicated by the differences between Spanish terms and those I learned several decades ago and still half-remember. So, the key of C is Do, D is Re, and so on. And a quaver is a corchea. How I wish we could adopt the simple American terms for notes of 4th, 8th, 16th, etc. And then a 32nd would not have to be a demi-semi-quaver. Or even a fusa. I was reminded of this agony when a recent American visitor called our cafetière a French push. But, as I discovered this morning, whatever you call it, the coffee won’t pour if you forget to plunge it first. Even if you are French.


By the way, yesterday’s post was as late as this one. So may have been missed. But this is irrelevant if you’ve missed this one too.

Friday, August 17, 2007

As I’ve spent much of today on Galicia’s winding mountain roads, this blog will be late, short and dedicated to driving . . .


The radio this morning confirmed the dire fatality figures for August so far and advised the majority of deaths were of young men on the roads between 6am and 2pm. So, not great surprise there. These young gallants, it seems, are particularly prone to slaughtering themselves and innocent others on the country’s ‘secondary’ roads. This, of course, is because the police checks are all to be found on the main roads. The idea of placing some of these outside the discos and nightlife areas does not yet seem to have occurred to El Trafico. Or perhaps it’s considered too damaging to the commercial interests of the disco/bar owners.


Up in the hills today, though, I did see two police checkpoints. Both were on straight-ish, flat-ish stretches where the maximum speed varies back and forth between 80 and 100kph.And where even sober drivers might easily stray above the limit. So, easy policing. And easy revenue. Without upsetting anyone but the drivers.


It would be nice if those responsible for erecting new speed limit signs could take the old ones down at the same time. This might just prevent the confusion that arises when you pass through a small village and have to contend with 4 or 5 signs of different design telling you that the permitted speed is 50, 60, 70 or 80. And then 50 again. But perhaps this is helpful to the police.


It would also be useful if the road numbers could stay the same as those on the maps for a couple of years but I know this is asking a lot.


Finally, not so much driving as parking. It struck me, when trying to find a spot today, how ironic it is that some Spanish drivers leave more space between their car and the one in front when they’re parking than when they’re driving at 120kph. Which is irritatingly inconsiderate, whether you are stationary or moving.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The road fatalities in Galicia this month are at least as bad as elsewhere and this is the main item of concern for the Voz de Galicia today. In fact, it has a nice cartoon – in Gallego – showing side-by-side pictures of What used to be left at the side of the road in summer – a dog. And What is now left at the side of the road in summer – a brain.


I read the Voz in a café on the way back from the airport, when taking a 10.45 coffee. The three men on my left at the bar ordered brandies but the wimp on my right could only manage a glass of Rioja. Of course, all the former were served in quantities 3 to 5 times larger than the standard British measure. I can’t help but wonder if there could be any link between this sort of breakfast and the road death statistics.


Listening to the radio on the way back to Pontevedra, I learned a lot about tattooing. For instance, it takes 10 sessions of 5 hours each to give you a complicated shoulder tattoo in various colours. To get rid of it would take at least 3 times longer and be prohibitively expensive, given that removing a 10cm square single-colour tattoo would cost 3,000 euros and need 12 to 18 months. But, as these are lifestyle choices and one can’t deny anyone their Human Right to be stupid and self-centred, I suspect you can get all this done free on the NHS in the UK. But, if not, it surely won’t be long before you can.


My daughter yesterday called Telefonica but unwittingly pressed the key which opted for Gallego. So the employee naturally answered in Gallego. But, despite the fact Faye is clearly foreign and spoke only in Spanish, the employee then continued in Gallego until the end of the call. Now, although speaking in Spanish would not have been a problem, using only Gallego was surely logical; but whether one regards this as logical and reasonable, logical but unreasonable or even logical but bloody rude depends, I suppose, on where you’re standing. I guess it’s possible Telefonica only uses members of the Galician Nationalist Party for this task. But, whatever the situation, the onus certainly lies on the caller to press the right key. And to be fair to Telefonica – not usually something which bothers me – I should stress they have operators who speak perfect English. Even if they’re as ignorant as their colleagues about how the company arrives at its bills.


Ryanair has announced it’s ‘resting’ its flight to Vitoria during the winter. I guess this is what they’ll tell us about the Liverpool-Santiago route shortly.


Finally, it’s reported today that, as a holiday destination, Barcelona is cheaper than Blackpool for many British tourists. Yes, but things work in Blackpool. Even if it is the most depressing place in the British Isles. What Gibraltar is to Spain, Blackpool is to the UK perhaps. Or, as an American friend used to say, the manure-shoot. Which is not to say it isn’t full of lovely people.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

August is far from over but, sadly, it’s already a bad month for road fatalities, well up on last year. The better news is that – for the year todate – deaths are still 10% down on 2006. But the government can’t be at all happy with things and will surely move to further hardening of the traffic laws so as to try to bring statistics in line with other EU countries.


Yesterday I bumped into a Spanish friend who lives on the edge of Pontevedra’s old quarter and who’s not a fan of all the noise and rubbish generated during the fiesta revels. During a heated 10 or 15 minutes, I heard every Spanish swearword I’m familiar with. Plus a new word for me – tocahuevos. This translates anodynely as ‘nuisance’ but literally means ‘touch-eggs’. It doesn’t really refer to eggs, of course, but to something similar in shape. Nonetheless, as in this case, it’s used by women too. As are all the F and C words of English. The Spanish do like their palabrotas and see no reason why they should be confined to men.


A short sortie into local politics . . .

- The newly-minted Socialist-Nationalist council for Pontevedra city says that its first 100 days in office will see 16 major initiatives. As this period includes August – when virtually no one outside the tourist industry works in Spain – this can only mean a very busy September and October for our administrators. We await further news with great anticipation but have already been told that each party’s pet traffic scheme – previously opposed by its partner – will now be commissioned along with the ex-alternative. Double chaos, then.

- The president of our provincial council, I’m told, started his working life as a nightclub bouncer but is now a rather wealthy individual. As is his chauffeur, who owns a construction company which reportedly gets 93% of its income from public work contracts commissioned by the provincial and urban councils run by the PP party. My guess is it did all the impressive street-widening and traffic light installations in the president’s village. Plus the numerous street signs on every corner around there. Nice work, if you can get it.


On a more international plane - An Italian politician caught taking drugs with two whores is said to have retorted "Of course I identify with Christian values, but what have those got to do with going to bed with a prostitute?" From the plentiful evidence, you’d have to conclude this is a pretty widespread attitude in Catholic Spain as well.


My thanks to reader Mark for this example of British lunacy. When you’ve finished laughing, you can depress yourself by reading this incisive commentary on the Blair decade by Theodore Dalrymple. Strangely, British voters currently appear to think Gordon Brown had nothing to do with it.


Finally, some travel news. Ryanair have announced several new flights to Spanish airports. What they haven’t yet admitted is that they’re scrapping the flight from Liverpool to Santiago de Compostela. But you can’t get a booking beyond October and things look clear enough from here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Banking in Spain is a very face-to-face business, except when you just want cash. I can’t say I was surprised, then, to read that Spain has not only the highest number of bank branches per capita in Europe but also the highest number of ATM cash machines. The former often seem to be full of people behind desks doing very little and the latter sometimes refuse to disgorge money because they’re undergoing a chequeo but, by and large, it’s pretty easy to get cash in Spain. Even, if you’re visiting, from your own bank back home. And all the ATM’s offer a variety of languages. Which is impressive.

Which reminds me . . . The Spanish language is forecast, by some at least, to rise from its current 4th position to become 2nd after Chinese [Mandarin, I guess] by 2030. As I may still be around then, maybe I should drop Gallego and concentrate on Castellano. Only kidding, X-C.


I was unusually complimentary about the Spanish yesterday but I have to admit I still find it hard to adjust to some of their customs. Braving the astronomically high noise levels of a rock concert in the main square at 11pm on Saturday night, I was taken aback to come upon a woman breast-feeding a very young baby while she swayed back and forth. And, returning home at 12.30, I passed several families entering town for the night’s fun, including one or two mothers pushing baby buggies. It seems ironic to me that, although grandparents are usually close to hand, they don’t assume the role of babysitters whenever the parents want to go out on the town. Perhaps it’s because the grandparents insist on joining the party. There were certainly plenty of them shuffling around in front of the bandstand on the Alameda when I came home at 11 last night. Fun-lovers to the very end, perhaps. And why not?


A while ago I posted on my Galicia web page a short dissertation on the fine old houses which are disappearing from in and around Pontevedra. Shortly, I’ll be posting a sister piece on the ugly new houses which are replacing them. But, for now, here’s a sampler. These houses are in what I call the Toilet Block style, which I suspect owes a lot to Galicia’s premier architect, Mr César Portela. They resemble his mortuary niches at Finisterra. By the way, these houses are on one of the 2 building sites fore and aft of my house. The orange machine on the right is one of two which have been breaking up solid granite for 8-10 hours a day for the last 18 months. A cacophony in stereo, in other words. The operators are not very popular around here.


A few Galicia Facts:-

- Galicia has the lowest rental fraud in Spain. Here, a mere 53% of landlords fail to declare their income to the tax authorities.

- In the first 6 months of 2007, the only region in Spain in which average car prices rose was Galicia. Your guess is as good as mine. It’s supposed to be a poor region.

- Despite this, car prices in Galicia are still below the national average.

- Construction in Galicia has fallen 5% so far this year. One factor is said to be the concern foreigners have about places built on the coast turning out to be illegal. ‘Foreigners’, of course, means anyone from places like Madrid or Malaga. Which might be accurate in the latter case.


Finally, to round off my report on Pontevedra’s weekend bacchanalia – After Saturday night’s revels, a record 32 tonnes of rubbish were collected by 10.30 on Sunday morning and 4 people had been hospitalised with alcoholic poisoning.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I’m occasionally taken to task by Spanish readers for being too negative about Spain. Now and then I’m even told to eff off back to my septic isle. Or something like that. I like to think that, notwithstanding my barbed comments about the banks, the bureaucracy or whatever, a love of Spain shines through my posts. In particular, I hope it’s clear I regard the Spanish as the most sociable, affable and [most of the time] the most noble people on the planet. Just in case it isn’t, here are two tales of events during the 12 hours between 10.30 on Saturday night and 10.30 on Sunday morning . . .


Crossing the bridge into town on Saturday night, I came up behind 4 or 5 teenage youths who were blocking the pavement the way young men do. Weaving my way through them, I came up behind the last one and a sort of unintended pas de deux ensued. In place of the taunts I would have expected in the UK in similar circumstances, our impromptu performance was met by good-humoured laughter and applause. I may well be over-jaundiced but I can’t imagine this happening in similar circumstances in Britain these days.


On Sunday morning, I was walking my dog through the forest and came up alongside one of the several cars parked on or off the track. The front seats were occupied by two rough-looking coves – one of them with a tell-tale aluminium strip on his lap. And when the driver opened his window and spoke to me, I feared the worst. But he merely asked which breed Ryan was. And having established we were both English, he then treated me to the details of every motorway and major road he’d travelled on from Dover and Portsmouth in the direction of Birmingham. Specifically to some shopping centre in Courcy Street, which he obligingly wrote out for me. His companion then launched into a dissertation on English Setters, in particular the two ‘white and orange’ examples he owned and which were the offspring of some world champion or other. As he did so, the driver pulled out a sketch pad and began, I thought, to draw Ryan. In fact, it turned out to be a [generous] cartoon of me, on which he’d written their names and his phone number. As I thanked him and said my farewells, he reached into the back seat and presented me with the gift of a bull horn used, he said, by hunters/anglers to hold their knife-sharpening tool. As we parted, they insisted I call them one Sunday morning so we could go drinking, hunting or fishing together. So, I now have two close mates in Pedro and Amadeo, plus an invitation which I may well take up. Not to mention the cartoon and the horn. All in all, it reminded me of this article by John Carlin, reproduced on my Galicia web page.


To end this post – yet another bit of positivism. Saturday night was both one of our four bullfight nights and also the opening night of our big annual fiesta. The tradition is for the young of the city and its environs to gather in their thousands, to get terribly drunk and to spray one liquid or another on both each other and anyone else in the vicinity. It’s a true bacchanalia and the quantities of rubbish produced are prestigious. Not to mention the urine and the vomit. But by mid Sunday morning the city is again pristine clean. Most remarkable of all – and utterly unimaginable in the UK - there’s no violence. And everything passes off without the looming presence of dozens of police officers dressed in more battle gear than soldiers on patrol in Iraq.


I need to go and lie down now. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

I regularly say one of the main reasons I live in Spain is that it’s a saner society than the UK’s. Truth to tell, it’s not hard to find examples of British lunacy but, anyway, here’s one, from today’s Telegraph:- For eight years, public-spirited June Turnbull has provided the people of Urchbell with a colourful flower display on a small plot at the entrance to the village. She did not think she had been risking more than an aching back and a dent in her purse. Wiltshire City Council, however, knew better. Some safety-conscious official noted the bend in the road, thought of Mrs Turnbull concentrating on her pruning and spotted danger. If she wished to continue to beautify the triangle of land, then she would have to don a fluorescent jacket, put up "men at work" signs and employ someone to watch out for her, insisted the head of the Highways Department. He added, without any apparent hint of irony, that she would also require a licence from the Department granting permission to garden. As for Spain, on Friday night friends challenged me to deny things were heading in the same direction here. Possibly true, I replied, but the pace of change was slow enough to leave me with the comforting thought I’d be long gone before Spanish society turned into anything like the UK’s. That said, I guess it’s always possible the EU behemoth will start demanding that Spain doesn’t just ratify its endless laws but starts implementing and, God forbid, obeying them. At which point, Spain’s intense love affair with the EU might just begin to fray at the edges. Followed by rapid unravelling when the money stops flowing this way.


A UK columnist makes the point that, in the aftermath of the feminist movement, it’s a major irony that “At no time in history has the message been pumped out so forcefully to pre-pubescent girls that the primary import of any woman's life is to be sexually desirable to men. What follows from this message, one suspects, is a brief flurry of coquettish triumphs followed by decades of eating disorders, plastic surgery, and quiet self-loathing”. Well, here in Spain, there’s never been much of a feminist movement and women have never stopped thinking it’s of paramount importance to make yourself attractive to men. It’s true there are eating disorders and massive investment – Europe’s highest – in cosmetic surgery but I don’t get the impression there’s much middle-age female self-loathing here. Perhaps because women are not pulled in two directions at the same time. If I’m wrong [or, worse, being patronising], I’m sure someone will let me know.


At last some good news for Catalans. The unfancied rugby team, the Catalan Dragons, yesterday defeated the league leaders, St Helens. Unfortunately, though, the Dragons operate out of Perpignan in France.


When my daughters and I write to each other, LOL means Lots of love. But, as it was used recently by one of my readers, it must mean something else in cyberspace. I certainly hope so.


Quote of the Day


It’s true that Malloch-Brown has enemies. One of them is his own mouth.

British columnist, William Langley, speaking of a UK Foreign Office minister.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

For some time now, daytime TV in both the UK and Spain has been full of ads saying, in effect, “It doesn’t matter how poor, indebted or untrustworthy you are, we’re willing to throw money at you.” And it seems much the same has been going on in the USA. So, can anyone really be surprised that thousands [millions?] are now defaulting on their debts and causing a global financial crisis? Well, yes. Apparently the world’s experts didn’t see this coming. Or not just yet at least. Some experts.

Talking about finance, the president of the European Central Bank - a Frenchman - is reported to have warned that the new European Union Treaty will erode his institution's independence, in line with France’s objective of controlling the EU economy for its own benefit. Plus ça change . . .

The right-of-centre El Mundo is in no doubt as to who’s responsible for Catalan’s dreadful infrastructure problems. It points the finger directly at the women who heads up the Ministry of Development and says, in effect, hers was the worst appointment since Caligula made his horse a senator. It claims she should have been sacked in a recent re-shuffle and demands her instant departure. So, as El Mundo is the mouthpiece of the Opposition, I guess she’s safe for a while.


It’s sobering to re-read my own blog late in the day and see the howlers missed by my early-morning editing. In this week alone, I’ve written flaunt instead of flout; gentile instead of genteel; and soles instead of souls. I dread to think of those I’ve missed. I blame it all on confusion arising from my attempts to learn both Spanish and Gallego at the same time. And on global warming, of course. For which I first wrote ‘of curse’.


When talking of names yesterday, I forgot to say that one reason for my preferring David when I’m asked to give a name is that the usual Spanish pronunciation of Colin is Coleen. And I prefer not to see myself as an Irish female. By the way, the usual reason for giving your name is when you leave something for repair and they say they’ll need it for when they call you. But they never do. So it hardly matters what I call myself.


Hits to my blog have been gratifyingly high lately but yesterday’s were in the stratosphere. I mention this only because many of these have come from people searching ‘racism’. I’m left wondering whether there’s just one person reading the posts over and over again; or whether some teacher has directed his/her students there; or – worst case – whether I’m being checked out by the thought police. Just because I’m paranoiac doesn’t mean no one is following me. Of curse.


Quote of the Week

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. Carl Jung


But what did he know?

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