Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Largely ignored by the rest of Europe, southern Mediterranean countries have for some time been dealing with the intractable problem of thousands of would-be immigrants arriving in flimsy boats or rafts from north Africa. Most are still alive – albeit barely – but many die in the attempt. On the Italian island of Lampedusa, the inhabitants are reported to have become averse to their local shellfish, fearing it has feasted too much on human flesh. What times.

Talking of parasites, the subject of drugs in Galicia came up three times in my reading yesterday. Firstly, the British author Michael Jacobs suggested – in his Between Hopes and Memories – that a particular peninsula here has high traffic mortality because of the numbers of drug runners rushing back and forth. Secondly, another local village has held a noisy protest against the possibility that the gypsies dislodged from near me would end up living close to them, bringing a drug supermarket to their parish. And, finally, the local police provided some appropriate background by capturing another 3,500 kilos of cocaine being transported into the rías on the customary speedboats.

Actually, Jacobs was writing in 1994 and I wondered whether his speculation was soundly based. Then I recalled that a new, fast highway had been driven through the peninsula since then. And that it’s notoriously dangerous. Just a coincidence?

The other query that came to mind was the usual one of – If drug dealing and drug taking are as high here as frequently reported, why isn’t there the plague of petty crime associated with this in the UK? Perhaps the answer is the dealers and the addicts are largely the same people and can easily afford their habit.

On the economic front, bad news continues to pile up for Spain. Perhaps merely reflecting the use of a more appropriate, EU-driven formula, inflation here rose 0.9% in October to reach 3.6%. This is up from ‘only’ 2.2% at the end of August and probably accords more with what most people have long thought the true rate is. Secondly, the Economy Minister has joined the Jeremiahs by further reducing next year’s growth rate to 3%, though this is not quite as low as that of more independent commentators. Finally, a major property developer has confirmed that house prices are falling around the country. So, I guess it’s possible the ‘badwill factor’ will extend beyond long-suffering Cataluña in the five months to next year’s general elections.

As for said Cataluña, the central government in Madrid has come up with a cunning plan to ensure it can triumphantly announce the planned completion of the AVE high speed link with the capital ahead of the elections. Shuffling the options of terminating the line well outside Barcelona near the airport or by-passing this station and sticking with the aim of getting the line into the centre of the city, it has plumped for the latter. Brilliant. Whoever will notice?

Thursday is a holiday here, meaning that many people will take Friday off so as to enjoy what's called a puente or bridge. Some might do this legitimately and others might not. The railway company, RENFE, has said it’s going to fine fifteen drivers for participating in a hidden strike. All of these presented sick notes at the same time for tomorrow, causing the cancellation of some of the services between Sevilla, Córdoba and Madrid. In the UK, this is referred to as a ‘Spanish practice’. I wonder if it’s called a ‘British practice’ here.

Finally . . . A word on commenting to this blog. I recently learned that some readers were having phoney messages sent in their name. Coming on top of regular insults and messages in Gallego, this has finally pushed me to ask that all contributors register as a condition of publication. As I understand it, this doesn’t lead to any personal details – e. g. your email - becoming public information. However, for those who don’t want to do this but who still want to play silly games, messages can be sent to me personally at

Thoughts.from.Galicia@gmail.com

This address can also be used, of course, by any reader who wants to make a serious point to me alone but who hasn’t found my personal address on the web.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

This is the time of year in Spain when you’re most likely to see ladders sticking out of car windows. This is because – as the feast of All Souls approaches – it’s customary to visit and clean up the graves of one’s relatives. And some of these are located in high-up niches in the multi-layered, vertical structures which dominate cemeteries here. A Spanish friend yesterday asked me whether we had this custom in the UK. I said we didn’t and that I saw it as more of a social than a religious event. She agreed and added that the main motivation was actually fear of the wagging tongues that would stigmatise you as a bad family if you didn’t fulfil your annual duty. So, no one would be seen dead not honouring their dead. And having a good chinwag at the same time.

Regular readers will know that what other foreigners take to be Spanish rudeness I [usually] put down to the fact folk here often lack antennae. In short, given a chance to open their mouths to talk, they promptly close their eyes to their surroundings. So it was yesterday when – for the nth time – my bar stool was taken after I’d left it for 30 seconds to change the newspaper. As ever, this was the despite the fact the counter was overflowing with my paraphernalia. And, as ever, I got the usual fulsome apology when I asked for the stool back. One of these days I’ll be able to laugh at this.

If you have property anywhere near the Spanish coast, you are cursed to be living in interesting times. For the government has just announced it’s going to do something to ensure the coast is free of buildings. This will be in furtherance of a law introduced 20 years ago and which a government spokesman said on the radio last night had become a model for the rest of the world. The problem is – however admirable this law has been – no one seems to have taken much notice of it. As a result – and as everybody knows - large swathes of Spanish coastland are blighted by illegal buildings and golf courses. The government has now said it will stop new developments and – to help with the cost of demolition – will throw 5 billion euros at the regional governments which turned a blind eye to all this in the first place. So . . . we all know what has happened to date but – truth to tell – no one has much idea about what will happen in the future. Though I suppose it’s pretty certain the regional governments will take the lucre on offer.

In a BBC panel discussion on the UK subject du jour – Britishness – it was suggested a major constraint was that it’s very un-British to indulge in this sort of ‘overstated’ discussion. The Chief Rabbi agreed and added the marvellous comment that, despite 4,000 years of development, Hebrew had never come up with a word for ‘understatement’.

As the British Prime Minister is finding vis-à-vis Scotland, once a nationalist party has hold of the reins of local government, there’s no issue which can’t be turned into a fight with the ‘arrogant’ central administration. A glance at the current furore around the Madrid-Barcelona AVE will quickly confirm this. In spades. Closer to home, the Galician Nationalist Party has reiterated its demand that the region have the more sensible [and logical] clock which is shared by its northern and southern neighbours, Britain and Portugal. However, this time it’s framed in the now-obligatory terms of energy-saving and environmental protection. Whoever said all politicians were opportunists? I still can’t see it flying.

The good news is that Galicia shares with the rest of Spain a recent increase in life expectancy for both men and women. The Spanish average is now a little more than 80, though women[83] here tend to live 6 years more than men[77]. Galician women do even better, achieving an average of 84. Must be the damp. Whatever, clearly the last thing you would want is a Galician mother-in-law . . .

Monday, October 29, 2007

Ahead of consideration by the Constitutional Court of Catalunia’s controversial new constitution, Spain’s main political parties are locked in an internecine – and unedifying - struggle to bias the tribunal in its favour. When Gordon Brown talks of major constitutional reform in the UK in the direction of more formality, clarity etc., this is the sort of nightmare that occurs to me at least.

A group of Spanish experts is somewhat less optimistic than the government about 2008 economic growth. They suggest a [still-high] 2.7%, against the official forecast of 3.3%. Meanwhile, the use of concrete in 2007 here is forecast to be the same as last year, essentially because public works have compensated for the slowdown in the property market.

El Mundo got itself up to 9 sections yesterday. Not quite as many as the UK Sundays but bad enough. Possibly in jest, its business section raised the question of whether Fernando Alonso could sue McLaren for ‘mobbing’. For inexplicable reasons, in Spain this English gerund is used to mean harassment in the work place. I didn’t bother to read the article but its tenor contrasted with reports in El Mundo or El Pais last week that McLaren’s test driver – one Pedro de la Rosa of Spain – had rejected claims that McLaren had disadvantaged Alonso in any way as simply ridiculous.

The Spanish magazine Intervíu specialises in putting nude unknowns on its cover. In this regard, readers may recall our local hairdresser heroine, Ana María Ríos. This week’s star is a young woman [what else?] who serves in the Spanish army in Ceuta. She’s quoted as saying she has a lot of respect for the military and this is why she has posed without any military insignia. How touching. Who says young people these days have no values?

British Lunacy

A couple of maids used a master key to enter a hotel room and found the occupant ‘having sex with a bicycle’. Rather than run off laughing, they told the management, who reported him to the police, who prosecuted him. He’s now been placed on the sex offenders’ register. I wonder - amongst other things - how they determined that the bicycle was offended.

Finally . . . click here if you want to see the sort of accident that happens at 6am of a Spanish Sunday. This one involves a car and a roof. Neighbours are reported to have said the road is a post-copas rat run and that, unsurprisingly, this is not the first time this sort of thing has happened.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Looking out of my bedroom window yesterday morning, I spied a man digging in the corner of my garden. As he’d cut down part of my hedge, uprooted my bamboo plant and taken up several of the stones in a terrace I lovingly created a few years ago, I was not well pleased. So, I opened the window and called down to him. This is the conversation that ensued:-

Hola. Who are you and what are you doing?

There’s a problem with one of the lamps in the communal garden and we need to examine the cable that runs from the street through your garden.

OK but you’re doing this without my permission.

We didn’t think there was anyone in the house.

Well, there obviously is. Did you ring the bell?

Well, no because we’re at the back of the house and it’s a long way to go round the communal garden and get to the front of your house.

That’s not a good reason.

No. Very sorry.

I don’t know what you think but this has rather strengthened my suspicion the Spanish are not great at thinking about you in advance but are the world’s best apologisers after the event. And – like my Spanish-raised [ex]stepson – quite possibly the least sincere.

On to even more serious matters . . .

It’s not uncommon for Spanish friends to tell you they’re certainly not racist but they detest gypsies. As I live close to two permanent gypsy encampments, I have enough experience of their anti-social attitudes to be able to say that – however complex the reasons for the situation – it’s not too difficult to understand why the gypsies get a bad press. And they’ve been in the local news twice this week. Firstly, my local council has finally started to do what the courts long ago ordered them to do and knock down the illegal shacks in one encampment. Secondly, more than a hundred neighbours in a village up in the hills have leaped at the offer from a local bank of a 40 year, low interest loan of 2,000 euros each so as to prevent gypsies buying a 250,000 house there. As a [Spanish] friend said, given how difficult it is to get two or more Spaniards to act in unison, this is surely testament to the level of their fear as to what would happen next. See the Voz de Galicia for a comment of the issue of integration. Or, rather, the absence of it.

The Minister of Health feels that the regions of Madrid, La Rioja, Castile y León, Valencia and the Balearics have not obeyed the spirit of last year’s anti-smoking legislation. So they will be denied the central finance aimed at helping them implement it. Which should do the trick.

Galicia Facts

Weather-wise, October here has been as good as September. Given how dull and wet the 7 months of autumn and winter can be, this is excellent news. Especially for my bougainvillea, which appears to have decided to re-blossom.

A total of 1.75 million tourists came to Galicia this summer, 4% up on last year. However, hotel occupancy fell to 48%, continuing the trend of the last 3 years. This presumably means too many new hotels have been built.

Finally . .

British Lunacy Section

A couple of years ago, the British Library had a single set of signs outside the reading rooms, telling you to show your reader's pass. Now there are several sets of signs before you reach the reading rooms, announcing the prohibition of scissors, cleaning fluid, glue, umbrellas, knives; notices are also pasted to pillars inside the library, and on each desk. When it rains, the library forecourt now becomes a maze of barriers and cones; when it gets cold, there are oversize yellow thermometers to indicate that it is indeed cold. A similar shift has occurred in public spaces across the country. Streets are cluttered with statements of the obvious ("warning: vehicles in road", "trip hazard", "moving object") or incomprehensible ("trees removed"). Cones and safety tape get wound around any object that could conceivably obstruct pedestrians, be it a tree stump, a small hole or a shorn-off lamppost. And even if there is no cause for concern, the cones are left hanging around, just in case.. . . Perhaps it is fear of litigation but it is also an indication that safety is becoming a national ethic, and one of the main ways in which institutions relate to the public. Apparently there is never a good reason not to put up a caution sign, and somehow this is more urgent than the task of providing a useful public service. . . Needless warnings rob citizens of their independence and self-respect: we are addressed as irresponsible morons, requiring instructions for how to put one foot in front of the other.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Readers Xoan-Carlos and Moskavitch have come up with impressively creative responses to my question of what to call all of Spain apart from Galicia, Catalunia and the Basque Country. Through this, I’ve learned that a charnego is an immigrant from a Spanish region where Catalan isn’t spoken. However, I’m not clear whether Moskavitch’s six proposed names are those for new divisions of what’s currently called Spain or just alternatives for the whole entity. Nor can I figure out the origin of one of them – Maketaria.

Smack on cue, another reader, the Prince of Asturias [Spain’s equivalent to the heir-to-the-throne Prince of Wales], has called for a society which is “ever more solid and based around the principles and values of the Constitution.” Fat chance, I would have thought. But it gives me an idea about where to look for the statement of Spanish/ Castilian values I asked about yesterday.

More locally, Galicia’s Chief Prosecutor has called for a new type of court, dedicated to urban planning corruption cases. He says these are particularly needed in the provinces of La Coruña and Pontevedra. One wonders why.

Still on matters Pontevedran – The council continues to contemplate where [and how] to move the hordes of 12 to 25 year olds who congregate in the old quarter every Friday and Saturday night to get blind drunk. Apparently, the politicians of all parties are divided among themselves on this. The backcloth to this jaw-jaw is a warning from local medics that a quarter of all kids who start drinking at 12 will become alcoholics before they leave their teens. As this echoes identical warnings in the UK, you’d have to wonder why the politicians are not discussing how to stop mass drinking in the street, rather than merely moving it to somewhere where residents don’t suffer the consequences. The question also arises – where are all the concerned parents demanding that something be done? Sitting at home in fear of being labelled fascist? And criticising British parents for leaving their kids alone?

Finally, Spanish is a great language but, like all others, it has lacunae. Perhaps the most obvious is gender-free collective terms. As a result one get headlines like:- Two brothers, a man and a woman, are accused of killing their parents. Surely the Royal Academy could come up with something less macho, if they really wanted to. Which I guess they don’t. Being all men, I suppose.

Friday, October 26, 2007

For one reason and another, the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, wants to promote whatever ‘Britishness’ might be and, in addition, to get national agreement on ‘British values’. The October edition of Prospect magazine carries the opinions of an array of luminaries on this issue. They make fascinating reading – especially as most of them think it’s a misguided exercise – and can be found here. The opinion most relevant to life here in Galicia is that of the historian, Michael Fry. To quote - The question of British values is bedevilled, like so many others, by the inability of the English to distinguish between England and Britain. When the English make up 80 per cent of the British, this may not seem to them important. When they are trying to keep the other 20 per cent on board, it is. Ask an Englishman to define English values, and he will no doubt say fair play, decency, that sort of thing. Ask him to define British values, and he will no doubt say exactly the same. But fair play is a large nation’s value. A level playing field always favours the big battalions. The wee [small] fellow gets his way by stealth and guile, by the garrotte from behind, the shot out of the darkness, or else by sheer nimbleness of mind and body. Just ask the Celts. It is the only way to beat the plodding English. Fair play is not, cannot be, a Celtic value . . . What precisely are the British canons of conduct that can transcend and sublimate these merely national norms? Would they not have to challenge the national norms in some way: say, to prompt the English to be less arrogant, the Celts to be less irresponsible? If not, they are scarcely worth the formulation.

Four questions immediately spring to my mind . . . 1. What would be the ‘Spanish values’ to set against the elusive ‘British values’?; 2. Is the search for Spanish values as bedevilled as that of Britain’s because the ‘Castilians’ think their values are those of Spain?; 3. Would the people of at least Catalunia, the Basque Country and Galicia make the same point about smaller nations needing to have different [lower] values?; and 4. Do those who acclaim the Celticness of Galicia agree that a defining element of this is a rejection of fair play? Actually, there’s a fifth question – If fair play really is regarded as a luxury by Galicians, would this distinguish them from any of Spain’s other ‘tribes’? I stress that all of these questions are, of course, rhetorical . . .

Following up yesterday’s reference to the difficulties he got into when the Spanish opposition leader made his alleged gaffe about the relative importance of global warming, here’s what a leading UK politician has had the courage to write on the subject of priorities - Whatever it may now be conventional to say, the single biggest challenge is not global warming. That is a secondary challenge. The primary challenge facing our species is the reproduction of our species itself. I guess he, in turn, will now be pilloried. You can see the full article here.

The Spanish politician in question, Sr. Rajoy, is in even deeper water today because of his dodgy relatives. This time it’s a question of his brother-in-law, who – despite having nil qualifications – was given the job of Finance Director of a huge white elephant project commissioned outside Santiago by the last PP president of the Galician Xunta, Manuel Fraga. But, as this sort of nepotism is endemic in Spain, I suspect he’ll suffer no lasting damage on this account.

The current Spanish national anthem has no words. As this is said to be embarrassing for the country’s sportspeople, a competition is on for appropriate lyrics. These will be adjudicated by a panel comprising four university professors, a composer and a sportsman. I don’t envy them. This Herculean task has all the marks of one capable of displeasing all the people all the time. Guaranteed fun.

Which reminds me – I read somewhere that nationalists define themselves by the people they oppose. Or, in other words, by their enemies. I rather get the impression - but could, of course, be wrong – that this is increasingly being done here by contrasting the ‘nations’ of Galicia, Catalunia and the Basque Country with the so-called ‘nation of Spain’. This is much more confrontational, I guess, that referring to the ‘nation of Britain’ as this actually encompasses Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. What is missing here in Spain is an equivalent of England, that part of Britain which isn’t the same as its fractious minor members. I can’t see that ‘Castile’ would be an acceptable equivalent. Nor can the problem be solved by re-labelling Spain ‘Iberia’ and having its constituent parts as Spain, Galicia, etc. Unless of course, you made Portugal part of Iberia. Perhaps there is no solution. If so, Spain will just have to muddle along, in classic British fashion.

Please . . . no comments telling me the technical definition of ‘Britain’ doesn’t include Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands or whatever. This is anorak stuff. No one cares.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

In his detailed response to my list of Positives about Spain, reader Xoan-Carlos criticised the Spanish working day, rightly stressing it plays havoc with the work-life balance. For those that don’t know, this is because the day is split into two chunks, separated by a long, main-meal break at what in most other countries is known as mid afternoon but here is ‘midday’ [1.30/2.00 until 4.30/5.00]. Just one of the problems with this is that the 4th traffic jam of the day can be at 9pm, with one or both parents not getting home until 10. I mention this because the Galicians have just been polled on what they’d prefer and a whacking 74% say they’d rather have the traditional civil servant [funcionario] timetable of 8 to 3. I guess one advantage of this is they’d still have their main meal at the normal-ish hour of 3.30. This conclusion is supported by the fact only a meagre 3% opted for the traditional European day of 9 to 5. Presumably, this is because, at best, they’d be forced to have a quick lunch or, at worst, a sandwich. And at a hour which they regard as mid-morning coffee time! If the majority preference came to pass, this would, of course, simply mean that Galicia/Spain would move from one unique timetable out of kilter with the rest of Europe to another one. But I wouldn’t rule this out. After all, Spain is different. And maybe this is compulsory. One thing’s for sure, an 8-3 timetable fits rather more with the priority of personal convenience than with that of international compatibility/productivity.

The leader of the Spanish PP opposition party recently remarked, in effect, that global warming is perhaps not the most important problem facing the world. The poor man made things worse by saying he’d learnt this from his scientist cousin. What he’d failed to realise was that, with multiculturalism now officially dead, the world has a new religion. And any degree of doubt or scepticism [or even common sense] is treated as heinous heresy, possibly worthy of being burned at the stake. Even in a country which is handsomely exceeding its Kyoto emission targets. And where per capita energy use is the highest in Europe.

Up in Catalunia, there is tremendous disruption on the local railways. Ironically, the cause seems to be much-delayed work on the AVE high-speed link from Madrid. Given the nature of Catalunian politics, this is a God-sent opportunity for the traditional blame-game. As my fellow blogger John Chappell puts it - It's Day 3 of Operation Traffic Disaster in Barcelona, with the commuter trains still down and huge traffic jams on the highways leading into the city. The Socialist Generalitat [local government] is blaming the Socialist central government, and the central government is blaming the allegedly pro-PP [opposition] contractors, while the Cataloonies as usual blame some kind of sinister Madrid conspiracy to keep Catalonia down.

Actually, there’s a Galician connection with all this. Somehow, the problems in getting the AVE line through a mine en route from Madrid to Santiago has impacted on the capability of the company which is failing to construct the line up in Catalunia. But I couldn’t begin to guess exactly how. I do know that the Galician president has dismissed this as unjust, diversionary scapegoating. Which it might well be.

Spanish newspapers yesterday headlined that Spain was near the bottom of the European list as regards healthy living. Needless to say, the UK was even lower and a Scandinavian country [Sweden] was top of the pile. What was astonishing is that Portugal came second, ahead of Italy. Even more surprising was the claim that only 28% of Spaniards smoke. If so, they certainly make up for the 72% who don’t.

It was also reported that the Spanish do well when it comes to eating vegetables. Not in the country's restaurants they don't

Galicia Facts

84% of Galicians between the ages of 18 and 24 live with their parents. This is one of the reasons given by Ben Curtis for the [alleged] absence of noisy all-night parties in Spain. Kids can only throw these when they live in their own place.

The Galician city of Ferrol hasn’t figured much in this blog over the last 3 or 4 years but here’s the second mention in less than a week - In Ferrol you can get traffic fines annulled by exercising your constitutional right to receive notifications in Spanish instead of the Galician preferred by the local council. This is because the council claims it’s incapable of making a translation. Odd but potentially useful.

Talking of Galician cities - I fancy I read recently that Ourense is the coffin capital of Europe. Can anyone confirm this?


Final question - Can anyone [Biopolitical?] explain why, over the last 10 years, the prices of clothes have fallen by 52% in Ireland and by 47% in the UK but by only 3, 6, 12 and 13% in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, respectively? My confusion is increased by the claim that restrictions on cheap Chinese imports were greatest in the UK. Can this really be true?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

During my UK trip, I commented a couple of times on how increasingly regimented – repressive even – I now find the place. So it wasn’t hard to sympathise with this incisive article from the estimable Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times.

That said, the joys of my trip were, firstly, the endless civility which Brits show to strangers and, secondly [and more relevantly], the total absence of a need to prove my identity each time I used my debit and credit cards. Not to mention the pleasure of dealing with a bank which didn’t regard a sister branch as being located on the moon. I imagine that one of these pleasures will evaporate if and when identity cards are introduced.

Back home in Pontevedra, I’ve been catching up on the podcasts I never got round to listening to in more than 20 hours of driving. From Ben Curtis at Notes from Spain I’ve just learned three things while walking the dog – 1. Madrid is officially the noisiest city in Europe; 2. The sound of the saw on stone drowning out his voice was coming from his street and not from the usual suspect - the Granite Carving School on my left; and 3. The Spanish don’t go in for raucous late-night parties at home. I guess no one has advised my neighbour nice-but-noisy Tony and his family of this convention. Actually, there was a 4th bit of news for me – That, if anyone does have such a late-night party, the Spanish are not behind the door at calling out the police to get it stopped. But I imagine that Tony would become a lot less nice if I resorted to this stratagem.

Well, neither Alonso nor Hamilton had the skill to take the Formula 1 Championship, for which we should all be eternally grateful. Of course, neither man is much liked in his opponent’s country, though I have to confess I find Alonso’s persistent whingeing marginally more unattractive than Hamilton’s darker side. However, it was easy to agree with a letter writer to El Mundo yesterday who said neither of them had set a good example by showing genuine sporting behaviour - contrast the wonderful Rugby World Cup in France – and that it was a bit much for Alonso to wrap himself in the Spanish flag when he is domiciled in Switzerland so pays not a centimo to the Spanish tax authorities. Final comment on this sorry saga – I stopped off for lunch in a restaurant in Alonso’s home region of Asturias. The TV was showing pictures of great jubilation in the capital, Oviedo, where the predominant attitude seemed to be Alonso was a hero simply because Hamilton hadn’t beaten him. Which is about as mature as the same pose struck in one of two of the UK’s execrable tabloids. I suppose it was local – and not national – TV.

Some fascinating EU news - France has taken over from Spain as the main beneficiary of European Funds. in 2006. France received 13.5 billion euros, Spain was second at 12.9 billion and Germany third at 12.2 billion. However, the numbers are misleading in that both Germany and France are net contributors to Europe, while Spain continues to be a net beneficiary. Massively so at that.

Finally - The forecast rain never arrived yesterday. So I watered my lawns at 8pm. That did the trick and it poured down overnight.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Well, I’ve survived another 1100km on Spain’s roads and am back in Pontevedra. The sun shone, I’m told, during the entire two weeks of my absence but rain is forecast from today. Just what I needed. Or my re-seeded lawns at least.

A UK Sunday newspaper provided this definition of “zoo radio” – ‘Everybody is competing for attention and everybody talks at once.” So, we have both zoo radio and zoo TV here in Spain. Except, in the latter case, for the heavy tertulias at 9 in the mornings, when no one is watching.

Returning to my blog after a couple of days off, I thought I’d strike the right note by quoting one or two tendentious comments from an excellent book I’ve started. This is Between Hopes and Memories: A Spanish Journey and it’s by Michael Jacobs, who knows the country and its writers extremely well. So here goes:-

Galicia is a land which encourages myths, though myths of a different kind from those found in other regions of Spain. Galician nationalists, no less than sentimental travellers, think of Galicia essentially as a Celtic land, even though the Celtic presence in this region is not significantly greater than in other parts of Spain which one does not think of as Celtic at all – Almería for instance. The physical similarities between Galicia and such Celtic extremities of Europe as Ireland and Brittany cannot be denied; and there are local traditions such as bagpipe music that are associated with the same regions. But the term ‘Celtic’, when applied to the people and character of Galicia today, is so vague and contradictory as to become almost meaningless.’

And

If Galicia can be called the cradle of anything, it should be called the ‘cradle of dictators’. Fidel Castro is of Galician descent. The [ex]right-wing president of the Galician Xunta, Manuel Fraga is said to have offered him refuge in the case of a fall from power. But the most notorious Galician was Francisco Franco, who was born in Ferrol in 1892, and whose granite-like obstinacy and phlegmatic disposition have been seen as unmistakable attributes of the people of this region.

Less controversially . . .

Galicia Facts

Ryanair will re-start its direct flights from Liverpool to Santiago in April next year, having laid them off from the end of this month.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Walking this week around the streets of the Cheshire towns I knew as a youth, it's remarkable how little things have changed architecturally in the last 50 years. A lot more cars parked on the road, of course, and rather more plastic doors and window frames than back then. But, apart from that, virtually nothing at all. In contrast, I doubt that any part of Pontevedra outside the old quarter would be recognisable to anyone who returned after an absence of half a century.

According to one of the numerous myths in which Galicia abounds, Pontevedra was founded by Teucro, who was the half-brother of Ajax and who had taken to wandering around northern Spain at a bit of a loose end after the end of the Trojan Wars. So, it was interesting to see at an exhibition in London's Royal Academy this morning that some Brits used to believe British society was founded by the Phoenicians and then settled by a Trojan called Brutus. Or possibly the other way round. Given the flow of people and peoples over many thousands of years, it is, of course, possible to come up with just about any theory at all. And then to find the facts to prove it. So I guess Galicia is not unique in this regard. Except that a larger percentage of folk here may take this essentially harmless activity a little more seriously than elsewhere.

Incidentally, I was going to use the expression 'the land of Galicia' in the last paragraph. Then I wondered about 'country'. Or 'nation'. Or 'region'. Or just 'place'. But finally I decided to duck the issue. Who can blame me? I've already had one death threat . . .

Back to Britain and my feeling that it's now a creepily regimented place. The UK has 0.2% of the world's population but 20% of the world's CCTV cameras. And I heard an ex Battle of Britain pilot explaining yesterday on the radio that he's not allowed to eat a soft-boiled egg in his residential home as it might be dangerous for him. More likely litigious for them, I suspect.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A very bad news week for the UK. Firstly, Britain is now amongst the 10 most taxed countries in the world - above the USA, Australia, Germany, Italy and . . . Spain. Secondly, the IMF has opined that house prices here are dramatically overvalued, raising the real prospect of a major correction. However, overvaluation is said to even worse in Ireland and . . . Spain. Finally, Britain no longer has the lowest road mortality rate in Europe. She’s been overtaken by Malta, Holland, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway. Though not yet by Spain.

I mentioned the other day you don’t have to be long in the UK to feel the heavy hand of the ‘nanny state’ upon your shoulder. The aim appears to be to remove all sense of personal initiative and responsibility and, beyond that, to entirely eliminate the element of risk from that intrinsically dangerous activity, living. In this increasingly regulated society, there are for example, huge white letters on the road telling you to LOOK LEFT on the road at crossings - just in case you’re too stupid to remember which way the traffic is coming from. Combined with the suppression of fun and the elevation of animals to a superior status to that of humans, this can be quite depressing. Which is how I felt after reading this notice on the railings of Hoylake promenade:- There are wading birds who use this beach. If they are disturbed, they use up valuable energy resources. So please do not go on the beach or allow your dog to run on it if there are birds on it. This is the sort of thing I’m talking about when I say the UK is now an insane place. To me, at least.

Galicia Facts

The mayors of Galicia’s cities have decided against the creation of special zones dedicated to binge drinking and are now considering further restrictions on the sale of alcohol to teenagers. I find this confusing as those in place have clearly not stopped 12 year-olds getting hold of 2 litre bottles of coca cola mixed with one spirit or another. Meanwhile, I was rather horrified to hear from a reader that Pontevedra’s council had even considered trying to move the botellón out of the old quarter and into the rather lovely central gardens. Given the enmity between Pontevedra and Vigo, I don’t know why they don’t just opt for paying for the kids to be bussed to and from our neighbouring city. Sorted.

In the third quarter of this year, house prices fell slightly throughout the region except in the Pontevedra province, where they rose 1.2%. Over the last 12 months, Galicia is said to have experienced a rise of 7%, against 5% nationally.


Finally . . . If you’re a fan of Formula 1 motor racing, you can sign an on-line protest against corruption in this farcical sport and against the persecution of Fernando Alonso. A day or so ago, there were more than 119,000 signatures on this. No prize for guessing which country most of these came from.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Up in the Galician hills it rains quite a lot, especially in winter. Umbrellas are a necessity and have to be taken to work. Farmers who need both hands free deal with this challenge by hooking their umbrellas into their shirt or coat collar and letting them dangle down their backs. Down in snobby Pontevedra, no one would be seen dead doing this. So I get a few strange looks when I adopt this eminently sensible practice. I mention this as a prelude to a quintessentially British tale. . . Needing both hands to complete the newspaper crossword as I walked yesterday along the seafront, I duly thrust my brolly behind my back and set off for my brisk walk. I became aware a car had crossed the road and drawn up just behind me. As I turned round, the lady driver smiled and I feared yet another request for directions, the bane of my life in Pontevedra. Rolling down the window, she said “I know you're going to think this is a silly question but do you know you’ve got an umbrella hanging down your back?”. Laughing, I said I did and explained it was to allow me to do the crossword as I walked. Noticing she was a nurse and knowing there were several retirement communities nearby, I asked her whether she’d concluded I was an Alzheimer’s patient out for a stroll. “Oh, no” she replied. “I just thought someone might be playing a practical joke on you.”

Earlier this year, the mobile phone companies in Spain were instructed to stop overcharging customers by billing by the minute instead of the second. The consequence was that ‘set up’ charges immediately soared and all my [short] calls immediately became far more expensive. So I was both unsurprised and pleased to read yesterday that the Office for the Defence of Competition has decided to take action against the companies for illegal price fixing. But I don’t suppose I’ll ever see the cost of my calls reduce.

Talking of prices . . . Here in the UK, I’m constantly surprised at how expensive certain things are, even after taking into account salary differentials between Britain and Spain. So I wasn’t too astonished to read yesterday the average pub lunch is now 20 quid [28 euros] a head. That gastronomic delight, the steak and kidney pie, averages 10.50 [15 euros] across the country, which compares with a mere 6.50 [10 euros] for a fine full meal in Brittany. Is there some justification for this or is it merely profiteering based on the low standards of Brits who’ve only recently become a nation which eats out quite a lot?

Galicia Facts

The mayors of all of Galicia’s seven cities are meeting to set up a ‘united front’ against binge drinking in the street on Friday and Saturday nights [el botellón] and to decide on a common policy. One wonders why they can’t act alone against this modern nuisance. One of the options is to copy other cities in Spain and establish a dedicated location for the kids. This goes by the wonderful name of un botellódromo.

Talking of joint action . . . Up in the hills behind Pontevedra, ten neighbours are clubbing together to buy a 250,000 euro house to prevent it getting into the hands of a gypsy family which currently lives on the permanent encampment not far from my house. The fear is it will be a Trojan horse for a new settlement. I was reminded of Xoan-Carlos’s comment to my blog of yesterday that “Most Spanish people think they're racially tolerant simply because they listen to gypsy/Mexican music but would have a stroke if one of their children married a "moro", despite the massive contribution of Arabic culture to that of Spain.”

Any reader interested in Galician Celticness, will find the comment from reader Luis to this blog stimulating. To fury in some cases, I expect.


Finally, a real cultural difference between Britain and Spain. As in other Continental countries, fresh milk is hard to get in Spain, where it’s drunk by only 4% of the population. In the UK, it’s 92%. Must be the weather.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

As promised yesterday, here's a list of what I find good, positive and/or impressive about Spain.

But, first, the Preamble . . .

I'm doing this because readers - especially Spanish ones - can get an unbalanced impression of my overview of Spain by reading just one or two blog posts.

This, of course, is a very personal and subjective list. Yours may be very different. Comments and suggestions are welcome and, if I agree, I will add new positives as they come in.

Obviously, then, this is a work-in-progress. Even without comments, I will be making additions from time to time. I have been jotting down things for a couple of weeks but right now I can't find some of the scraps of paper. Reading over what I've written, I'm conscious that I've probably missed some of the obvious positives. If so, this will have to be quickly rectified.

What this list isn't is an analysis of Spain and its people. It's a simple list of likes. It doesn't, for example, address the critical importance of personal relationships here. Nor the issues of 'localism' and 'nationalisms', for example. These merit a long, objective book, not just a short, subjective list.

You may feel there are inconsistencies in this list. And this impression may grow when you compare the Positives with my future list of Negatives. This is inevitable; countries, like people, can be a hive of inconsistency.

I have a long-standing view that the people with the greatest strengths also have the greatest weaknesses. Whether you like them - marry them, even - depends on the net balance. What this means, among other things, is that you can still love people and countries than infuriate you from time to time.

My view of Spain's net balance is very positive. As I've said several times in my blog, it's the best of the six cultures I've lived in and certainly superior to that of the UK. However, I've also said this may reflect my age and circumstances and that it's quite possible I'd reach a different conclusion if I were far younger and trying to set up a business here.

If I were to sum up Spain's positive-ness, I'd say it keeps me young. I realise, though, that some readers may not regard this as a plus if it means I'm going to go on writing. But, in truth, this is not something I worry much about. If at all.

SPAIN'S POSITIVES

Although the items in this list are not in any particular order of merit, it's traditional and probably right to start with its people. Briefly, they're the most sociable, affable and welcoming in the world. They have a huge sense of fun and vitality. They know how to enjoy life. They love to talk and are brilliant at it. There's no one better in the world to sit next to on a plane or train than a Spaniard if you want to make the journey pass more quickly. They're proud, informal, direct and very pragmatic. They have superb eye-contact and are very tactile, especially the women. Finally, they have the capacity to be very noble.

Compared with the UK, Spain is more sane, more equal, more fun-orientated and less class-conscious. As yet, there are far fewer examples here of ‘political correctness gone mad’. In short, this is a less anally retentive/neurotic society than many others; safety, for example, is not a god on whose altar common sense must be regularly sacrificed. Nor is it afflicted by phobias which bear little relation to reality. Overall, it is a relaxed and relaxing society in which to live.

Reflecting its history and it cultural influences, Spain is the most interesting country in Europe. Her fascinating cultural heritage is at least the equal of any other country, though widely underrated. A passionate Dutch lover of Spain - Cees Noteboom - has written that, if you picked up chunks of northern Spain and put them down in France, millions would visit them. But, since they're in Spain, no one does.

To say the least, Spain has a vibrant and dynamic economy, reflected - for example - in its superb new road and rail links. It's a very 'alive' place, evidenced by its marvellous cafés, bars and restaurants.

Spain's cities are exceptionally civilised places, in which café society is the gem in the crown.

Spain's women are proud, feminine, beautiful and - as I never tire of thanking God for - very tactile. The country has not suffered from the distortions wreaked elsewhere by fanatical feminism.

Age here is not the barrier to communication and enjoyment of life it can be elsewhere. One gets the impression that, for the Spanish, the most important criterion is not how old you are but how much you contribute to the general well-being.

Relatedly, this is a society is which there is still respect between the generations.

Spanish society is still underpinned by strong family links. Children are still happy to be seen in public with their parents. Grandparents even.

Spain, like France, is not afraid to have an elite. One result of this is that the serious papers remain 'heavy'; they have not yet sensationalised themselves in the direction of a tabloid press. The main reason for this - and a huge positive - is that there is no egregious tabloid press in Spain.

To state the obvious, Spain's weather - even in Galicia - is better than that of other countries and the cost of living is still lower.

Spain's crime rate is relatively low. I have yet to feel unsafe here, even in Madrid in the middle of the night. That said, I'm sure it's possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And there are a lot of pickpockets in both Barcelona and Madrid.

Although things are naturally trending in the wrong direction, Spain is not yet as consumerist as Anglo Saxon societies. Sunday is still Sunday.

By and large, young Spaniards know how to take their drink. There is little of the violence associated with boozing in the UK.

Finally, some Miscellaneous Likes:- Night trains; The honour system in bars; Menus del dia


To end by repeating myself - I suspect my missing bits of paper contain several more positives. But this is a good start. Reactions are welcome. Meanwhile, I 'll be re-reading a couple of my books so I can check on others' positives, with a view to deciding whether or not I already had them on my list. Or should have had.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Spanish government has announced new rules for self-employed people. These include the right to a longer holiday if your income comes from one client and the freedom to employ your own children if they’re under 30 and live at home. I find this rather odd since, to me, the concept of being self-employed means you take your own decisions and reap the consequences. I mean, if you’re self-employed in the UK you’re free to do whatever you like and it’s then up to the tax authorities to decide whether your expenses are allowable and your accounts reliable. Perhaps the [over?]regulated Spanish approach is just another way at arriving at the same result. Still on this subject of self-employment in Spain, it’s always struck me as odd that one is obliged to pay a hefty monthly social security contribution [c. 300 euros, I think] from the day you start operating, regardless of whether you have any income. Needless to say, this law is honoured more in the breach than in the observance, with what appears to be a nod and a wink from the tax authorities. Basically, you just don’t tell anyone you’re in business until it suits you.

A reader in Russia suggests the perception of the British as dirty is pretty universal and not just confined to Spain. Possibly so but - contrary to what some Spanish readers seem to think - I find this far more amusing than irritating. But I am left wondering just how people arrive at this conclusion, especially if they've never visited the country, let alone a British home. Could it be they only ever see Brits vomiting in Ibiza? Or could it be extrapolation from the fact that the British dress so shabbily and inhabit streets that are not exactly the cleanest in the world? As to where the fault lies for the latter, I couldn’t say. For years, of course, the threat of bombs from the IRA deprived the public of bins for their litter but I believe things are back to normal now. Might it be that the municipal councils prefer to spend taxpayers' money on things other than efficient litter collection? Outreach officers, for example? Or literature in 5 to 10 languages? This final thought was prompted by the sight of an electoral registration leaflet for my daughter, printed in at least 5 languages. Just to annoy my easily-upset reader, El Lusitano, I‘ll mention that one of these was Arabic. Much the same motivation lies behind my citation of this article, entitled “A lesson in humanity for the smug West”. Though it certainly merits reading in its own right.

Talking of litter . . . The Sunday Times I bought yesterday had 14 sections and weighed - even without the advertising material that cascaded from it - a mere 5 pounds, or 2.3 kilos. I suspect things have been as bad as this - possibly even worse - in the USA for some time now but thank God it’s still possible to carry El Mundo or El Pais home on a Sunday without risking a hernia.

Tune in tomorrow for the first of my two-part mini-dissertation on what I find positive and negative, good and bad, impressive and unimpressive about Spain . . .

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In his/her recent list of unattractive British practices, a Spanish reader included something to the effect that both the British and their houses are filthy. Truth to tell, this does seem to be a widespread perception amongst modern Spaniards and this image can only have been furthered by frontpage headlines in Spain on the Clostridium-related deaths in British hospitals. Dining with an Anglo-Spanish couple recently, I was jocularly asked by the husband whether all British women were like his ‘untidy’ British wife. I said I couldn’t speak for all British women; all I knew was that no Spanish woman could possibly give lessons in cleanliness to either my mother, my sisters or either of my ex wives. In return, I asked him whether all Spanish women were as fanatical about cleanliness and hygiene as I'd heard claimed by both Spanish and British men. He said indeed they were and we then mused on the possibility this was one of the factors behind the Spanish aversion to home entertaining. Given the tendency, he said, for Spanish women to gossip and backbite, no wife wanted to run the risk of having her picture frames checked for dust. So, on this subject at least, there you have the modern stereotypes. British women are carelessly dirty and Spanish women neurotically clean. A bit of a clash, then, with the older picture of anally-retentive Brits on one side and happy-go-lucky Spaniards on the other. “Truth? What is truth?” said Pilate, and departed smiling.

The Times reference to Spain yesterday was on the likelihood of a bank crash there. “Lending in Spain’s financial and corporate sectors” it claimed “ is grinding to near-standstill, amid a climate of suspicion about which bank could be the ‘Spanish Northern Rock' . . There is a climate of total mistrust’. Since Spanish banks didn't lend heavily to sub-prime mortage customers, the allegation is that this fear is connected to the less-than-gentle collapse in the overheated housing market. But vamos a ver.

As for Northern Rock itself, it seems the odds are on Virgin taking this over. Which would mean it wouldn't end up in the hands of the consortium of Spanish businessmen reported to be looking at it. Perhaps no local banks could/would lend them the finance.

Returning to the issue of modern Spain, here’s a quote from a Spanish newspaper - “Aesthetic medicine is now being included in the calculation of the IPC retail price index in Spain. A new study has shown that on average every Spaniard spends 2,000 euros a year on such treatments, making it part of the regular family budget”. I’m not sure I find this credible. Can it really be true that Spanish families are spending upwards of 4,000 euros a year on whatever ‘aesthetic medicine’ is? Opinions welcome.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Walking through bits of leafy Leeds suburbia, I was astonished to see how silent the dogs were at my passing. And then I recalled that my bordie collie, Ryan, is the only canine in my neighbourhood in Pontevedra which doesn't go beserk when anyone [or anything] goes past the gate. I'm forced to ask - Are all Spanish dogs actually bred to bark? Or is this a natural consequence of leaving them outside permanently as they come to regard themselves as merely guard dogs? Of course, this doesn't apply to the rat-sized creatures favoured by the pijas of Pontevedra and which only go outside in the arms of their owners. I supect these never lower themselves to barking. The dogs, I mean.

I never thought I'd say this but dinner in a local restaurant the other night was ruined by a nearby group of young people far noisier than anything I've experienced even in Spain. Not so much loud as rowdy and raucous, they seemed incapable of talking except by screeching. Awful. But last night in another restaurant, my years of dining in Spain came in very handy when the couple at the next table let their two young kids run around at will, albeit issuing the occasional ineffective instruction to stop whatever they were doing. I hardly noticed it but it did leave me wondering whether British society is becoming more 'liberal' in this respect.

My new shirts from M&S come with a little tag telling me they're made from Fairtrade Cotton and that 'By buying this item, you are ensuring that cotton farmers in the developing world can improve their livelihood.' Well, not my primary objective in choosing them but OK. As I asked recently, how long before everything in Zara bears something similar?

A reader has responded to my mention of 'Spanish practices' in the UK Post Office by firing off a long list of British practices which he seems to have compiled from tabloid headlines. I should perhaps have stressed that the phrase has been in use for many, many years and relates to a Spain that no longer exists. It's not a comment on current Spanish society. So the retaliation was really rather unnecessary.

Talking about British society, the government here - after decades of undermining the institution - has announced this morning that marriage is best for the raising of children. What next? That teaching kids to read and write properly might just help their employment prospects? Or that removing all discipline and respect from society might breed a generation of anti-social youths? One lives in hope. Assuming it's not too late for a series of Damascene conversions.

Friday, October 12, 2007

In spain, today is “Spanishness Day” and there’s a big military parade in Madrid. My own view is that this is sort of thing is a relic from a previous age. But, that said, I doubt it’s going to disappear from the Spanish scene for a while. So, a few months ahead of the elections and against the background of not just nationalist advances but also isolated acts of desecration against the national flag and the monarchy, it was inevitable the right-of-centre PP party would try to use the day for political advantage. Specifically, it’s called for a lot of loyalist flag-waving around the country. And it will probably get it. Whether all this means, as some commentators allege, that Spain is more divided now than at any time since 1936, I don’t feel qualified to say. But I guess it’s easier to be pessimistic than optimistic. If concern really is widespread and growing, then the logical development would be the ousting of the left-of-centre PSOE party at next year’s general election. So, vamos a ver. Not long now. Assuming the situation doesn’t turn nastier.

The EU has said it’s looking into whether the Spanish government gave illegal tax relief to those companies which bought overseas operations such as the Abbey National, BAA and Scottish Energy, helping them to beat out competitors. The marvellous response from Madrid - surely disingenuous - is that the assistance can’t have distorted competition as all Spanish companies were entitled to it.

A BBC headline this morning is that a survey has found that British kids are not enjoying their childhood because they’re stressed by school tests, a fear of crime and consumerism. And this after 10 years of a left-of-centre government. Apart from kicking this out - which seems far from unlikely after this week’s debacles - one wonders how on earth this situation could be reversed. Can consumerism ever die? Or even go backwards? A new Puritan age?

Spain - or at least the word ‘Spanish’ - appears in the British media again this morning. But only in the context of the government-owned Post Office and the claim that workers there have called a strike because they want to keep the restrictive work measures which are called ‘Spanish practices’ in English. As condoms are called ‘French letters’. Which reminds me - A reader has asked why it’s considered racist in Britain to tell jokes about the Chinese but not about the Spanish. I have to say, firstly, I don’t know but, secondly, I’ve never heard an anti-Spanish joke.

Which, in turn, reminds me that a reader has insisted that the correct description is ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’. Technically true, but in everyday life everyone uses the shorthand term ‘Britain’ to include Northern Ireland. It’s a British practice.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

During a recent dialogue in the Comments to this blog, there was a valid reference to the inevitability of stereotypes, both Spanish and British. In this contest of nonsense, I fear the Spanish come off worse. This is mainly because even the UK’s serious press is more superficial and sensationlist than the heavy spanish papers such as El Mundo and El Pais. In these, there is almost daily coverage of UK affairs, involving little by way of trivia. In contrast, the Daily Telegraph, for example, rarely comments on matters Spanish. Today, though, it gives two mentions. The first is to the imminent Law of Historic Memory, which - controversially - addresses the validity of judicial decisions during the Franco era, as well as offering measures to help people obtain data about relatives killed during and after the Civil War. Fair enough. But the second is a brief piece about a cruel fiesta along the coast which involves swimmers tearing apart specially reared ducks. Now this, of course, is dreadful but it’s hardly representative of modern Spain. And it merely serves to further the grossly outdated image of a people who revel in killing bulls, beating donkeys and chucking goats off church steeples. OK, the report centres on a court decision to ban this event but I still regard it as bad as Spanish papers furthering the image - thanks to the McCann case - that Brits are uncaring about their kids simply because they’d rather dine without them. By the way, this is a different issue from the one of leaving them alone when you go out. So, please, no rants about this - or any other - aspect of the McCann case. The norm is to leave your kids with a [handosmely paid] babysitter. British grandmothers are not the soft touch their Spanish counterparts are. If I may be forgiven a bit of two-way stereotyping . . .

Tecnocasa has become the latest big-name victim of the crisis in the Spanish real estate sector and has announced the closure of 145 offices. And the next . . . ?

Finally . . . My elder daughter, Faye, is now writing for Notes from Madrid. Click here to see her opinion of the Pub Prada. I don’t know where she gets her acerbicness from. She should watch her back. Meanwhile, I have it on good authority she doesn't want to hear from El Lusitano.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Second post of the day - this one deliberate.

Just a few random observations from a trip into the historic town of York:-

1. There's a sharp contrast between the way the Spanish and the British treat their medieval glories. As a generalisation, in Spain they're quite separate from both the 'new' residential quarters and from the centres of trade and commerce. In Britain - as exemplified by Chester and York - everything is rather more mixed up. And, as a result, the god of consumerism disfigures a great deal of Britain's heritage. I'm sure there are arguments for both approaches but, on balance, I go with the Spanish option. Tempting fate, I seem to recall reading that the main reason the old quarters of Spanish cities are now their rejuvenated gems is because when times here were not so good they were left to run down, while any new building was done elsewhere. When things got better and money was available to improve the old quarters, they were still largely unspoilt and so could be restored to their original and undiluted glory. Anyone got a better theory?

2. Plastic. Too much of it, yes? So why does the pharmacist give me a tube of cream that's already in a carton in a plastic bag? And why does the newsagent do likewise with a bloody newspaper? Why on earth would I want a newspaper inside a plastic bag?

3. How long before the ATM machines of BBVA and others offer me the chance not only to withdraw money or get a statement but also to to 'Make a charitable donation'? Is this to make the banks seem more caring or am I just a cynic?

4. On the same note, is it now compulsory in the UK to include a statement on your menu or on your products that the provider is only involved in 'fair trade'? If not, how long before it effectively will be?
Dear reader,

What follows was an early morning [6am] draft that wasn't supposed to find its was on to Blogger just yet. Rather than delete it, I will add a second post later. If there's anything else to write about. . . .

Returning briefly the the issue of the first domes, here's what Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say on this:- "Domes first appeared as solid mounds and in techniques adaptable only to the smallest buildings such as round huts and tombs in the ancient Middle East, India, and the Mediterranean. The Romans introduced the large-scale masonry hemisphere." I have been fortunate enough to see some of the finest later achievements, most particularly in Esfahan in Iran. Which is not, by the way, an Arabic country.

Finally, here's a question for Spain's philologists - Where does the pronunciation of the Spanish J come from? This is often represented by 'kh' in English, in which language the only time you're likely to get anywhere near it is with the Scottish word for lake, 'loch'. The sound doesn't seem to exist in French, Italian, Portuguese or even Galician. So its origins don't appear to be latinate. It does, of course, exist in Persian and Arabic and may also figure in the other Semitic language, Hebrew. And possibly in Yiddish too. Facts, opinions and theories welcome. Does it exist in Basque? Is it possible the original Iberians or the later Celts used it? How can we know?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Well, here's a thing - The distance between my house in Pontevdra and the ferry port in Santander is almost exactly the same - 550km - as that between the ferry port in Plymouth and my daughter's flat in Leeds. I now sit back and wait to see how this can be interpreted as an anti-Spanish comment.

Talking of which - The BBC reported today that the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer today claimed that, at 2.5%, the growth in the British economy this year would be the highest in the developed world and better than in any other major economy. As Spain has the world's 8th economy and as this is forecast to grow at 4% this year, these are highly questionable statements. Which I shall be taking up with Mr Darling in person. If I can bring myself to call him Darling. Surely he can't be suggesting Spain is part of the developing world. Or perhaps he's just another ignorant, arrogant Brit. Anyway, I have meanwhile written to the BBC accordingly.

When you get off the ferry at Plymouth, you have to negotiate around a dozen roundabouts before you can get out of town. And there is a speed camera about every 50 metres. I don't know how visiting Spaniards react to this instantaneous regimentation but I felt I'd arrived in a police state. I say 'instantaneous' but Immigration and Customs took almost an hour to get through. But, then, there were a lot of suspicious men in their 60s and 70s driving old E-type Jags and the like.

Finally - as regards recent comments posted, my thanks to Gabriel for taking up the cudgels on my behalf, with great eloquence. And my sympathy and empathy for the sort of nonsense that he was then assailed with. My thanks also to Duardon for his belief that I write in good faith.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Very smooth trip from Pontevedra to Asturias/Cantabria last night, assisted by the opening of some new bits of the excellent A8 autovia along the Cantabrian coast. I have to admit I find the Asturian and Cantabrian countryside and architecture even prettier than those of Galicia.

Stopped overnight at a little town called Villaviciosa. Delightful place but it didn't remotely live up to its name. Very disappointing.

If I hadn't known I was in Asturias, I might have guessed it from the 9 pages in this morning's local paper on the local hero and his success in yesterday's Formula 1 race in China. Before this, he had been complaining that he didn't trust his engineers and had effectively accused them of sabotage. After it, he was all smiles. The headline on one paper read "Miracles can happen" but, to my surprise, it turned out not to be about Alonso's decision to stop moaning and whingeing. As I've said before, I do hope he wins the championship and all the nonsense can stop.

It continues to amaze me just how some readers can take an innocuous remark about Arabian culture being one of the many influences on modern Spain and distort it into a 'racist' remark that all Spaniards are Arabs and a view that Africa begins at the Pyrenees. This, of course, is independent of the accuracy or otherwise - and it seems to be otherwise - of my comment about domes. Very sad really. And it surely says something about the sensitivity of some people. And, of course, about their attitudes to Arabs and Muslims. I wonder just how many of them have any experience at all of life outside Spain. Or even outside their village.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Another report this week asserting Spanish company directors are the highest paid in the EU, coming just after the Swiss but a massive 40% ahead of their UK equivalents. Needless to say, at the front of the pack are those companies I love to hate - the banks and Telefonica. I guess it’s even easier now to believe the cream of Spain’s youth enter these companies. And then make hay while the sun shines. But I don’t suppose they can be blamed. Except, of course, for the way they treat their somewhat lower-paid customers.

ETA’s political arm, Batasuna, has labelled the arrests of its leaders a declaration of war on the part of the Spanish government. I wonder what ETA thinks they’ve been waging up to now. A minor local skirmish, with occasional bombing sorties into Madrid airport car-parks?

So, Gordon Brown won’t be going for a snap election after all and, in the process, has possibly weakened his chances of re-election when he finally goes to the country in a couple of years’ time. Looking back, though, I recall Tories in 1997 being horrified at the thought they’d be out of power for as long as 16 years and I guess this is still a real possibility. Prospective parallels with the PP? A minimum of 8? Meanwhile, here’s one columnist’s view of the UK political scene - There is now a clear divide between the two main parties on the future direction of Britain: one believes that a powerful, controlling state is the best way to achieve a socially just society; the other that power should be devolved to local communities and to individual citizens. How would my more politically aware readers summarise Spain’s situation in less than 50 words?

Talking of centralisation and individual citizens, the thought struck me yesterday that, whereas at the macro level there’s a demand for ever-more devolvement of political power to the regions, in their personal life the Spanish have to contend with quite a lot of centralisation. One central post office and one central medical centre [el ambulatorio], for example. I must ponder this further.

Another fine example of the Spanish tendency to insult – The president of one of the Catalan coalition parties has said that for Catalan authors to write in Spanish would be like German authors writing in Turkish. So, at least two birds with one foam-flecked stone.

I leave today for 2 weeks in the UK. So, posts may be a little intermittent. I leave with you three things, though the second and third are only of interest to those readers who want to post comments; everyone else can log off after seeing the photo . . .

In contrast to the rest of Spain, the October weather in south Galicia has continued sunny, warm and dry. To prove it, here’s this morning’s sun coming up on the hills behind Pontevedra . . .

Secondly, a few reminders:-

1. I don’t respond to anonymous posts

2. However unhappy it makes you, I won’t respond in either Spanish or Gallego. I am fluent in the former and can get by in the latter. But this is an English blog.

3. You can insult me as much as you like; it reflects far more on you – and on Spain – than it does on me. Especially in the case of those boors [groseros] who accuse me of being uneducated and illiterate.

Finally . . While I’m not going to break my rule about not responding to anonymous comments, I will say just this about today’s subject of Architecture. I believe every dome in the world – including those in Spain’s Christian churches – owes its existence to the previous skills of Arabic builders. Whether you see this as an example of the influence of Arabic/Muslim culture on Spain is entirely up to you. If you want, you’re free to go on thinking that nothing one sees, hears, smells or eats in Spain has anything to do with anyone but the Celts and then the Catholic Monarchs of the 16th century. It’s a free world.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

In the 9 or 10 months since ETA broke its own ‘permanent’ ceasefire, the Spanish state has had a good deal of success – in both Spain and in France – in rounding up key members of this terrorist group. This week, it was the turn of 20+ members of its political arm, Batasuna. Unlike Sinn Fein in the UK, this is a proscribed organisation. But, like Sinn Fein, it never condemns violence, except on the part of the government. This sort of operation is labelled ‘judicial’ in Spain and a senior member of the government has basically said “It’s got nothin’ to do with us, Guv.” But, 6 months away from a general election, there’s understandable scepticism about this being a fine, if timely, example of judicial independence.

Spain’s Young Socialists this week issued a video which ruffled many feathers. It features a parody of a TV game in which contestants have to guess words beginning with A, B, C, etc. In this version, the subject is the proposed new curriculum subject Citizenship and a female young socialist gives perfect answers. However, her male, right-of-centre opponent comes across a macho, misogynistic, imbecilic snob. Amongst other things. Rather like comedian Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice-but-Dim character. Without the niceness. It’s well done and funny but, of course, essentially juvenile. I couldn’t help but see it as a good example of the sort of personal abuse which is so often mistaken for argument in Spain. It seems to me this sort of thing should be left to comedians and columnists and not indulged in by political parties, even by those with the defence of callow youthfuness.

Here in Galicia, a columnist on the Voz de Galicia whom I don’t normally see as pro nationalist this week wrote that, just as the Galician Nationalist Party [the BNG] was criticised in times past for being weak and faction-riven, now we should praise it for being united and responsible. At least compared with its equivalents in Catalunia and the Basque Country. I guess he’s being serious but it’s just possible this is a good example of the Galician irony-larded sense of humour called retranca. Opinions welcome.

Which reminds me - I wonder what it will take to ensure some Galician commentators to my blog understand that I don't read their posts if they are in Gallego.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The credit agency Standard & Poors has forecast Spain’s growth in 2008 at 2.7%, high enough but actually the lowest for 12 years. More worryingly, it suggests Spain’s economy is more at risk than any others. Oh, dear. No wonder consumer confidence is reported to have gone through the floor. The noise of belt-tightening is even higher than that of the ubiquitous TV sets and barking dogs.

El Pais yesterday sounded off on the subject of the corruption that surrounds construction here . . . “Urban corruption demands an outstanding place in the pre-election political discourse, reflecting the serious distortions it produces in local and regional governments and because of its evil economic impact in the form of price rises in both land and property, and for the destruction it causes in areas of high ecological value.” Yes, well it may demand such a high profile but I, for one, will be betting it doesn’t get it. Allegedly, all the political parties rely so much on this for additional funding, none of them is going to rock the boat or upset this particular applecart. Especially as the apples are Golden Delicious.

Talking of local politics, the Galician Socialist and Nationalist parties are naturally at constant loggerheads with the local PP party over what to put in the draft of our new Constitution to be negotiated with Madrid. The latest spat is over a suggestion – from guess which side – that this document specifically precludes the Galician government from undertaking the sort of popular consultation on independence currently being pursued by the President of the Basque region. And/or from alluding to ‘sovereignty’. You’d think the Spanish government had enough problems with this issue in respect of Gibraltar, without wanting it brought up in the context of its regions. But this is modern Spain and the game of constitutional leapfrog must continue apace. Towards an unknown destination.

The central government has given more details about its plans to further curb road deaths. Excessive speeding and drink driving will become criminal offences, if parliament approves the Bill. The relevant minister has said this will bring Spain into line with the rest of Europe. Not before time. Now for those bloody [non]silencers on scooters!

Something is going wrong with foreign investment in Galicia. And, this time, this really does mean ‘foreign’, not just from other Spanish communities. Annual investment has fallen progressively from 302 million euros in 2004 to possibly only 20 or 30 million this year. Major companies who’ve allegedly got fed up of waiting for land and/or approvals in Vigo include Ikea and France’s department store, Fnac. One may be forgiven for wondering whether the Xunta is serious about this. Meanwhile, Ikea has gone to Oporto.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Two bits of good news this week. Firstly, drug consumption among Spanish young people is in decline. Secondly, the central government has promised a couple of much-needed legal initiatives. It will announce in November, it says, 70[!] measures addressing the problem of road mortalities, particularly in respect of motorcyclists. And it’s also promised it really will do something about the difficulties which lessors face in dealing with defaulting tenants. The aim, of course, is to do rather more for Spain’s property rental market than merely throwing money at low-paid young people could ever achieve. We wait with breath abated.

Meanwhile, though, another major property company has entered what I believe the Americans call Chapter 11 and the British ‘Administration’. Essentially it can’t pay its bills. It won’t be the last to suffer this fate. Though it’s actually the creditors who do the suffering, of course.

Generally speaking, Spain’s interior is depopulating itself. A total of ten provinces actually have a lower population density now than they did a hundred years ago. Here in Galicia, the internal provinces of Lugo [-23%] and Ourense [-16%] are among the worst affected in the country, although the region as a whole has seen an increase of 40%. What this means, of course, is that the coastal provinces have significantly increased their population density - by 106% in Pontevedra’s case. Back up in the rural hinterland, immigrant Brits are doing their best to compensate for the losses but it’s simply not enough. We need more people interested in buying an entire village.

By the way, if you’re one of these Brits, you should know of a recent Xunta initiative which might impact on your purchase of a rural plot. This is the creation of a Land Bank which has the right to pre-empt purchase of certain plots required for agricultural development, reimbursing you only at the price cited in the escritura you signed. Somehow, I doubt that struggling estate agents, keen to get their commission, are going to worry too much about publicising this. Or even about getting on top of the development and its implications. The rationale behind it is that only 25% of Galicia’s land is given over to agriculture, compared with an EU average of 50.

I have to admit that, whatever one thinks of their views, the Galician Nationalist Party [the BNG] adds colour to political debate. Berating the President of the PP party for not being Galician enough in his approach to the region’s imminent new Constitution, the BNG President claimed he’d ‘cooked his speech in the home/hearth of Genoa and not in that of Breogan, to whom he is averse.’ Breogan, by the way, is the mythical Celtic king of Galicia, and alleged invader of Ireland. I’ve no idea what the reference to Genoa implies. Over to you X-C.

Although I occasionally touch on Spanish politics, this blog will not satisfy those with a deep interest in this subject. So I happily nominate South of Watford and recommend today’s post for an overview of what’s happening in the Basque Country around their President’s plans for popular consultation. Or unpopular, if you’re watching from Madrid. The blog’s author, Graeme, is a left-of-centre but this, in itself, doesn’t make him a bad person. So I feel a bit guilty about ensuring he’ll now get a higher number of readers who’ll misinterpret what he says and instruct him to leave the country as he’s no right to comment on matters Spanish. Probably, in his case, from the local equivalent of the National Front. But, hey, fame always comes at a price.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Spain’s position [14th] in the European health system rankings did turn out to be higher than the UK’s. What interested me was the El Pais comment that this survey shattered the myth that Spain’s system is among the top 5 or 6. Back in the UK, there are many deluded souls who still believe that the NHS is the envy of the world. In this, of course, they’re encouraged by Labour politicians who treat it as a gem to be preserved as the biggest employer in Europe. And the least efficient. The truth is even Cyprus and Estonia achieved higher ratings. Not to mention the UK’s ex-poor relative, Ireland. And yet Gordon Brown still looks set to win the next election.

Many of you will be unaware the Rugby World Cup is currently taking place, mostly in France. So far, it’s been a terrific event, with the ‘minnows’ of Georgia, Portugal, Fiji and Namibia putting in spectacular performances against the big-name teams. But at one match the other night the commentator said something rather odd, viz. “The crowd has begun to sing the Basque national anthem, which has become something of an unofficial song for this tournament.” Did he mean the anthem of the French Basque region? Or is there something shared between the French Basques and their brethren across the Pyrenees?

Anthems and flags tend to go together and the latter are very much in the news in Spain these days. Specifically, Spanish flags which are not where they should be or which are being burnt by what other bloggers in Barcelona call Cataloonies. Checking with our town hall yesterday, I saw there were four flags a-flying – the Pontevedra flag, the Galicia flag, the Spanish flag and the EU flag. My conclusions were 1. If you’re going to fly one flag, four is logical, and 2. This is too many bloody flags. Better for there to be none at all.

Changing times – The government of Andalucia will be the first in Spain to apply new Government regulations for noise tests on mopeds. So, is this the end of the road for this irritating element of the traditional Spanish culture?

Speaking of which . . . Before the end of this week, I’ll be posting my overview of all I find positive and negative about Spain. Meanwhile, my core view is that, thanks to its colourful history, Spain has the most interesting culture in Europe. In brief, a fascinating fusion of various influences that the Spanish should be very proud of. Why am I saying this now? Well, a week or two ago, in an exchange with a Spanish reader, I wrote that elements of the Spanish culture reminded me of the Middle East, where I had lived for 3 years. This led to a battery of comments – one or two of them almost polite – suggesting I was not only an imbecile but also a racist. For reasons beyond my comprehension, I was alleged to have said that all Spaniards were descended from Arabs. Surely a racist comment in itself, given the attitude behind it. Anyway, there were two basic camps of infuriated reader:– 1. Those who insist the Spanish are not only pure Celto-Iberians but also the progenitors of almost everyone else in Europe, particularly the Brits. Nothing has happened since Celtic times to change this, and 2. Those who believe that 700 years of occupation by the Moors has left no trace whatsoever on Spain and that any similarity with other cultures is pure coincidence. Well, It’s not, of course, a new or original thought that Spain’s culture reflects various influences and here are a few relevant quotes from page 1 of a 30 second Google search . . .

The Spanish culture of today has been reinforced by the strong influences of the Roman, Jewish, Moorish and Muslim cultures that have lent a distinct charm to the culture of Spain. Each aspect of the Spanish culture - its cuisine, religions, festivals, language and literature is a living proof of the myriad influences that make the Spaniards proud of themselves.

Many Spaniards would probably not be very happy to admit this but Spain's culture and ambiance owes its uniqueness to the influence of the Middle East. Although some traces of Arabic influence have been wiped out over the centuries, they will never be completely purged from what was once a strong Muslim-owned country.

The Moorish period lasted 700 years and their presence led to the forging of the Spanish culture and identity. And, although Spain hasn't been a center of Muslim learning and culture for over 500 years, the presence of Muslim (and Mudéjar) architecture to this day attests to the profound mark left upon Spain.

If you want to read more, click here, here and here. May I suggest that those readers who are enraged by this sort of thing direct their venom in the direction of the web sites quoted.

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