Thursday, January 31, 2008

Even my Anglophile friends here are outraged Spain wasn’t invited to the weekend financial crisis summit hosted by Gordon Brown in London. Goaded, of course, by the media, they see it as typical British arrogance. What really hurt was the presence of Italy, whose economy – insists President Zapatero – in now smaller than Spain’s. As will be those of France and the UK – he promises – by around 2010. How all this fits with continuing massive EU subventions is rather beyond me. But, be that as it may, my suspicion is what really got under the Spanish skin was being told they were represented – like all other EU members – by the head of the EU Commission. Who happens to be from under-performing little Portugal, next door.

Talking of the Spanish economy, the more I read of the promised €400 rebate, the more I suspect someone made it up on the spot. For, those to be denied this annual return of their own money are now said to include not only the self-employed but also people who pay very small amounts of tax, pensioners and folk who live off their capital but pay tax on interest thereon. I’m left wondering whether the target – assuming one was ever defined – are the young people who earn only around a thousand euros a month - the famous mileuristas. But, since these are all young enough to vote instinctively for the Socialists, this wouldn’t make much sense either. So, I’m lost. But it’s interesting the proposed measure has been engulfed in criticism from both sides of the political divide. President Zapatero has finally realised, I imagine, that you can actually displease all the people all the time. At the moment, it’s called The Sarkozy Strategy.

And talking of Brussels, its latest dig at Spain is to criticise the high fees of her notaries. As I’ve said before, these people – virtually unknown in the Anglo world – are the equivalent of lawyers here in terms of status and income. Though I suspect they do rather better when it comes to popularity. Given the Spanish obsession with paper and with proving your identity, they’re an inescapably regular feature of life here. For one thing, both parties to a property transaction are compelled by the state to use a notary. The same one, as it happens. It’s not an easy qualification to get, they say, but once in situ it seems hard to avoid making a fortune, especially during a 10 year property boom. Plus the profession – as with pharmacists - operates like a medieval guild. So competition is not exactly tough. Hence the high fees. The defence of the notaries’ association to the charges from Brussels was an interesting one – We are cheaper for clients than in a liberal economy like the UK’s. Which nicely ignores the facts that no one uses a notary in the UK and that lawyers do rather more for their clients than notaries do. But, anyway, I can’t see much change taking place in Spain for a decade or three. Especially if the PP’s Rajoy gets into power. He and all his siblings are notaries.

A special Tourism section in yesterday’s El Mundo offered advice on what you could do in various places around the world. For the UK, the paper suggested – naturally - a trip to Liverpool and participation in one of the country’s numerous sporting activities, such as el fútbol, el rugby, el rafting, el cheese-rolling and . . . . el zorbing. Which turns out to be “an activity where riders enter into large inflatable plastic balls and ride along the ground, on water or down hills.” It originated in New Zealand, the country which brought us el bungee jumping.

I often wonder who Spain’s equivalent of the UK's officious Health & Safety officers might be. One candidate must surely be the people who implement Language Normalisation policies in places like the Basque Country, Cataluña and Galicia. Ours have just announced that funeral directors should do a lot more to ensure proceedings are in Gallego rather than Spanish. And they’ve provided a helpful pile of documents to make things easier. I can’t imagine the main protagonists are all that concerned about the language of their eulogies. Unless God, like Christopher Columbus, is a Gallego. And a member of the BNG.

Mention of the weasel word Normalisation reminds me that the more I read by and of him, the greater my respect for George Orwell. Asked by the Left Review in 1937 to join other writers in saying which side he supported in the Spanish Civil War, he replied, “Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish . . . If I did compress what I know and think about the Spanish war into six lines, you wouldn’t print it.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Yesterday’s on-line edition of the Voz de Galicia had three headlines which say everything you need to know about a general election campaign that hasn’t yet officially started but which threatens to drown us in worthless verbiage of escalating vacuity:-
Aznar [last President] accuses Zapatero [current President] of buying votes
Is this a pre-campaign or an eBay auction?
Debate: Do you believe the promises of Zapatero and Rajoy?

Of the readers who responded to the last of these, the percentage saying No was a rotund 92. Which re-raises yesterday’s question of how sophisticated the voters are. Possibly not as much as those Voz readers exercised enough to express an opinion.

Anyway, it struck me last night that Zapatero’s promise to give [almost] everyone a tax rebate of 400 euros in May is a stroke of genius in one respect at least. The voters are being bribed with their own money. You have to take your hat off to him. Not much of Spain’s over-widespread corruption reaches these heights.

I see from the bill I’ve just paid that the price of my gas has risen by 22%. Maybe I’ve missed something but I don’t recall getting any advice from Repsol about this. Or even seeing anything in the media. A good old-fashioned monopoly, then. But at least this whinge allows me to introduce some good news from Brussels. The EU Commission intends to publish details of companies who charge different prices across Europe. Brits will be pleased to know they’re paying twice as much for electricity as the Belgians and the Greeks. One wonders why. But it’s nice to see the EU doing the sort of thing the original ‘common market’ was supposed to be all about. Fifty years after it all began.

If you’re a reader of the UK’s Times, you’ll have seen the Spanish police last week arrested a group of Pakistani Islamic extremists who were planning to explode bombs on the Barcelona underground. But, if you take the Telegraph, you could well be unaware of this incontrovertibly newsworthy development, as the paper chose not to cover it. Again, one wonders why. Is it one more sign of the slow death of once great newspaper?

I cited the other day a few unfamiliar English words I met when I first came to Spain but I forgot about endogamy. This really relates to marriage within a tribe but here is used as a metaphor for, say, the university professor who only ever recruits assistants from within his faculty and not on merit. So a mixture of nepotism and cronyism, I guess.

It’s reported the Argentinian government is prosecuting some Spanish diplomats for the illegal importation and sale of luxury cars. This is a shocking development and one’s forced to ask whether anything is sacred these days. Whatever happened to diplomatic immunity?

Galicia Facts

The Rumanian fraudsters are back on the streets of Pontevedra, silently shoving a clipboard at you and claiming to be collecting on behalf of some charity for deaf and dumb kids. But they’ve clearly done some Spanish market research since last time round, when the collectors were – as I recall - middle-aged, overweight and dressed in headscarves. Now they’re young, slim, pretty, big-breasted and – of course – blonde! I imagine the police enjoyed arresting them. Again. And I guess we’ll see them back on the streets later this year. Like the buskers, they’re a more-or-less permanent feature of the city. Though rather less desirable.

There’s an awful lot of driving schools in Pontevedra, all of them charging a very hefty price for the lessons which are compulsory before you can take a driving test here. The same is true of Vigo it seems, where – strangely enough – all 60 of them were quoting exactly the same price for each option at your disposal. So it’s not a huge surprise to read that 50 of them have just been done for price rigging. But no one has yet been arrested for torching the premises of the school which set up a year or so ago and offered a lower price. And which is no longer operating.

Sixty per cent of Galicia’s town councils saw the number of foreign residents grow in 2007. In fact, there are 10 councils where depopulation has led to there being more immigrant than resident Gallego voters. And there are now so many Gallegos living in Buenos Aires with the right to vote here that the government is paying for a plane to fly over the city dragging a banner behind it exhorting them to Vote for Zapatero. Perhaps the other side says And we’ll send you 400 euros.

It’s an odd world. Thank God.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

As I understand it, the date for the start of official electioneering is a few weeks away. But you’d never know it. Hardly an hour passes without the Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition making a promise which tops that of the other an hour previously. So, when the latter said there’d be a reform of income tax levels resulting in an average 16% cut, the former responded with the statement that, if the government is returned in March, it’ll give everyone 400 euros in May. When asked why there would be a delay, one of the Deputy PMs said it was a ‘hyper-progressive’ idea which required ‘technical measures’, preventing it being paid until after the voting had taken place. I’d like to think the Spanish electorate is too sophisticated to be much affected by this Dutch auction approach to political manifestos but it worries me that people who understand the voters much better than me obviously don’t think so. Anyway, now that a limelit pork barrel has been shoved onto centre stage, it’s hard to see it being removed before polling day in early March.

Meanwhile, the government has increased its lead in the opinion polls, probably reflecting reaction to an insane row between the PP’s Madrid big names which left the Leader of the Opposition looking weak and indecisive. But, with the EU further reducing the forecast of 2008 economic growth to 2.6%, I guess there’s enough time left for the faltering of the economy to be laid at the government’s door. At least by those who are not planning to let themselves be blatantly bribed. So, another PSOE administration then.

En passant, not everyone will get the 400 euros. Remarkably – to me at least – it will be denied to the country’s self-employed entrepreneurs. As if they didn’t have it tough enough already, having to pay 2-300 euros a month in social security taxes before they have even a centimo of revenue, let alone profit.

But at least there was something to laugh at in yesterday’s news. In the face of the serious downturn in the property market, the Professional Association of Real Estate Experts has drawn up a crisis plan for its members. This is based on ‘better training and new sales techniques’. That should do the trick. Titanic and deckchairs are two words that spring immediately to mind.

Galicia Facts

Another weekend, another . . Well, you know the rest - 3am. High speed. Lamppost. Eviscerated young man extracted by oxyacetylene torches. Destroyed family.

On a lighter note, the weekend also saw the 40th annual festival of cocido up in Lalín. So it’s too late now to enjoy the spectacle of Brazilian dancing girls who might have looked more at home in Rio. Cocido is Galicia’s traditional stew, involving everything you’d expect a rural community to chuck in a large pot. And a few other things as well. One of the other delights available was grelos, which is usually translated as turnip tops. Not the most appealing of dishes, perhaps. So I wasn’t surprised to read that someone – a turnip farmer? – had insisted they’re an aphrodisiac. Just like those other unappetising offerings – durian fruit and Galicia’s own percebes. Or goose barnacles.

And the third notable event of the weekend was another fox-shooting competition up in Portomarín. Interestingly, this was attended by the police, who had to come – Brit style - between protesters and participants. However, this didn’t stop the latter bagging 69 of the creatures. Foxes, I mean.

I was wrong to say the world’s largest and naffest zebra crossing was flanked by 8 poles with green/red lights on top of them. There are actually 12. Talking of Pontevedra, I’ve learned this week the city had a four-year experiment with parking meters sometime in the 90s. So far, I’ve been proffered three reasons why these were withdrawn:- 1. they were found to be illegal, 2. the private company operating them couldn’t make a profit out of the game, and 3. Pontevedra’s drivers simply declined, en masse, to put anything in the machines. The first of these sounds rather implausible but the second two could well be connected, of course. But What is truth, asked Pilate. And departed smiling.

To end on a numerical note – Someone has pointed out that Bobby Fischer died at 64, the number of squares on a chess board. So I’m turning to astronomy.

Monday, January 28, 2008

One of our Sunday papers had a special section on Galicia yesterday, coinciding with Fitur 2008, a major tourism event. At first blush, this is very impressive, as all the information is printed in not only Spanish but also in English, French, Chinese and Persian. The first problem is that Galicia is referred to, in English, as Galice. But the really depressing thing is that the English can’t have been anywhere near a native speaker and includes such gems as There are 1,600 km of abrupt cliffs and splendid and wide sandy areas where you can enjoy of a great bath. Not to mention And finally, its gastronomy, what show the great quantity of festivities devoted to the product of this land and this sea. My French friend, Marie Helène, tells me that the French is even worse. However, the Persian looks OK to me and I think the Chinese characters are the right way up. Why on earth do they do this? Especially when they’re trying to demonstrate that Galicia is up there with the rest of the world in terms of quality and standards. Is it compulsory here to employ your niece instead of a native speaker? If so, are they aware the end result is that Galicia comes across more as a third world backwater than the centre of excellence they're trying to project? One irony is that I’d have happily done the translation for free. But, as long-standing readers will know, I’ve never been taken up on any of my offers of this nature. Sceptics tell me it’s all to do with spending the budget ‘in-house’, regardless of the consequences. Which reminds me . . .

I’ve written before about Spain’s bivalent attitude to ‘solidarity’, a popular word here. I’ve labelled the conflicting views Upwards and Downwards solidarity and it’s all to do with money, of course. In essence, Spaniards want more external/downwards solidarity from other EU partners but less internal/upwards solidarity with the lazy bastards in other regions within Spain. The latter attitude is, of course, most prevalent in would-be independent Cataluña. And possibly in the Basque Country as well. But nationalists in poor Galicia can’t afford to take this line. To prove it, the President of our nationalist party fell over himself in Madrid last week to show he wasn’t independista. Though, of course, he admitted he wouldn’t reject the presidency of a new state if it were on offer. Obliging chap.

On a similar theme, a columnist in one of our local papers noted last week that the different fiscal regimes being introduced by Spain’s local governments risked destroying the ‘unity of the market’. But I suspect this is the last thing these ever-competing governments care about. Just like the various city councils in Galicia, who prefer to compete between their respective micro-airports rather than agree on a single one to take on the competition from Oporto’s new facility an hour or so down the coast. Localism will be the death of Spain. Unless something else is.

Meanwhile, something very positive has happened in respect of the Terra email address I have. Unlike Gmail, Terra used to let up to a hundred spam messages reach my In-box. However, this has now reduced to around nil. This is an impressive achievement and, if Terra still belonged to Telefonica, I would’ve been able to break new ground and lob some praise in their direction. But, as it is, all I can report is that Telefonica this month raised its fixed line rental prices for about the 20th time since I came to Spain in late 2000.

Finally, I’d like to send some real praise in the direction of a chap called Phil Gyford, who had the brilliant idea to launch a blog based on Samuel Pepys' diary of London life in the mid 1600s. Here’s where you can see what Sam wrote on this day in 1664. And here’s what the BBC had to say about the initiative.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

At the end of a tumultuous week on the world’s stock markets, we are – it seems – back where we started. Our only gain appears to be a list of jokes about French banks and stock brokers. Otherwise, the world has possibly moved back in the direction of sanity. Or, as one British columnist puts it this morning – “Anyone wanting to borrow money now has to prove they can pay it back”.

Here in Spain, the latest bit of bad news is that, after four years of continuous decrease, unemployment stopped falling at the end of last year. However, Galicia bucks this trend as it’s still going down around here.

Better national news is that Spain not only had a million more tourists last year but they also spent more than ever. Most visitors came, as ever, from Britain and Germany but the largest increase was in respect of Scandinavian sun-seekers, followed by [North] Americans. In terms of popularity, here’s how the ‘regions’ ranked:- 1. Cataluña 2. the Balearic islands 3. the Canary islands 4. Andalucia, and 5. Valencia. We’ve a long way to go to get on this list. Thank God.

I suppose it’s because they’re going deaf that the formidable grandmothers in my favourite café/bar shout when they talk. And they do this simultaneously because they’re Spanish. Lacking the filters all Spaniards are born with, I yesterday asked the waitresses if they could suggest to the owner that the place be divided into three zones – one for smokers, one for non-smokers and one for said grandmothers. Alternatively, I added, there could be one little zone just for me. I think they thought I was joking.

Entry into Spain’s blocks of flats is normally protected via an inter-com system but I’ve often wondered how easy it would be to gain entry to at least the mail-boxes in the hall by, say, pressing all the bell buttons at once and gruffly muttering ‘cartero’ [mailman] into the speaker. Delivering some stuff to my friend Andrew when he was out last week, I confirmed the challenge wasn’t too tough.

I fancy I see more chubby kids each month on the streets of Pontevedra. And now I know why - Spaniards are getting taller and heavier. In fact, average height here is now greater than in both the USA and the UK. And average weight is up around US levels, way above that of the UK. Which comes as a surprise, given how large all young British women seem to me these days. Maybe I’m just fattist. As well as elitist.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The new houses I can see from the back of my house have had little work done on them in weeks now. This, I heard last night, is because the developer has gone bust and the builder is now trying to finish them piecemeal, financing them by sales at his [alleged] cost price. I suspect they’ll end up being offered – and possibly even sold – by his bank, after they’ve called in the loans he can’t repay. You’d have to be mad or supremely confident to buy un unfinished house in Spain right now [off-plan] but, if you want to take advantage of a price reduction from 540,000 euros to a mere 420,000, let me know. You can find the pictures here. They are the white houses, 10 and 11 down. Don’t let my use of the term ‘toilet block style’ put you off. For one thing, you can switch on your shower from a mobile phone in the UK. Or the heating, if this makes more sense. At least this was the original plan; maybe they’ve cut a few corners since then.

Naturally, I’m wondering what will happen to the 17 houses being built at the front of my house, where the Portuguese labourers are still beavering away at the easy/cheap bit of erecting the shells. The developer of these is also an estate agent in Pontevedra, though in this case he was still in business when I passed his office last night. Mind you, the window now features a long list of flats for rent. This was unattractive business only a few weeks ago, when properties were merely to be bought and sold as commodities for which the prices were spiralling upwards. Those with mortgages on their hands must now find income with which to pay them. It’s an ill wind that blows no good. Any time now, the ridiculously high rentals should start to fall as well. Necessity being the mother of invention, and all that. It’s a little ambitious to be optimistic in a market driven by a panic which is in inverse proportion to the greed which drove it upwards.

The latest TV smash hit in Spain is entitled “Without tits, there’s no heaven”. While it’s no great surprise that a program centring on breasts and plastic surgery would be a success in Spain – or, indeed, any Hispanic culture – I must check whether it actually originates in some Anglo country. The USA being the prime suspect. Perhaps it’s their revenge for “Betty the Ugly”.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Spanish Finance Minister says Spain is better placed to withstand the current turmoil in the world’s financial centres. Of course, he has to say this ahead of an election but he may well be right, as economic growth in excess of 2% would still be impressive. However, some are accusing him of complacency and my own concern would be that things that stay hidden under rocks during good times tend to crawl out when the spiral turns downwards. Take, for example, the shocking news from France today of the leakage of more than 5 billion euros from a major bank there.

Or, on a smaller but more local scale, we have the disappearance of one of our local builders, whose company has collapsed leaving 50+ employees without their salaries and more than 300 would-be purchasers without the properties they thought they owned. Not to mention the company’s defrauded creditors.

Given how boring the actual races usually are, it’s truly astonishing that 22,000 people turned out to see Formula 1 racers merely practising in Valencia yesterday. And on a work day as well. The draw can only have been Fernando Alonso. So it must have been rather disappointing he could only manage 6th place. And I see Nadal was beaten by un unseeded player in the semi-finals of the Australian Open. Not a good day, then, for Spanish aficionados.

As this is Elitist Week on this blog, here’s a web page which is said to be YouTube for intellectuals. Enjoy.

Those of less elevated aspirations will be pleased to hear that the tale of Jeremy Paxman and his unsupportive underpants made the back pages of El Mundo yesterday. For those with no knowledge of British TV, Paxman is the BBC’s main attack dog on a nightly news show. I’m reminded of advice given to me when contemplating a bit of public speaking as a nervous teenager - “Just imagine them all in their underwear, regardless of how important they are.” I can’t recall whether it worked back then. But, over the years, I’ve found it’s certainly effective in respect of pretty women, pushing fear right back to the end of the emotional queue. Assuming two emotions constitute a queue.

Galicia Facts

A total of 835 wild boar incursions were reported by Galician farmers last year. However, fed up with just devouring easy-to-access crops, these aggressive animals – the pigs, not the farmers - have now taken to attacking drivers on the motorways. Or at least getting in their way. It’ll be wolves next. Which are, sadly, not as good to eat after you’ve run over them. But they do less damage to your car. And are easier to roast.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

One of the positives about Spain is that political discourse here is not dominated by the sort of divisive, poles-apart arguments re public versus private health and education that are such a permanent feature of British life. Here, there’s a well-established and uncontroversial mix of these and it seems to be readily accepted that, if you work hard enough - or are just plain lucky - there’s nothing wrong with using the private sector. In this regard, Spain resembles, I think, most other Continental European cultures. And the irony is that, although the arguments in the UK are driven from the Left in search of equality for all, Continental societies are generally rather more egalitarian than the UK’s.

Another – related - positive is that Spanish society doesn’t abhor the notion of an elite. This, again, contrasts sharply with the UK, where the concept has long been anathema. But pendulums swing and even worms turn. Writing in the same January issue of Prospect Magazine I quoted from yesterday, Paul Lay goes so far as to heap praise on the BBC Radio 3 for its ‘unashamedly highbrow” Sunday schedule and to describe this return to its traditional strengths as ‘brave’ and ‘bold’. This follows the encouraging news in the December edition of Prospect that figurative painting is now permissible again, after 100 years of ‘modernist art theorists and critics” prescribing what artists could and couldn’t produce. Light at the end of the tunnel perhaps. But hard to see the British serious press ever hauling itself back upmarket.

To complete a trio of quotes from January’s Prospect – Ivan Krastev addresses the rise of populism in central and eastern Europe, introducing such phrases as ‘provincial troublemakers’, the “paranoid style of politics” and “eternal fascism”. It struck me that each of these could be said to have an echo in Spanish politics, the first being the various nationalist groups; the second being the Catalan government; and the third being the label which the Socialists pin on the PP right-of-centre party. So I was left wondering whether Spain shouldn’t, therefore, be cast off at the Pyrenees so it could float across the Med and up the Adriatic coast, where it would take its rightful place with Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia as a central rather than southern European state. In due course, when Cataluña, the Basque Country and Galicia achieved independence, they could move a bit further south-east and become Balkan state-lets. Which should satisfy everyone, I feel. Except, of course, you could almost guarantee one of them would start the Third World War. Back to the drawing board. Perhaps we’d better stick with Spain of all the Spains.

Overnight, someone has arrived at my blog after using the search term asshole Brits. God knows why, especially as the results are accompanied by this phrase - The word "asshole" has been filtered from the search because Google SafeSearch is active. Nice to know.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Just before Christmas, a Spanish friend I met for coffee told me he’d wanted to invite me to the annual pig-killing event in his village in the hills outside Pontevedra but I’d been out when he’d called. I expressed regret but was inwardly relieved and when he asked if this sort of thing went on in the UK I felt pleased to be able to say it didn’t. But now an article in Prospect magazine advises that the early-winter slaughter of pigs used to be a ritual throughout Europe but is now largely confined to Eastern Europe “where subsistence agriculture is still alive”. And, I would add, to those parts of Spain and other rule-averse places where the EU’s “cold hand of regulation” is honoured more in the breach than the observance. And where they don’t yet have the UK’s poisonous mix of gold-plating bureaucrats and officious government employees keen to justify their salaries and quite happy to deprive others of their livelihood in the process.

En passant, the article provided a clue as to why the waiter in the Brazilian grill declined to give me scraps for stray dogs a week or so ago. Under EU rules, only waste vegetables can be fed to animals. Not meat. Even if you’ve just eaten most of it.

Going further back, I was excoriated by several readers a few months ago for suggesting the invention of the dome came from the Muslim world. I was forced to concede it first appeared in earlier cultures, probably somewhere near present day Baghdad. But my belief had been based on something I’d heard when living in Iran many years ago and I’m pleased to say I’ve now stumbled on a paragraph in Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana which gives me some comfort – The palace of Ardeshir, founded at the beginning of the 3rd century AD, is a landmark in the development of building. Its revelation of the squinch, a simple arch across the angle of two walls, coincides with the appearance of the pendentive pier, in Syria; and from these two inventions derive two primary architectural styles, in the wake of two religions: medieval Persian, branching into Mesopotamia, the Levant, and India; and the Byzantine-Romanesque, spreading to the confines of northern Europe. Previously, there was no means of placing a dome on four square walls, or on a building of any shape whose outside area much exceeded that of the dome itself. Henceforth, a dome became possible for buildings of all shapes and sizes. The Christian expansion of this possibility reached its height in St. Sophia at Constantinople, and began a second life with Brunelleschi’s dome at Florence. The Mohammadan is waiting to be mapped, by anyone who can keep his temper among the jealousies of modern archaeology. But one thing is certain. Without these two principles, architecture as we know it would be different, and many objects familiar to the world’s eye, such as St. Peter’s, the Capitol and the Taj Mahal, would not exist.

If you want to argue with this, please start by telling us what on earth a squinch is. And then move on to the pendentive pier. But, if you want to disagree with what I've written because you think nothing good ever came from the Islamic world, please don't bother.

Meanwhile, the Spanish stock market has recovered a little from what one paper called a hecatombe on Monday. This turns out to mean merely ‘disaster’ in Spanish. Which compares with Webster’s definition of the English word hecatomb as:- 1 : an ancient Greek and Roman sacrifice of 100 oxen or cattle 2 : the sacrifice or slaughter of many victims. So, another false friend.

Descending from all this educative stuff, I pose a much more relevant question – Is there anything noisier in Spain that a table of six grandmothers taking a coffee? Possibly a table of six grandmothers snorting coke.

Finally, a request to my Galician nationalist contributor[s] . . . A young reader doing a dissertation on Galician nationalism needs citations of relevant web sites in English. Suggestions welcome. I might even read them myself.

Postscript for architecture buffs: "The dome of Hagia Sophia has spurred particular interest for many art historians and architects because of the innovative way the original architects envisioned the dome. The dome is supported by pendentives which had never been used before the building of this structure. The pendentive enables the round dome to transition gracefully into the square shape of the piers below. The pendentives not only achieve a pleasing aesthetic quality, but they also restrain the lateral forces of the dome and allow the weight of the dome to flow downward." Wikipedia.

Postscript 2: Before anyone writes in, the Dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy has additional meanings for hecatombe, in line with the English usage:-
1. Mortandad de personas.
2.
Desgracia, catástrofe.
3.
Sacrificio de 100 reses vacunas u otras víctimas, que hacían los antiguos a sus dioses.
4.
Sacrificio solemne en que es grande el número de víctimas.
But, in consolation, there is a real false friend among the definitions. Unwanted dogs get sacrificed by vets in Spain.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The number of deaths in the Spanish workplace fell by 11% in 2007, the largest reduction in ten years. This is said to be due to an increase in safety inspections. Not before time, obviously.

Another interesting piece of recent news is that rural tourism in Spain has increased by 93% over the past five years. This will be welcome to those Brits who’ve bought properties in the hills of Galicia with the intention of setting up a B&B/casa rural. Which, as far as I can tell, is just about all of them.

Several Pakistanis have been arrested in Barcelona, in connection with a planned terrorist atrocity there. Spain is said to be at the top of al-Qa'eda’s hit list and one wonders why. Is it the Andalus factor? Or do they just think the police are less efficient here? I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.

I read last night that Another knock-on effect of the fall in the construction sector is the loss of jobs among electricians and plumbers across the country. I wonder if this means the one I’ve been waiting three months for will now turn up. Or whether he’s still too busy working on the numerous sites I can see from my windows. Where’s the bloody slowdown when you need it?

Election Special

The PP party says every child in Spain will be bilingual within 10 years if they get in. Or trilingual in the case of those who have Gallego, Basque or Catalan as well as Spanish and English.

The PSOE Socialist party says it will raise pensions wholesale.

And the Galician Nationalist Party says we’ll have the AVE high-speed connection with Madrid within a week of it being put in power.

I only made one of these up.

Galicia Facts

Although the region’s depopulation is taking place primarily in the rural hinterland, there’s one spot on the coast where things are pretty bad. Here, only 25% of the population has work. Appropriately, it’s called the Costa del Muerte, or the Coast of Death. Or Costa do Morte, if you prefer Gallego. It’s a Celtic tradition to have one of these.

The Pontevedra town council has an approach to urban development which is probably best described as a mix of modernist and traditionalist. What this means is that they sometimes get it very right and sometimes very wrong. An example of the former is the way they’re landscaping the area around a new archaeological site they’re keeping open to view down by the river. Examples of the latter include the monstrous new museum in sheet granite and glass and the repulsive street furniture made of what I think is galvanised zinc. To be added to these must be the world’s largest and ugliest zebra crossing. This is massively wide and rises six inches above the road on either side of it. As if this weren’t enough, it’s flanked by eight metal poles about three feet [90cm] in height, the tops of which flash red and green in sync with the traffic lights. Of course, our council is a coalition of socialists and nationalists so it’s possible the split personality of urban development is down to this. Though I can only guess which is modernist and which traditionalist. The nationalist-controlled town of Allariz possibly provides a clue. Anyway, if and when my digital camera recovers from Sudden Death Syndrome, I will post a picture or two of at least the zebra crossing that thinks it’s a Christmas decoration.

Monday, January 21, 2008

It’s good to be able to start the week with something positive. On Saturday – for the first time in seven years – a supermarket assistant volunteered help, as I trawled through the spice jars in search of ground coriander. And this wasn’t in the basement of a snobby El Cortés store. Or even one of their superciliously poncey Gourmet Clubs. No, it was in one of the branches of Galicia’s down-to-earth Froiz chain. I shall return!

Sunday was even better. After two weeks of rain, spring paid us an early visit and I dined out on my weekly squid and Albariño bathed in warm sunlight and the sound of bagpipes. But I wouldn’t want to give the impression to would-be emigrants that life is good here. No, the weather is foul, the food atrocious and the people abominable. Honest. Stick to visiting in July and August, when you might just see a bit of sun. Unless my younger daughter is visiting.

Parts of Spain continue to depopulate and, according to El País, these are all down the country’s western border. My solution would be to do the obvious thing and offer these to Portugal. Especially those contiguous provinces of Galicia where they speak a sister tongue. Too simple, I guess.

I mentioned the other day that American spell-checks fail to recognise ‘mayoress’, though they don’t [yet] have any difficulty with ‘actress’. I guess, then, they’d really struggle with ‘sheikhess’. Or even ‘sheikh-ess’. I’m led to this observation by chancing on the Spanish word jequesa, the feminine version of jeque. Except it isn’t, as there’s no such thing as a female sheikh. So jequesa actually means ‘wife of a sheikh’. For which there is no equivalent single-word concept in English. For sheikhs or, indeed, any male office holder. Though I’ve just had this thought that the wife of a mayor in the UK is called the Lady Mayoress. Which is, at least, two words. So, Lady Sheikhess?? Enough of this.

Talking of language - When I first came to Spain in 2000, I met several words or phrases new to me. These included philology, false friends and phrasal verbs. English-speaking Spanish colleagues were astonished I didn’t know what the last-named were, despite them being the bane of their lives. As for false friends, these are words that are similar in two languages but with different meanings. So, for example, gambas are prawns here but legs in Italy. In Spanish, suceso is an ‘event’ and impresionante means ‘shocking’ as well as ‘impressive’ or ‘moving’. Which is why a local paper referred to last weekend’s terrible accident in Vigo as un suceso impresionante. Which brought me up rather suddenly, if fleetingly.

Galicia Facts

Another weekend, another youth crashing in the early hours of Saturday morning after a high-speed drive through the centre of one of our towns, this time Lalín up in Lugo province. A mere five times over the drink limit. And driving a powerful, expensive car at 21.

Spanish newspapers reported this week that syphilis was taken to the New World by Christopher Columbus. Since, around these parts, he’s believed to have come from my township of Poio, this gives us yet another claim to fame. Albeit one that’s a tad dubious.

Talking of depopulation – There are said to be 700 villages in Galicia with only a single inhabitant. Which can’t be a lot of fun. Though I guess it saves [denies?] you the traditional Galician pastime of feuding with your neighbour over a few square centimetres of disputed land.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Yesterday’s Travel section in El País had a very sympathetic piece on Liverpool, the EU Capital of Culture, of course. Or one of them. A lovely chap called José Luis de Juan wrote of Liverpudlians that “They are so open and amusing, they don’t seem to be British”. For fun-loving Spaniards, this short sentence contains both the greatest compliment and the biggest insult one could possibly make about other people. He goes on to add that “The city’s elegance doesn’t obscure the working class character of the city and its hard-working and un-starchy people, who know how to enjoy themselves better than anyone else this side of the Channel”. Who am I to argue? Even if he does get his Scouse and Scousers mixed up.

I regularly say the attitude to risk in Spain marks it off from at least the UK, and possibly several other societies as well. This is not to say I endorse the British situation; I believe sanity lies somewhere unattainable in the middle. There’s been another story in the UK media this week about the excesses of the Health and Safety Executive [HSE] in respect of plastic swords in an amateur stage production. This has led one columnist to make this easy-to- agree-with comment - We hold the HSE in such low regard that we presume this story is probably true. The agency is a laughing stock, albeit a rather sinister one with despotic powers. And they only have themselves to blame. Through their bossiness - and their determination to justify their salaries to the taxpayer - they have created a climate of paranoia and excessive caution, one that has left people fretting about risks previous generations deemed acceptable. I suspect we’re at least a decade off this here in Spain. Possibly even two. Thank God.

Mr Brown has been at it again in the UK, acting as the president he isn’t. This time in respect of MPs’ salaries. As someone has written of these fine people - They should possibly be paid less but the subject has got nothing remotely to do with him. That this argument will sound rather old-fashioned to many Britons is more proof that in the New Labour years we have lost any collective understanding of constitutional propriety. It is simple: Parliament is sovereign. Its affairs are none of the Prime Minister's business. His presumptions about human behaviour are essentially statist. We know this, so we should be very wary when he blurs the line between himself, his Government, and Parliament's business. The Commons should not be the creature of Gordon Brown or David Cameron: it is ours. Too late to do much about this, I’m afraid. Especially as national parliaments in the EU have less and less relevance. Urinating against the wind is an image which springs to mind.

Quotes of the Week

In England we never mean entirely what we say. Do I mean that? Not entirely.
Alan Bennett.

Politics – show business for ugly people.
Unknown

Galicia Facts

The excellent news of the weekend is that the Xunta is going to ensure we have a real commuter train service along the coast, between La Coruña and Vigo. This comes on top of the welcome assurance that the AVE high-speed train connection with Madrid really will be operating by 2012 and not, as some sceptics insist, by 2014 at the very earliest. But, hang on. Don’t we have an election coming up . . . . ?

In the UK, the best place for learning the Galician language seems to be Bangor University. For one thing, they have a Centre for Galician Studies in Wales and journal dedicated to ‘contemporary Galician studies’. This is called Galicia 21 and its first issue will appear in August this year. I fancy this is a little later than originally planned but no matter. The Contemporary Galician Studies course probably includes a module on something like Learning to Live with Delays and Waiting. Meanwhile, if you’ve been interested in this paragraph so far, here’s something really relevant - A escritora e investigadora María do Cebreiro Rábade Villar inaugurará entre o 23 de febreiro e o 22 de marzo unha iniciativa que procura a promoción da cultura e a lingua galegas no Reino Unido. Helena Miguélez, profesora galega na Universidade de Bangor, indicou que a María do Cebreiro lle van facilitar contactos coa cultura galesa, e actividades que supoñan visibilidade para a cultura galega naquel país.

Finally, lots of numbers . . .

Pontevedra may be the cheapest provincial capital in Spain when it comes to buying a flat but prices rose more, they say, in our province than in any other in Galicia last year. For the record:-
Pontevedra – 8%
La Coruña – 6%
Lugo - 5%
Ourense – 3%
These compare with a Galicia average of 7% and a national average of only 5%. All those Brits buying up in the hills don’t seem to be making much of an impact in Lugo and Ourense provinces, unless prices would have fallen without them. Which I guess is possible.

When it comes to euros per square metre for a new flat, here’s how the Galician cities rank:-
Vigo – 2241
Santiago – 2095
La Coruña – 2095
Pontevedra – 1951
Ourense – 1459
Lugo – 1383
Ferrol - 1119

And to complete this data-fest, here’s how the population figures were for the cities at the end of the year, in thousands of heads:-
Vigo – 295
La Coruña – 244
Ourense – 107 [Down]
Lugo – 95
Santiago – 94
Pontevedra – 80
Ferrol – 76 [Down by 2%]

So, for low prices and reducing demand on public services, Ferrol is your destination. Ignoring all other considerations. Which may or may not be wise. Lord Henry might like to comment . . .

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Spanish media is as adept as any in Europe at portraying the UK as a reluctant, parsimonious EU member which takes more than it gives and, in doing so, steals the bread from deserving Spanish mouths. The truth is that Britain makes a large net contribution. Bigger, in fact, than that of France. Until recently this was 2.8 billion pounds a year but one of Tony Blair’s last acts in power was to virtually double it to 5.5 billion. Some feel this is not unconnected with his ambition to become the first EU President. And who’s to say they’re wrong?

Talking of beliefs . . There are some in Spain who think that possibly everyone in the world and certainly everything good in it descends from the Celto-Iberians. More specifically, from those who once inhabited their village. Closer to home, there are some in Galicia who insist this region/nation is an island of Celticness in a sea of, shall we just say, non-Celts. I might have known this latter nonsense is all the fault of the Brits. For it appears that, in the 19th Century, the 12th century French myth of the fisher king and the holy grail was resurrected in England and dressed in handy Celtic garb to help foster the notion of Britishness. And, indeed, the notion/nation of Britain. Which, of course, is exactly why the Galician nationalists do it today. You’d think they’d get their own bloody forbears. Like the Visigoths, for example. Though these certainly are a less colourful bunch, albeit a bit better known than the earlier Swabians. Who actually left even fewer traces than the even-earlier [pre-Roman] Celts. At least when it comes to language. Anyway, if you want a flavour of the sort of thinking I’m talking about, try here. I love the victimist sentence - Monarchical absolutism, Catholicism and official Castilian culture were to be the three driving forces that would [unify] Spain and [kill] Galician culture. Presumably like Scottish, Welsh and Irish cultures were killed by forced union with imperialist England. Couldn’t possibly just have faded away until it was re-vitalised by the Romantics of the 19th century. Who jumped on the Celtic bandwagon.

By the way, one of the main reasons why the ancient fisher king myth fell out of currency for a few hundred years was the success of Cervantes’ Don Quijote. Time to blame those awful Castilians again

A while back, this blog went through a period when hits were over 200 a day, as against a norm now of 140-170. At the same time there was, firstly, a flurry of insults [in both English and Gallego] aimed at me and, secondly, the bizarre practice of regular commentators having their identity ‘stolen’ for the purposes of tendentious comments. So, I finally added the requirement that people register their names and I also introduced a special email address - thoughts.from.galicia@gmail.com – to which readers so inclined could send their opinions and/or insults direct to me. Strangely, not a single email has been received in several months. So, I’m left with the conclusion that many of the hits to my blog were from idiots merely checking to see whether their inane comments had been published. What a strange [cyber] world.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Amidst all the bad news about the economy - job losses in the construction sector to be 350,000, many more estate agents to close beyond the current total of 40,000 – there is at last some good news. Tourism grew by 2% last year, to 60 million. Confirming Spain as the No. 2 destination in the world.

The Spanish tax office says the 1.2% difference in Spain’s inflation rate over that of the rest of the Eurozone is down to black money. They add that more than 25% of all the 500 euro notes in circulation in the Eurozone are in the Spanish market, amounting to 56.4 billion euros. It’s estimated that this ‘submerged economy’ represents 23% of the total GDP here, whereas in the rest of Europe it’s only 10%. The result, it’s claimed, has been a ‘spiral in consumer spending’. Which may well now be over, as in the UK.

To complete the black picture, El Mundo chose the same day to tell us that Spain is the main country in the world for money laundering from cocaine trafficking. Thanks, it says, to the strength of the euro.

There’s been a lot of coverage of what everyone calls the ‘valiant’ attempt of the Spanish Olympic Committee to find words for the national anthem. Some feel silence is the best option but others think another attempt should be made. I agree with the latter and think it would be best to start with a title. Here are one or two suggestions. Others very welcome:-

Rivers deep, mountains high

Hey, you! Get off my cloud!

Every time we say goodbye, and

Let’s call the whole thing off.

It’s a mad world: This week, the BBC's World Editor, John Simpson, reported under cover from Zimbabwe, where the cost of a meal for himself and some friends in a Harare restaurant was 290,000,000 Zimbabwean dollars. Ever the gentleman, Simpson left a ten-million-dollar tip. In this nightmare state, as Simpson put it, "everyone is a millionaire", yet also, "grindingly poor".

Galicia Facts

There is, it seems ‘another type of baseball’. This is billarda and you can see film of the recent World Championships here and here. If you are part of the Galician diaspora, the second one will surely induce morriña. Anyway, it looks fiendishly difficult to me.

Anyon e know ho w to fix a malfunnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnctioning wirelesssssssssssssss keyboard that issssss driving me to deeeeeeeath? Or at least distraction.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Well, I did say that it was only possibly the winner of the competition . . . After a fire-storm of protest from all quarters, the proposed lyrics for Spain’s wordless national anthem have been withdrawn from circulation and the gala event at which they were to be sung by Plácido Dominguez has been summarily cancelled. Too many mentions of Fatherland [Patria], apparently. But then, such is the antipathy to the concept of Spain from its constituent nations and nation-ettes, just one would surely suffice for this to be achieved. I am now working on my own anodyne composition. And wondering whether I should mention tortilla. And prostitution and corruption. Only joking . . .

If you read the Comment columns of the UK Daily Telegraph, you’ll see there’s a reader who regularly beats everyone to the punch, sending in his thoughts to several writers early each morning. He’s called Graham King and yesterday he complained that some of his views were being blue-lined by the paper’s moderator. He should be so lucky! My own comment of Monday never even saw the light of day. And I was merely asking if this Graham King was the same chap as a man with the same name serving a murder sentence down on the Costa del Sol. My reasoning was that he clearly got up very early in the morning and had quite a lot of time on his hands. Not so much a blue pencil as a pair of scissors in my case.

The big news in Spanish politics at the moment is that the popular PP mayor of Madrid will not be given a position in any future PP government. In UK terms, this means the Drys [the Thatcherites, perhaps] have bested the Wets and confirmed their control of the party. Whether this a good thing as regards election prospects will shortly be demonstrated. Meanwhile, the Spanish media – using the same terminology as on its Sports pages – has headlined the ‘signing up’ of a major industrialist by the leader of the Opposition, to serve as the Minister of Finance or something similar. I guess this happens in the USA as well but in Britain it would be strange for a non-politician to achieve this prominence in a government. Well, it used to be but in Mr Brown’s ‘government of all the talents’ it may soon cease to be. If it hasn’t already.

Returning again to the dreadful accident in Vigo at the weekend . . . One of the reckless imbeciles involved was driving a 2.8L BMW and the other an Audi A3. Neither of these would normally be associated with the earnings potential of 20 year olds and, when you ask how this can be, the answer you’re always given is that the [often powerful] cars are financed directly or indirectly by parents and grandparents. When you persist and ask why on earth they would do this, the answer is they want to show the world they’re no longer poor Galician peasants. If this is true, I guess the phenomenon of kids effectively being killed by their own family is more prevalent along the coast than up in the poorer hills.

I had two examples of non-poncey driving within the space of a few seconds yesterday morning. Firstly, the local bus decided to pull out from a junction right in front of me, forcing me to brake and then follow it as it wound at a snail’s pace down the hill towards town. As I did so, I was overtaken by a Porsche Carrera which crossed a solid white line so as to pass both me and the slow-moving bus. Right on a Zebra crossing in the latter case. I didn’t see whether the driver of the latter had a mobile phone to his ear but he usually does.

I have to admit I don’t watch much Spanish TV. Even less Galician TV. One reason for eschewing the latter is that, being funded by the Xunta, it goes in for a lot of what you might call ‘nation building’. Yesterday this featured Maria Pita, a heroine of La Coruña who helped to fight off some marauding British horde in 1589. This may be a bit unfair but, at times like this, I feel this is what it must have been like to live under a Communist regime. Or in, say, Iran in 1975 and Indonesia in 1983. Things will change when I’m President of the Xunta in 2018. We’ll have no more ant-Brit propaganda, for a start.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Another arrogant Anglo rag, The Financial Times, wonders whether President Zapatero hasn’t been a touch hubristic in boasting that the Spanish economy is now bigger per capita than Italy’s and promising to make the Spanish richer than the French. The paper sees a ‘serious correction’ as inevitable and also touches on some of Spain’s unaddressed underlying problems, such as low productivity. Finally, it makes a couple of recommendations as to how he might go if re-elected. You can read it all here. Incidentally, President Z has accused the Opposition of being ‘unpatriotic’ in endorsing doubts about the economy. This is surely a strange claim in a Western democracy. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear, say, President Chavez of Venezuela use it. But the President of Spain? Can he really think the voters are that unsophisticated? Or has he just lost touch with reality? Though in a different way from President Sarkozy. As far as we know.

If you were a Martian visiting Spain and wanted to be scandalised, you could do worse than shove yesterday’s El País into Google’s Spanish-to-Martian translation program and then read, firstly, the 2-page special on prostitution and, secondly, the article about the head of the Castellón council. The former tells us the already-huge sex industry is growing apace, fuelled by the ever-larger number of very visible establishments, the absence of social stigma and the demand for instant gratification on the part of young men who can’t even be bothered to chat up the women who these days are just as willing to sleep with them as even the notorious Swedes. But who might just expect a bit of commitment. And perhaps longer than 5 minutes. The second report relates to a hard-hitting election ad put out by the PSOE party in Castellón, pointing the finger at the current president of the council and asking the voters questions like:-
Do people make you gifts of land and houses?
Do you have more than a million euros in 39 separate bank accounts?
Did you forget to make tax return last year?

Truth to tell, prostitution and local government corruption are two massive stains on Spain’s national character but there seems to be little evidence that anyone wants to do much about them. My own view is that nothing will happen about the scandalous prostitution industry until Spanish women take up arms against it. But I see no sign of this happening. As for the corruption, I’m lost for a view and fear increasing devolution of power will only make it worse. At least in the short run. Maybe I’ll stand for mayor when my Spanish nationality comes through. And I am fluent in Gallego. Though I would, of course, be willing to be bought off.

Yesterday the wind and the rain came at us in full off-the-Atlantic force. Walking across the bridge into town – which acts as a wind tunnel – the thought struck me that it’d be good training for anyone who wanted to cross the Atlantic in a zinc bath. Especially as passing drivers decline to take the poncey option of slowing down to avoid drenching your legs and feet when they aquaplane through the puddles. And on the way back, it occurred to me that whoever invented the umbrella was probably the first person to realise human flight was possible. At times like this, the only compensation is the amusement afforded by the sight of dozens of twisted umbrellas abandoned in the town’s rubbish bins. Well, it make me smile anyway.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Spanish government would like its citizens to consider retiring later than 65 and so offers financial incentives to encourage them to hang on until they’re 70. The challenge it’s up against is that a study by La Caixa bank suggests only 25% of Spaniards over 50 currently plan to wait until they’re 64, never mind 70. And yet the same study – done in 2006 – showed there was deep concern about the economic future of Spain even before things started to slow down in 2007. Surely some dissonance here.

You may be shocked – especially if you live on Merseyside – to hear that Liverpool is not actually the 2008 EU European Capital of Culture. Or to put this more accurately, Liverpool is not the 2008 EU European Capital of Culture. For there is another one as well – Stavanger, in Norway. Now, those on the ball will wonder how this is possible when Norway isn’t even a member of the EU. I can’t pretend to understand these things. I can only tell you that the EU Commission has designated Liverpool the EU European Capital of Culture and Stavenger the Non-EU European Capital of Culture. About which you can read more here and here. And this is a report on the battle to determine which port makes the best stew. Or, to put it another way, the best foreign version of Galicia’s cocido.

Showing just how devalued the word has become in Spain, someone from the IU party this week labelled the leader of the Opposition ‘fascist’ for proposing a Minister for the Family. As Gordon Brown has one of these in the UK, this makes him an extreme right-winger as well, I guess. Which would probably comes as a surprise to those who see him as a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. But the IU is a communist party so presumably instinctively labels everyone else Francoist. If not actually Hitlerist.

Correction: I was wrong to say yesterday that the appalling incident in Vigo over the weekend involved a car that was double-parked. It involved both a car that was double-parked and one that was triple-parked. But I don’t suppose their owners will be convicted of something as serious as culpable negligence. If anything at all.

Incidentally, last night I asked a group of Spanish friends about the lax attitudes of the police to things such as illegal road racing and street bingeing, even when there were regular complaints from residents affected. The consensus appeared to be that Spain’s live-and-let live attitude leads to levels of tolerance which are sometimes dangerously excessive. “We just don’t know when to say No”, said one. To which the response from another friend was – “No. We know when to say No. We just don’t like to do it.” Which I suspect is rather more accurate.

The Spanish parliament was prorogued yesterday and will next meet after the early March elections. I don’t know whether we’re yet in the official election period but this is clearly irrelevant as all the parties have been in election mode for months now. The right-wing [and therefore ‘fascist’] paper ABC claims the government’s recent attacks on the Catholic Church will cost them a million socialist faithful. If so, it will surely not retain an absolute majority in the next legislature, even if it wins the elections. And perhaps the President of the Galician National Party will then achieve the ambition he boasted of this week and become the most important power-broking party in Madrid. God help us.

Meanwhile, house prices continue to fall and The Economist has lowered its 2008 growth forecast for Spain to 2.4%, which contrasts sharply with the government’s latest number of 3.1. This difference may seem small and 2.4% is still impressive but the truth is that a fall from 4% in 2007 to 2.4% in 2008 will be painful for some. Perhaps many. Those involved in La Caixa’s 2006 research may well turn out to have been prescient.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Changing Spain? At the end of a large restaurant meal on Saturday, I asked the waiter if he’d give me the ample remains for the abandoned dogs which are a feature of the woods behind my house, especially after Christmas. He expressed regret and said the heath laws precluded this. I wondered later whether he’d have said the same if I’d asked for the meat for myself. If so, we now have the situation where you can get ‘doggy bags’ in the ultra-litigious USA but not in the somewhat more laissez-faire Spain. What is the world coming to?

Which is a question which raised itself again yesterday when I read that the ‘modernised’ Scouting Association in the UK has introduced a proficiency badge for Public Relations.

The word maruja [maruxa in Gallego] is defined in my dictionary as ‘traditional housewife’ but I’m told it usually conveys the pejorative meaning of ‘gossip’ and/or ‘obsessed with housework’. Or even ‘dedicated to serving the males of the household’. I mention this because last night in the old quarter of Pontevedra I passed a clothing shop with Maruxa above its door. Looking at the items in the window, I felt it'd be hard to imagine contents more in keeping with the negative connotations of the word. So, could the name of the shop be ironic? Or an example of the Galician humour called retranca? I suspect not.

Seeing the headline Sicko above a column in a local paper last night, I assumed it was a clever allusion to the antics of the love-sick President Sarkozy, often called Sarko in France. But it turned out to be a reference to some film by Michael Moore. So, a wasted opportunity.

Galicia Facts

Foreigners represent 4% of the population of Pontevedra province. Of the Non-EU variety, the list is headed by Colombians, followed by Brazilians, Moroccans, Venezuelans, Argentinians, Ecuadorians and Uruguayans. In descending order, the EU foreigners hale from Portugal, Italy, Romania, France and Germany. We Brits don’t even rate a mention. But I imagine the situation is rather different up in Lugo and Ourense provinces, where we will outnumber the reducing natives by 2050. By which time the area will be known as the La Costa del Miño y del Sil.

There is not much namby-pambiness about ‘cute’ foxes here. This weekend saw the Provincial fox-hunting championships and a total of 39 carcasses were featured prominently in the local press. As ever, there were vets on hand to verify that some of them hadn’t actually been shot a couple of days previously.

There was a road accident in Vigo over the weekend which had all the usual elements – early hours of Saturday morning; two youths in their 20s; an Audi and a BMW; speeds in excess of 100kph in a 50 zone; and, finally, the death of two people. Except the corpses weren’t of the two young cretins but of a middle aged couple whose Citroen AX was hit head-on by the Audi. The very Spanish elements of this tragedy were that the youths were engaged in an illegal road race in the middle of the city and the accident happened when they both swerved to avoid a car which was illegally double-parked. There has since been a massive street demonstration by residents against the races they say have long been a feature of their barrio. The police will now presumably do something to stop these, leaving me wondering – as I regularly do – why it often seems to take a death in Spain before the authorities act like they have some authority. I doubt that a cost-benefit analysis lies behind their inaction and continue to wonder whether it’s the fear of appearing ‘fascist’. Which may well be nonsense on my part but I struggle to come up with anything else. Possibly the absence of an ability to sue the local police chief for culpable negligence or something similar. Anyway, the Voz de Galicia is now asking readers to report other illegal races so perhaps action will now be taken before more deaths occur. Let’s hope so anyway.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

It was a good day for me yesterday. Not only was I offered a miracle anti-mad-cow disease product to make a fortune from but the ex ‘personal aid’ of Mrs Benazir Bhutto wrote to say he had 46 million euros to find a home for and offering to give me some of it. Who says this blogging lark isn’t profitable? Incidentally, I wonder whether a ‘personal aid’ is the same as a ‘personal aide’. Or whether it’s some sort of sex toy.

I guess history will decide when it was that the UK system of government became quasi-presidential. Under Mr Blair would be my guess. This thought is prompted by the saturation media cover of the last 24 hours of the fact that Gordon Brown ‘favours the use of human organs without the prior consent of their dead owners’. Well, who cares what Mr Brown thinks? He is only primus inter pares in a cabinet at the head of a government administration, not the elected UK President. I suspect we’d only have to go back as few as 10 years to find the British media saying “The government proposes . . .”, rather than “Mr Brown thinks . . .”. And I guess the Labour Party must feel it’s a good thing to have every idea and policy associated with a ‘strong and experienced’ leader, as opposed to the wet-behind-the-ears toff in charge of the Opposition. But this is no reason why they should be allowed to get clean away with it. Most obviously, of course, by lazy journalists.

Pontevedra’s magnificent old quarter has several lovely little squares, my favourite being Vegetables Square. This is where I take my Sunday squid and Albariño, surrounded by the stalls of the weekly flea market. About six years ago, it suffered what I saw at the time as a bout of municipal vandalism, when the old trees were all uprooted and the ancient, uneven flagstones were replaced by boring, brand-new, flat ones. But these have weathered and the new trees have grown remarkably quickly. And, aided by the towards-the-centre table-creep of the bars and cafés down its side, the square had developed a wonderful all-season ambience and become a popular all-hours place for people of all ages. But the town council last week suddenly installed eight wooden benches in spots which look suspiciously like they were chosen to force the tables back to the threshold of the bars and cafes. As a result, the square is now a wonderful place for parents and kids to gather and play, with which it's hard to quarrel, of course. But something has been lost apart from the profits of the bar owners and this is a shame. And the question has arisen of how the Sunday stalls will now be erected around the bench fixtures. I would have checked today but the Galician weather gods have decided to compensate for the dry last four months of 2007 and have been pouring the Atlantic over us for the last 24 hours. I very much doubt that anyone even considered putting up a stall today, benches or no benches.

Picking up on yesterday’s Footnote – Here’s how the American dictionary, Merriam-Webster, treats the word ‘mayoress’:- 15th century. Chiefly British. 1: the wife or official hostess of a mayor; 2: a woman holding the office of mayor. So it's not banned, just unusual.

Still on words . . . There’s an awful lot of granite in Galicia but I wonder whether I’ve ever seen any granite-slap. Or, indeed, any granite transformations. My suspicion is each of these is related to kitchen surfaces but I’m not sure. And I don’t suppose I much care. But I have to end this post somehow.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

As I’ve written a couple of times, one gets rather used to people calling each other brazen liars in Spain, especially in politics. But it’s still a shock to read that one of the Vice-Presidents accuses the Catholic Archbishops of ‘lying and showing a lack of respect to the legitimate authorities’. There must be an election to be won.

I wrote about the Spanish national anthem last June, saying there was going to be a competition for the words it desperately needed. Well, here’s someone’s translation of the winning entry. Possibly. Some politicians have sniffed that parliament needs to have the final say on this weighty matter:-

Long live Spain!
We sing it all together
with different voices
and a single heart.

Long live Spain!
From the green valleys
to the immense sea
A hymn of brotherhood.

Love for the homeland
which embraces
under the blue sky
peoples in freedom.

Glory to the sons
who History will
bless with justice and greatness
democracy and peace

Personally, I am with the newspaper I quoted back in June - The winner will have to perform a feat of lyrical genius to satisfy Spain’s myriad political, religious and nationalist factions. The result may well be a piece of politically correct doggerel that neither offends nor rouses. Frankly, there’s not much else to say about the [alleged] winner, is there?

Moving on from anthems to flags . . . . Each of Spain’s 17 or 18 Autonomous Communities has both of these. And I suspect each Province in each Community has its own flag, though probably not an anthem. And down below these are the municipal councils who must feel a tad left out. For I’ve just read that 28 of Galicia’s councils are currently waiting for designs from the country’s Heraldry Commission. Spain must be awash with bloody flags. I must check whether there‘s one for my street. Or at least for the community in which I live.

And talking of councils and regional governments – The mayoress of Sanxenxo has defended the decision to licence hundreds of houses near the coast and said the Xunta has no right to tell them what to do in urban matters. Since corruption tends to increase as one moves from the national to the local level, what this means is that the least corrupt have no power over the most. Which is a general comment, of course. I have absolutely no idea whether the Sanxenxo council is corrupt. Though the last mayor – a property developer – is currently facing charges of skulduggery in relation to rent-protected properties illegally sold by his company at a large premium. This, though, hasn’t stopped him standing as the mayor of Pontevedra. And doing quite well.

More Galicia Facts

I recently wrote [again] that, thanks to local rivalry, our 3 airports were uncompetitively small. Well, one of them is about to get even titchier. La Coruña is losing its Easyjet flights to and from Madrid. Which represent 6% of its passenger numbers.


Finally - For lovers of the Spanish language, here’s a new Wiki site you may find both interesting and useful – www.wikilengua.com I should warn that El País says it’s more Wiki than Lengua but I don’t really know what this means. The site itself has this ‘Mission Statement’ - Un sitio abierto y participativo sobre las dudas prácticas del castellano y un medio para reflejar la diversidad de una lengua hablada por cientos de millones de personas.

Footnote: Word’s Spellcheck doesn’t recognise mayoress. Presumably you can’t say it in the USA.

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