Friday, October 31, 2008

That bastion of Anglo Saxon arrogance, The Economist magazine, has a review of Spain which begins as follows. It is difficult not to like Spain, not to enjoy the atmosphere of such a civilised society and not to admire the achievements of its people. In under 30 years, Spain has emerged from dictatorship and international isolation, built a successful economy and established an effective democracy. Perhaps no other European country has achieved so much, on so many fronts, so quickly. Yet Spain is also slightly ill-at-ease, slightly lacking in self-confidence. That was true even before the terrorists' bombs of March 11th that shook Spaniards to their bones, and the ruling People's Party of José María Aznar from the seat of government that it thought it had a lock on for another four years. Things were not altogether composed even then, and they are certainly more complicated now. . . Sadly, this is all I can get without a subscription. But I can be reached on colindavies@terra.es should any kind soul want to send me the whole thing . . .

As I've said a few times now, whatever else it is or isn't, Spain is the most anti-American nation in Europe. Here's Trevor's almost-serious take on this, over at Kalebeul.

What with my annual medical and dental checks ups, this was my week for jabs. At the hospital lab, the guy is so good it's almost a pleasure. And he has an excellent bedside manner besides. That said, I was geared up for him to again ask me the question he must put to all Brits - "Ah, you are English. Did you know that Alexander Fleming was from a small village in England". But, no. Instead, he asked me if I lived in Combarro. Perhaps he remembered me telling him last year that Fleming was a Scot.

As someone who's told the filthiest of jokes - to both men and woman - throughout his adult life [and who laughed himself silly at jokes about lobsters and [?]Jayne Mansfield's bottom 30 or 40 years ago], I like to think I don't take a terribly moral view of what the inane Brand and Ross did on their BBC radio show. Rather, I feel they - and the BBC - failed to realise, though hardly for the first time, that there's a time and a place for everything. The fact that most Brits under 30 find them hilarious is irrelevant. Though rather sad when it comes to cruelty and personal abuse. In short, these obscenely overpaid clowns are part of the coarsening of British life which has depressed so many of us for at least two decades now. Here's a paragraph or two from a British columnist who puts everything in its widest - and most appropriate - context:- Loutishness in the British male is nothing new; to an extent it is in our national DNA and partly explains the nation's military success. But only in more recent decades has it been celebrated by sources of authority: the nation's public service broadcaster and a slew of magazines and advertisers. The tenor of most mainstream comedy, and other entertainment, has become abusive and the tone of much of the national conversation is now glib and cynical. This change started in the 1960s and ever since the liberal ratchet has turned only one way. The ultra-liberal analysis was that bourgeois behaviour and manners had to be attacked and broken down steadily as they stood in the way of freedom. Free from any constraints, ran the theory, we would become happier. Value judgments over whether Shakespeare was superior to EastEnders were out and anyone emphasising the importance of the bonds of family was shouted down. "Pushing the boundaries" became the priority of many modern artists, comedians and authors rather than entertaining or enlightening us. The ultra-liberal assault has relied, successfully, on the idea that we all wanted a little more licence to do as we pleased compared to our parents' generation. It hasn't been without benefits. Who does not have a friend who was able to disentangle himself from an unhappy marriage he once would have been stuck in for life? Or a gay friend or relative who lives a life unpersecuted in comparison to that of others just 40 years ago? Yet, when broadcasters and millions of individuals decide there are no limits to acceptable behaviour, we are in trouble. Beyond the boundaries of conventional manners, which involve consideration for others and decency, is not a land of happiness without limit and boundless expression, but a great deal of anarchy and cruelty. Manners and codes of behaviour are traditionally what humans construct to protect themselves from such an onslaught, and the Ross and Brand affair demonstrates what happens when they are abandoned.

As I say, those who find Brand and Ross funny and feel the reaction has been hysterical are rather missing these points. But, then, they do tend to demand age and, therefore, maturity. Plus the courage to take on the liberal establishment. As with multiculturalism and the place of the family in society, it has only recently become possible for anyone to do this without being labelled racist, elitest or whatever. Thanks to Brand and Ross - and a recession - we will surely see far more of a backlash now. No wonder the BBC has acted like a rabbit caught in headlights. The worms are turning and the licence fees taxed out of them are now at serious risk. This show will run and run.

Galicia

Asked by the Voz de Galicia whether they felt it was right for the Xunta to 'incentivise' the more productive civil servants, 43% of those who could be bothered to vote on line said Yes and 57% said No. Pick the meat out of that. Perhaps the result was biased by votes from funcionarios with time on their hands. Which woud be all of them, I guess.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Part of what I refer to as the insanity of modern Britain has been the decline in the standards of humour. But perhaps the public's reaction to the BBC's descent into slime with the execrable Russell Brand and the clever-but-puerile Jonathan Ross marks the beginning of the end of this trend. One can only hope so. Click here for a professional critic's view on the 'darkness which has yet to be lifted". And, if you haven't yet seen Curb Your Enthusiasm, I recommend you rush out to get an episode or twenty.

During Spain's 'fat cow' years, town hall politicians became rather [in]famous for the stickiness of their fingers. So it's hardly surprising they also indulged in a high level of official extravagance. This was not even noticed back then but, now the cows are thinner, it's naturally considered worthy of both considerable comment and censure. In a bow towards tabloid-type exposés, the country's newspapers are now vying to uncover just how much has been [over]spent by regional and municipal leaders on their personal appurtenances. Our own Xunta president, for example, is being taken to task for having spent millions on his office refurbishment and hundreds of thousands on his car. And on the radio this morning, a chap with an Andaluz accent was contrasting Málaga's fleet of 30 official cars with Leed's total of 3. The cities are the same size he said; so why the difference? I found myself struggling to reply.

Down on the east coast, the PP party running the Valencia region has tried to thwart the government's attempts to laicise moral instruction of pupils by having the new Citizenship subject taught in English. And, so far, they seem to be succeeding. For, as El País reports, the first exam has resulted in a 99% failure rate. There were two successful students but both had the advantage of being British. Unlike many kids in the UK, they must recognise the concept of ethics . . .

Talking of that part of the country . . . Perhaps it's because I'm a lapsed Catholic that I find it more than amusing that Valencia is about to host the first ever international congress on the Holy Grail. Needless to say, the real chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper has just surfaced, providing a real imputus to the event. There's a document which proves its provenance apparently. Just like at Sothebys.

Which reminds me - According to a cartoon in a local paper Jesús is Jasús in Gallego. But what's in a name? Especially if you're God.

I was writing only yesterday about poor customer service here and now I've just received a text message from my dentist reminding me of an appointment for tomorrow. Of course, he's private and times are tough but I'm still impressed.

Finally, if you want to get an idea of the old friend who's just been my house guest, go to Facebook and search for the Geoff Pucci Appreciation Group. There are 388 members, which is quite a tribute as they're all his pupils, past and present. Ironically, Geoff has about as much idea of how to use Facebook and, indeed, the entire internet as my border collie, Ryan. Possibly even less.

Postscript: You couldn't possibly make it up.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

As we all know only too well, the world’s banks started moving into the far riskier business of securities after they were deregulated in the early 90s. It turns out there was at least one observer capable of looking back to a similar development in the late 1920’s and highlighting the likelihood of a similar result. This was Professor Richard Dale, who wrote a book entitled “International Banking Deregulation: The Great Banking Experiment”. If all goes well, you can read more about it here. As you’ll have guessed, it wasn’t well received at the time. And was then roundly ignored.

Here in Spain, the banking industry is calling for secrecy as to which of its members gets liquidity assistance from the government. This would be unique in Europe and Brussels is yet to pronounce on whether or not it would be illegal. But El Mundo, at least, regards lack of transparency as unconscionable. It certainly wouldn’t do much to stifle suspicions there’s something nasty in the Spanish woodshed.

Talking to my visitor about Spanish attitudes to risk, I said they were, on balance, saner than those of the UK. But I added that my impression was the Spanish equated a low risk with a nil risk, regardless of the consequence of it materialising. And I evidenced this by the very high percentage of cars on Pontevedra’s hills which don’t have their wheels turned into the kerb. Sad to relate, this was rather confirmed by the report in today’s papers of a woman being killed by a runaway empty car at the bottom of a hill in a nearby village. Perhaps this will lead to a change of attitude. And perhaps it won’t.

Following-up my bit on bullfighting the other day – The Spanish TV station which normally shows live corridas says it won’t be doing so next year. The excuse given is budgetary constraints, with the hint that childrens’ TV will be getting the benefit. And perhaps the blame. Though the Spanish, of course, love kids far more than they love bullfighting.

Galicia

The world, as I say, may be collapsing about us but a meeting of a committee of the Galician parliament broke up yesterday after the opposition party walked out when one of its members was expelled for refusing to use ‘Galiza’ in place of Galicia. During the proceedings, someone called someone else ‘mosquito brain’ but I can’t be bothered to find out who and whom.

It’s a truly ill wind that blows no good and, of course, the recession is making it easier to find certain kinds of worker here in Galicia. For the record, these include carpenters, cooks, panel-beaters, lifeguards, rubbish collectors, delivery-men and masons. There must be a joke in there somewhere but I can’t find it.

Finally . . . I continue to be dogged by an electronics/IT jinx. My new laptop has a graphics card fault and, so far, I've had to make three trips to the shop just to try to get the driver fixed/updated. Or something like that. This is essentially because of two well-meant but unfulfilled ‘promises’. It’s that old customer service complaint again. And that old Spanish custom of not regarding time as important. Or the customer’s anyway.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Damn this recession. Despite scanning 5 local papers today, I came up with nothing by way of stimulus for the challenge of writing a post. It's true there are rumours about a Spanish bank in difficulties - and even suggestions Banco Santander may, indeed, have over-reached itself - but I don't want to go there. Or not yet, at least.

So here's another couple of references to articles in Prospect magazine . . .

The first of these gives an alternative view of George Bush's presidency. At least in the foreign policy context. It contains the following provocative paragraph:- Will the increasing decentralisation of Europe into regions and even quasi-states such as Catalonia and Scotland weaken the old national states sufficiently to allow the emergence of a strong pan-European government? That would also weaken the US, which now acts as Europe's only functioning co-ordinator for all that is military and diplomatic. It is also wildly unlikely in this century.

And here's an article on the importance of 'character' and the role of the family in creating it. Strange to read in a left-of-centre journal that "character may be the key to some of our most entrenched social problems." My impression was it had become criminal in modern Britain to utter views like this. But the wheel turns, I guess.

Galicia

So what can I write of topical relevance . . .?

Well, a local friend last weekend braved the scorn of her colleagues by taking a trip on Pontevedra's tourist train. Possibly she was the only passenger to know the recorded commentary was describing Plaza de la Leña when, in fact, they'd stopped in Plaza de la Verdura. And so on.

On a less prosaic level, I learned today - from a football report! - that the northern Portuguese cities of Braga and Guimaraes were once fierce rivals to be the capital of Galicia. Though I'm sure this will be corrected, if it's wrong. Or even merely debatable.

Monday, October 27, 2008

In the September issue of Prospect magazine, the actor and writer, Alexander Fiske-Harrison, provides an elegant description of a bullfight down in Sevilla and asks whether aesthetics can justify the suffering of an animal. To know his answer, you'll need to go to the article itself. But here are a couple of extracts to whet your appetite:-

The bullfight is one of the most morally contentious of all legally sanctioned activities in the western world. There is a long history of argument against the bullfight, but the most notable feature of the modern form is that it takes the side of the bull rather than the man.

There is something ironic about British families sitting down to watch wildebeests eviscerated by lions on Big Cat Diary after a nice joint of roast beef while deploring their Spanish cousins when they are sitting down to watch a bullfight. After all, while slaughtering techniques have become more humane, most of the billion or so animals killed annually in Britain are still reared on factory farms.

But it is too easy to mock this hypocrisy. Bullfighting is most interesting because it does live on a borderline between right and wrong.

Galicia

Another conversation with my old friend visiting from the UK, as we are about to depart for a school of a Spanish friend who is, like him, a teacher:-
Col, do you have a tie I can borrow?
Why, Geoff? No one wears a tie here. Miguel certainly won't be wearing one.
Yes, but I want to be properly dressed to visit his school.
No, I don't have a tie and you don't need one to be properly dressed.
But I'm not comfortable. I want to look professional.
Well, in that case, you might want to consider wearing something other than trainers on your feet.
I don't have anything else.
Well, there you go.

Walking through a village in the hills yester-evening, we greeted two octogenarian ladies outside one of the houses. Whereupon, they seized the opportunity to engage us in conversation. Entirely - I might add - in Gallego. At least from their side. Having established that I owned a nearby house, one of the old girls asked if Geoff - who's one year younger than me - was my son. When I protested and said he was a friend of 40 years visiting from the UK, she gave me a Galician village apology - Does he want to buy my house?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I guessed yesterday that President Zapatero would say nothing about the French president's current folies de grandeur, lest he lose the latter's support for his campagn to force out of President Bush an invitation to November's global finance conference in New York. El País tells us today that, in truth, Zap is concentrating all his personal energy on Sarko, seeing him as his greatest hope. So continued silence - or even support - must surely be expected.

El País quotes a German newspaper's support for Spain's attendance on the interesting grounds it was Spain who entered the crisis with the most recent experience of bank failures - in the early 90s - and so with the most tested regulatory measures aimed at preventing another one. The rest of the world, therefore, had something to learn from Spain. Which must all have been music to President Zapatero's ears. Perhaps his chances are rising. And maybe I will be making that apology in due course.

El País also has an article on 40 savings banks [cajas/caixas] here, stressing their exposure to the stalled construction sector and repeating the established conventional wisdom that mergers are inescapable.

The leader of one of Spain's national political parties has resigned his post, demonstrating considerable disenchantment at its internal workings. His parting advice was that his colleagues should try to be less 'sectarian, dogmatic and tribal'. Interestingly, the party is called The United Left.

Galicia

My UK visitor has now been here 3 days and has, alongside many positives, experienced three unforgettable negatives about Galicia. The first, of course, was the inedible pig's ear of Friday and the second two were:- 1. Tony bawling his kids off to school between 7 and 8am, and 2. Tony and his family holding a party until 5am of a Sunday morning and paying not the slightest heed to any interest their neighbours might have in getting off to sleep.

I should add he's also had the experience of being told at Pontevedra's only post office that they didn't have any stamps. Thank God for the tobacco shops.

My guest and I partook of my usual Sunday lunch of squid and Albariño down in Market Square at midday. After we'd been reading the papers for an hour or so, this little chat took place:-
Guest: Do you think we should give up this table now?
Me: Eh?
Guest: Well, are there people waiting for tables?
Me: Probably but what's that got to do with us?

Who says I'm not adaptable?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Moving on from his proposal for a European sovereign fund, President [Emperor?] Sarkozy has now suggested the EU continues to benefit from his frenetic leadership by extending France's presidency beyond the end of the year. This hasn't gone down well with a number of his [theoretical] peers, especially the president of Czechoslovakia, who's due to take over then. Apparently, Sarko thinks France is well-placed to manage the financial/economic challenges facing the continent. But Mrs Merkel, amongst others, strongly disagrees. As for President Zapatero, he needs as many allies as possible for his campaign to get to New York next month; so I suspect we'll hear little from him on this.

My impression is it's almost impossible now to call any private or public service provider in Spain without having to use a premium-rate phone line. Though Galicia's cable company, R, is an honourable exception. As - to be fair - is Telefónica. I read today that these numbers are even used for doctor appointments and, needless to say, the same applies if you call the Traffic Department to talk about an alledged motoring offence.

Which reminds me . . . The Traffic Department in Lugo which sent me the speeding notice this week is now under investigation for corruption. Rather a lot of fines, it's said, have been cancelled by calling the right [premium-rate] number, asking for Manolo and offering to make a contribution to his benevolent fund. If true, I guess it means a lot of replacement fines have had to be issued to maintain revenues. It's a rum world.

Galicia

Fifteen of Pontevedra's central streets are to be repaved, only a couple of years after the last set of roadworks were completed. I can't imagine why this is necessary, though it's reported that one objective is to raise the zebra crossings by several inches above the tarmac on either side. Which can't be a bad thing. Unless you're a driver.

A few months ahead of the regional elections, the Galician Nationalist party [the BNG] is naturally cranking up its efforts to force the PP right-of-centre party to admit it doesn't accord Language Normalisation the highest possibile priority ranking. And so is not a truly 'Galician' party nor a stout defender of the Galician people. In short - and naturally enough - it's playing the nationalist card. Inevitably there's much local discussion of the 'linguistic policy controversy' that surrounds the attempts to supplant Spanish by Gallego. But, this said, it appears to be controversial to even suggest the controversy exists, as the BNG insists it doesn't. Nor the supplantation policy itself. Against this, there was a letter in El País earlier this week setting out chapter and verse to prove that it does. So you pays your money and takes your choice.

Friday, October 24, 2008

According to the writer of this article, blogging as we knew it is dead because we amateurs are being displaced by professionals. Or, as he puts it - "The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge." I can't say whether he's right or not generally and I'm not sure I even agree with him that, despite this development, we can still be guaranteed to draw "the Net's lowest form of life - the insult commenter." Even here in Spain I no longer have the pleasure of these gentlemen visiting my blog. About which I am not totally happy, of course.

For a blogger like me, who gets his inspiration from the newspapers, a bigger problem is that the news is so unremittingly bad at the moment. Everything actually or potentially whimsical has been driven from sight. Which means that, as yesterday, I'm forced to resort to personal matters.

So . . . I have a very old friend visiting this week. As a graduate in French and Spanish and a teacher of both for more than 40 years, he's keen to throw himself into the local culture. Which is why today be became the second visitor in 8 years to ignore my counsel and to try the local speciality of pig's ear. And, of course, the second not to finish it. Now he's refusing to accept that a fluent speaker of Spanish can easily understand Gallego. Between you and me, this is because he's stumped by something we've just read on a wall - Abride as escolas e han pechar os cáceres. Fortunately, I was able to put him right. See, I am bilingual without even knowing it . . .

Here in southern Galicia, the October weather continues to be spectacular, in contrast with that of most of the rest of Spain. My daughter in Madrid tells me the last couple of weeks have been like living in the UK. No wonder she's a bit down.

I see Briatore had done a 360 degree turn and now feels that Hamilton is the man to bet on for the Formula 1 championship. Which rather contrasts with last week's statement that he was bound to fail about because he "had learned nothing". But it's all good publicity for a sport which has the intrinsic capacity to bore one to death.

If I were a betting man, I think I'd be wagering against Sr. Zapatero making it to New York for next month's global conference. There appears to be a massive Spanish diplomatic offensive taking place but the problem is that, vis-á-vis American decision-makers, President Zap has already been offensive enough. Recoges lo que has sembrado, perhaps. If this is bad Spanish, you can blame my visitor.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I received in the mail today a photo of the back of my car and an assertion the driver of it had committed a speeding offence in a street in north Santiago I've no recollection of ever being in. Allegedly, this happened in February, eight months ago, but there's nothing on the the photo tying it to the separately-detailed information on time and speed. Maybe there'll be a second photo providing some sort of proof once I've admitted it can only have been me in the car. I certainly hope so as, otherwise, the system would be wide open to abuse. Especially in difficult times when, as I've said, councils are desperately seeking replacement revenues from any conceivable source. Meanwhile, though, the incident certainly backs up yesterday's comment that justice moves slowly here.

As it happens, this would be only my second infraction in more than 40 years of driving, Some readers may recall the first was in January of this year. So two offences within a month of each other. I'm beginning to feel persecuted. Perhaps I'd better drop the comments about the recklessness of some Spanish drivers. And the regular references to my near-death experiences on the 12-24 zebra crossings I negotiate each day.

But only a fool thinks life is fair and the better personal news is that, although my Catalan neighbours haven't spoken a word to me in 8 years, they appear to be affording me free WiFi internet access. So they can't be all bad. Meanwhile, on the other side Tony is back from the sea and is bawling at his best. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

Finally - For some reason, hits to my blog today rose from an average of around 200 to more than 300. Which is a tad ironic, as I rather felt I couldn't come up with anything interesting to comment on. Though I will leave you with the advice than pigging yourself on horseradish sauce has much the same effect as consuming all the garlic-rich oil in which zamburiñas al ajillo are cooked - a night much disturbed by hallucinatory dreams and a practical consequence which reminded me of the joke about the mechanic who drank the fuel from a Concorde plane and was glad the following morning he hadn't lit a match during the night.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Spain's judges and court secretaries held a short strike yesterday. It was apparently both a protest against government interference in the judicial system and a demand for more resources. The courts here are renowned for being slow and inefficient but this may well be because Spain only has half the EU average number of courts for its population. And because, as someone said on the radio yesterday, the Tax Office and the Social Security Ministry may well have superb 21st century IT capability but the courts operate just as they did in the 19th. Happily, I wouldn't know whether this is fair comment or not.

President Sarkozy is not terribly popular here at the moment. For one thing, he's seen as the person primarily responsibe for keeping President Zapatero out of next month's global conference on how to repair the financial system. For another, even the left-of-centre El País is unimpressed by the Frenchman's suggestion that the EU creates sovereign funds which would invest in strategically important European industries to stop them being taken over by non-European operators. The paper sees this as a dirigiste model which has already failed in France and as an inappropriate response to the crisis.

As for said upcoming conference, President Zap has inisisted the voice of the world's 8th economy - 7th in a month or two, perhaps - can't be silenced. Which is surely right but the question remains open as to which pulpit it will be issuing from. President Zap says he's confident he'll eventually be invited so we wait to see whether his relentless optimism - "What crisis?" - will be borne out on this issue.

The Spanish - a recent survey tells us - are not eurosceptic but are becoming increasingly eurocritical. Which is something I've always predicted for when the good times were over and the money flowed not just elsewhere but in the reverse direction. The EU, it seems, now ranks low in personal affections, coming fourth after one's town, one's region and even Spain. Though this may not hold universally true in Cataluña, the Basque Country and even pockets of Galicia.

Galicia

Listening to classcial music on BBC Radio 3 this morning, I was surprised to hear a short and gently-spoken tirade against the capaign to oust English from Wales in favour of Welsh. The speaker was a Welsh writer who felt the country was now mired in a 'neo-fascist nightmare' which was denying it the development of poets and writers of the calibre of Dylan Thomas. He ended with a plea that everyone went back to the drawing board and started again from zero. No chance, I thought. The genie is out of the bottle. Prices have to be paid for linguistic hegemony. These things cannot be left to choice in any self-respecting nation. Or even would-be nation. And, if there is to be any choice, it has to be preceded by quite a lot of compulsion. Perhaps this is what the chap meant by 'neo' fascist.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

I paid my annual visit to the Spanish version of the BBC's Celebrity Come Dancing last night. I have to confess that fifteen minutes were as much as I could take. But from this I tentatively concluded these are the preferences here, in comparison with those of the UK:-
- Ageing - if not already aged and decrepit - celebrities, rather than young and lithe ones
- Simpler choreography, which is somewhat less taxing for the competitors
- A much higher ratio of chat to dance.
- An undisciplined panel comprising non-expert fellow celebrities who interrupt and argue with each other at some length, who laud every performance and award marks of 7 and 8 where there might be 2 or 3 in the UK
- A garish backgound of flashing lights
- An excitable audience which gives a standing ovation to an ex bullfighter in his 60s whose only achievement has been to manage to get one foot in front of the other at a desultory pace.
Whether this says anything at all about the respective cultures, I couldn't possibly say. But, with all the talking instead of dancing, I will admit I was again reminded of someone's comment that TV in Spain is 'radio with pictures'.

Not everyone suffers in a recession, of course. Right now in Spain - and possibly elsewhere - pawbrokers, clothes-menders and knackers' yards are doing great business. And TV viewing has risen - allegedly - by a full three and a half hours a day.

Galicia

Some British friends yesterday got in touch with the chap who's the local representative of a dolphins association. They offered a donation towards its costs and were met first by a complete silence and then by the plaintive question - "Is this a joke?". Anyway, they duly met up and he turned out to be truly dedicated to his cause. He's only too willing to give a talk to the Anglo Galician Association but is generally less positive about publicity. Not everyone, it seems, is happy to have these creatures swimming in the estuaries. Especially those with nets.

Monday, October 20, 2008

When you first come to live in Spain, among the oft-used words/phrases you quickly realise you don't know are 'philologist', 'phrasal verbs' and 'oposiciones'. As the first two are English, your ignorance will shock your Spanish friends. But they'll be more tolerant of your lack of familiarity with the third. Though not much, for they play a huge part in the life of Spaniards - in this part of the country at least. The same is true - incidentally - of the office of notary. Spaniards will steadfastly refuse to believe that no one in Britain ever uses one of these. But I digress . . .

The oposiciones are the [reputedly tough] exams which you need to pass to get the holy grail of employment in Spain - a job as a civil servant with the local or national government. Readers - whether Spanish or otherwise - will have their own view on these but my impression is they're a significant industry with benefits to a number of parties:-

1. For the regional government [in our case the Xunta], they provide an opportunity to:-
- Generate income via fees,
- Promote the local language via the inclusion of a compulsory module,
- Impose a standardised [Royal Academy] local language requirement on those who've learned the wrong form of it at home,
- Massage down the real unemployment total,
- Make it more difficult for people from outside the region to take local jobs,
and finally
- Through the local marking process, to ensure friends and relatives do well.

2. For the students, they:-
- Allow you to pretend to study while actually having a good time at your parents' expense,
- Permit the truly serious - or incompetent or lazy - students to justify living with their parents until they're 35, and
- Open up employment opportunities which are better paid and less taxing than those in the private sector, most obviously in teaching.

3. For educational establishments they provide revenue from courses for just about every job under the sun which a local council could offer. Including, I suspect, street-cleaning. Though I could be wrong on this.

All in all, the oposiciones are a long-established Spanish institution which serves a number of interests and so could be around for many years yet.

Moving from Spain to Britain, tonight I asked the three teachers to whom I give a weekly conversation class to list the three characteristics that define Brits for them. And here they are:-

More polite
Show more solidarity with the less well off
Greater interest in/concern for nature

More punctual
Queue more
Care less about their appearance

Better organised and more efficient
Quieter
Wear socks with their sandals

My impression is they were trying to be nice. For the most part.

As someone who claims to be a Galicianist and a supporter of the promotion - though not the imposition - of Gallego, I have to admit to ambivalence about a leaflet distributed to school kids today. This comes from the Xunta and is entitled As Lenguas No Sistema Educativo: O Novo Decreto 124/2007. Essentially, it expands on the theme that those who know Gallego as well as Spanish are better off than those who only know the latter. Effectively, therefore, those who only know Spanish should have Gallego imposed on them until such time as they can - with equal knowledge of each - freely decide which one they want to spend the rest of their life speaking. Possibly both, of course. Though the leaflet is only in Gallego.

As an aside, I don't suppose anyone could have foreseen that it might be a hostage to fortune to quote Iceland as a place which has benefitted from a plurilingual education policy. Though it would be ridiculous, of course, to suggest this contributed to the country's recent bankruptcy. Except by ensuring at least one person there could understand just enough English financial jargon to buy toxic investments. But not enough to be able to understand the phrase "Never borrow short and lend long".

Sunday, October 19, 2008

It was interesting to read in El País today that the regional Spanish savings banks [Cajas/Caixas] are far more exposed to the struggling construction industry than their larger national bretheren. And that only a minority of them actually produce any public accounts. So no one really knows how they're doing and which of them are candidates for voluntary or enforced fusion. Whether across regional boundaries or not. As for Galicia, the relevant member of the Xunta has said we're best served by keeping Caixa Galicia and Caixanova separate. Though this may be more of a political than a commercial view. Ya veremos.

Here in Spain, there are certain 'micro' vehicles you can take on the roads without any licence. Not to mention driving lessons. I saw a showroom full of some of these this morning, going under the mark - I kid you not - of Sulkycar. There was even a pick-up truck and, though this photo bears the name Casalini, the one I saw had a Mitsubishi badge on the cab. Perhaps you do need a licence for these, even if the engine is only 538cc.

President Zapatero may be may not be making a state visit to Cuba, depending - it seems - on whether it can be established that things have improved there as regards individual rights. I tend to the view that, even if the place became a haven of liberties overnight, President Zap might just have more important things on his plate right now.

I see Lewis Hamilton didn't live up to the billing of Briatori and crack under self-imposed pressure and/or the concerted efforts of his opponents in today's Chinese Grand Prix. Given what Alsonso has said this week about doing what he can to ensure Hamilton doesn't win the championship, I wondered what the latter felt when the former [disingenuously?] congratulated him on his victory during the weigh-in. As for Alsonso himself, I share the view of this writer that he's brilliant but unsportsmanlike. An opinion I'm unlikely to change if Spanish readers write to say what an arrogant, cheating bastard Hamilton is. Even if they're right.

Galicia

Pontevedra's council failed this week to get any takers for some pieces of land re-zoned for development. As a profitable sale was assumed in the annual budget, this will only add to the woes of reduced tax revenues from property transactions. Our counsellors are surely - and suddenly - discovering how different it is to manage decline, as opposed to growth. Good luck to them.


Finally - An interesting statistic, from Propect's October issue. 23% of Germans believe the US government was behind 9/11. Compared with 5, 8 and 15 in Britain, France and Italy, respectively. And only 12% in Egypt. Sadly, there's no number for Spain. I'd guess it'd be higher than in Italy. Possibly even Germany.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The big political news of the moment is that the Spanish government - finding itself strapped naked to a [pork] barrel - has made last-second concessions/bribes to the small Basque and Galician nationalist parties in order to get its 2009 budget approved in the face of universal opposition. The Galician BNG has come away with more than 100m euros for the development of infrastructure here, which will certainly come in handy as a triumph to crow about in the upcoming regional elections. Indeed, the party's president is already telling us Galicia is a greater country today than it was yesterday. The lesson is obvious. If you are a budding politician in, say, Andalucia, you should start a new nationalist party and wait for your chance to play the game of beggar-my-neighbour.

Well, I've received my October issue of Prospect but those of August and September really do seem to have disappeared into the maw of the great Spanish Summer Slowdown. Or Stop, in the case of the Poio sub-post office. I guess I could waste an hour or so going down there to ask them to trawl through the sacks lying around but it's a lot easier and quicker to email the fine people at the magazine to ask for replacements.

A Spanglish challenge:- 1. What is the difference between un bossing and un mobbing? And 2. Do either of these words exist as nouns in any form of English?

Galicia

The tiny UPyD party says it will pitch for some seats in our spring elections, aiming at those voters who are fed up with the socialist-nationalist coalition and who particularly resent the linguistic policy of the latter. Just what we need - more fragmentation. Or is it democracy in action?

Meanwhile, the owners of the tiny, in-trouble Lagun Air company have offered their 3 planes to the Xunta, so the latter can set up Air Galicia. Well, if we're going to get greater and greater under the BNG, we will certainly need this symbol of our stature. Even if it does lose bucketfuls of money. Galicia's population is about the same as that of Britain's North East Region. So, guess this would be on a par with setting up Newcastle Air.


Finally, an insight into the humour of the late Tommy Cooper. Who had this little chat with the Queen back in 1964 . . .
"I say, Your Majesty - may I ask you a personal question?"
"As personal as I'll allow," the Queen replied.
"Do you like football?"
"Not particularly."
"Well, could I have your tickets for the Cup Final?"

Friday, October 17, 2008

I heard an interview with the PP president of the Madrid region - Espe Aguirre - on the radio this morning. If nothing else, she's an able politician. Which is not necessarily a compliment, of course. But I was somewhat distracted by the mental image of a shadowy figure in the background chucking bricks, hurling darts and sticking needles in a voodoo doll. At first I thought it was Graeme from South of Watford but then I realised I don't know what he looks like. So it might well have been her party leader, Marion Rajoy.

The financial crisis - Here's an article for all those who think the British got too bloody arrogant under the boastful Messrs Blair and Brown of New Labour, written by a [breast-beating] member of that party, I believe. And here's a brief comment from the estimable Daniel Hannan on GB's Master-of-the-Universe rescue plan. Finally, here's something for those with a serious interest in bank performances to get their teeth into. Surely there's someone out there who can make a better fist of informed analysis than I could. Charles?

There's a love-in going on at the moment between said Gordon Brown and President Zapatero, essentially because the former supports the case for the presence of the latter at an upcoming meeting of the politicians who allowed the world to get into its current mess. At their own meeting this week, they agreed on the continuing importance of fighting global warming but I wonder whether President Z was rude enough to admit he doesn't share GB's belated conversion to the nuclear option. Or perhaps he felt it would be embarrassing to remind the British premier that his country's nuclear industry would soon be entirely in the hands of the French. Who already own much of the UK's utilities industry, of course.

I mentioned yesterday that football was Spain's primary unifying force. So, you'd think that with something this important the TV scheduling would allow for at least a bit of match analysis, either in the middle or at the end. Or both. But with Spain v. Belgium - an excellent match - what we got was neither. Just ads and then straight into the following program, which had been repeatedly trailed during the game. Money talks. Boringly in this case.

On the question of unity [and banking . . .], someone has said they hope Spain's infamous 'localism' doesn't get in the way of sensible Caja/Caixa mergers across regional boundaries. Fat chance, I would have thought. Especially a fusion of operations in, say, Cataluña and Castile y León.

I've long wanted to write this - Spain is different . . . . Some folk can presumably recall what they were doing at the time. Possibly because of the irregular motion of the train. Don't you just love the bit about the regulations.

Galicia

The Galician Nationalist Block [the BNG] has upset its coalition partner by suggesting that - the economic crisis notwithstanding - the big issue of the moment is getting all the local parties to re-state their commitment to the 'normalisation of language'. And why not? There's an election coming up and these things must take precedence over, say, unemployment. Though only today this was reported to again be the number one concern of the Spanish public. Not all of whom have a vote in Galicia, of course.

Finally, here's more about the book I mentioned yesterday.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

This is an article on the financial crisis which seems rational and cogent. The problem is the writer was lampooned in the last edition of Private Eye for his shifting opinions over the last 10 months. So who or what to believe? Ahead of reaching a conclusion on this, you might want to see another article by the same writer, who compares Gordon Brown to President Galtieri and introduces an amusing turkey analogy into his financial analysis.

I guess there's more than one Spanish reader who's upset at my scepticism over claims that Spanish banks are more robust than any others in the entire world. Well, I will be quick to apologise for this, should events prove the assertion valid. Meanwhile, here's how I arrive at my viewpoint:-

Q. Are Spanish bankers smarter than any other in the world?
A. Possibly.

Q. Are Spanish bankers less greedy than others in the world?
A. Probably not.

Q. Is Spanish banking ruled by better regulations than anywhere else in the world?
A. Possibly.

Q. Are the Spanish famous for obeying or for ignoring rules and regulations?
A. Err . . . .

Q. Have Spanish banks been implicated in illegal activites such as secret offshore funds?
A. Yes, I thinks so.

Q. Are Spanish banks routinely involved in fraudulent real estate deals?
A. Yes, I think so.

All in all, this process doesn't inspire confidence in me. Nor, I suspect, in other Anglos and perhaps some Teutons as well. Personally, I'll even go further and say I suspect that Banco Santander is overreaching itself. But only time will tell and, as I say, I will be quick to recant and apologise if my views prove undfounded.

Meanwhile, President Z has confirmed that Spain will 'probably' see some bank mergers quite soon. Though these may well be confined to the Caja/Caixa [savings bank] sector. It comes to something when Madrid is jumping on the bandwagon of the Galician Nationalist Party.

Controversy continues to rage here around the UEFA sanction on Atletico Madrid for recent crowd trouble at their ground. The most sane commentators think the punishment was harsh but accept that the Spanish game has to get its act together, at least as regards racist incidents. And that if the allegation of Anglo-French conspiracy - now aimed at kaiboshing Madrid's Olympics bid! - might be a tad exaggerated, it is not completely without foundation. Well, maybe. But I was amused by a Voz de Galicia columnist's take that, whilst harldly anyone agrees with anyone else in Spain as to what their patria [homeland] is, everyone in the country - including politicians - immediately leap to the defence of Spain's real patria - football. For which we must all thank the Gods. For without it, what on earth would keep Spain together?

Galicia

I've said a few times that the concept of time is different here. Arriving at Vigo station at 5.30 tonight for a 6.15 train, I was surprised to see that it was indicated to be Salida Inmediata. Or
Immediate Departure. Perhaps 45 minutes is immediate here.Or perhaps it just means Next in this context.

Author's note: I've written this post in a WiFi cafe. The woman at the next table seems to think her baby is deaf. I fear that he soon will be.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

You may have read that the England football team is averse to playing in Madrid because of racist abuse the last time they did. And that Atlético Madrid is to be penalised by UEFA for a spot of trouble when they played a French team at their ground a while back. There seems to be a widespread view here that this is an Anglo-French conspiracy which reflects fear of the might of Spanish football and envy of Spanish success elsewhere in the sporting world. So, not much to do with actual events on the ground. This might, of course, be true but, given how rarely these two inveterate enemies agree on anything, it seems rather unlikely. But, should Hamilton win the Formula 1 championship, this should clinch things in favour of Spanish conspiracy thinking.

The average Spanish salary is reported to be some 34% below that of the EU as a whole. Or it was when the survey was carried out a year or two back. Worse, the gap has been widening. I guess this is a consequence of the dilution of the Spanish average by the lowish salaries of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants needed for the now-dead boom. So, statistically at least, things could improve as unemployment rises or the new workers accept the government’s financial inducement to become emigrants. It’s an ill wind . . .

Needless to say, the highest salaries in Spain are paid to the clever people who go into banking and financial services. Or they used to be. This, too, might change now.

Spain’s only large department store, El Corte Inglés, is to launch a cheap brand name [‘Aliada’] for its food, ‘drugs’ and perfumes. If I’m any judge, the prices will still be above those of other outlets. The store says it might also extend the exercise to its pet foods. Which reminded me of a visit earlier this week to a pet shop in Pontevedra in search of food for my grass snake. Behind the counter was a showcase stuffed with dog collars studded with all sorts of [I guess] fake jewellery. But they had none that would fit a snake. Other than a full boa constrictor or python, of course.

The official estimate of unsold properties in Spain at the end of the year is now 930,000. The article in which I read this spoke of these being joined soon by places started a year or so ago. Not to mention those near me on which work began more than two years ago. And which doesn’t look like being finished for at least another two.

Galicia

A lawyer friend here acts for Brits buying houses in Galicia. A month or so ago she was complaining that client numbers were down because of the fall in the pound and the economic downturn. But, suddenly, things are on the up again, as a result of what you might call The Second Wave - buyers who are keen to sue fraudulent agents and builders. As they say, if you use a lawyer, it’s expensive. If you don’t, it can be even more so. But I would say that.

An Englishman up in A/La Coruña has written a book called “Everything but the squeal”. I think it’s a sort of tour guide dedicated to the many variants of the Galician traditional pork stew, cocido. But I will write again when I have more details. Unless he beats me to it.

Which reminds me – We now have 62 members at the Anglo Galician Association Forum. Which you can visit here.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Spanish government – which is socialist – says it won’t be emulating the British government – which is also socialist – in taking shares in the country’s banks. These, it continues to stress, are more solid than those elsewhere. However, the Spanish government will set up the mechanism for doing this, just in case it ever needs to change its assessment.

Close to home, the [even more socialist] Galician Nationalist Block has seized the moment to propose discussion of the future of the region’s major savings banks – Caixa Galicia and Caixanova. This is not, some say, a prelude to their take over but more likely to their fusion. It’s also said the development is merely a reflection of the eternal struggle for politico-economic power between the regional Xunta, on the one hand, and the provincial and municipal authorities, on the other. But, whatever it is, the timing is perfect. Every bank in the world is under a microscope right now and no one’s going to gainsay discussion of any bank-related matter. However ignorant and self-interested the interlocutors are.

One thing that confuses me is that – if the core problem is that the banks have money but won’t lend it to each other – how can giving them more of the stuff be the solution? Anyway, someone else with questions – such as If the Spanish banks are so solid, why does the government need to set up a fund and guarantee deposits? – is Luis Ventoso of the Voz de Galicia. If there’s no link here, you can read him in the Vidas Ejemplares column of today’s Voz on - www.lavozdegalicia.es

These, of course, are times for massive dollops of cant from politicians of all stripes. Gordon Brown, through the Private Finance Initiative, keeps zillions of pounds of liabilities off the national balance sheet but lectures bankers on probity. And EU bureaucrats talk of transparency and honesty. If it wasn’t so serious, it’d be hilarious.

The Spanish Minister for the economy now admits there’s the possibility of a recession here next year. In this, he is – surprisingly – more pessimistic than The Economist, which predicts we will scrape by without one. But, whoever's right, I wonder whether anyone will notice the difference.

Coming back down to earth – There’s something of a controversy in Santiago University, where a course for architects has ended with Un espectaculo con toples. Which you may have to read twice, to grasp the Spanglish. Some are asking what the difference is between such a show and a striptease. Should they get an answer, I will let you have it.

Finally, should you still have a job and be doing business next year, you’ll want to know that both Barcelona and Madrid rank in the European top 10 for this. With the former emerging as the city with the best quality of life. Though you might want to steer clear of any feminists there who are in desperate need of a public convenience.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

You have to feel sorry for the leader of the Scottish Nationalists, Alex Salmond. Only a few weeks ago, he was urging the Scots to break free of British fetters and join Iceland, Ireland and Norway in the 'arc of prosperity'. You couldn't make it up. It's cold out there, Duncan. Maybe you should stay in the tent. At least until the storm blows over. Meanwhile, the two leading Scots in the British government appear to have pulled the entire Scottish banking industry out of a huge hole. Using English money of course. There goes Scottish independence. Not that the canny Scots were ever going to vote for it in the first place. Perhaps Mr Salmond can now get on with more important things. Like staying in power with a majorty of one.

This article on the new realities in the UK could well be entitled British Banks get Boring again.

Failing to find the Wifi café I was looking for last night, I made do with a new bar offering a connection . . .

Good evening, sir. What can I get you?
I’d like a glass of Mencia, please.
. . . . .
I’m afraid we don’t have Mencia, sir.
OK, I’ll have a Rioja
. . . . .
We only serve Rioja in these small bottles, sir.
That’s too much. I have to drive. Do you have Albariño?
Yes, sir.
OK, I’ll have a glass of that.
. . . . .
I’m sorry, sir but the Albariño is warm.
OK, can you bring me a gin and tonic?
Yes, sir.
. . . . .
Which brand of gin would you like, sir?
Tanqueray, please.
. . . . .
I’m sorry, sir. We don’t have Tanqueray.
OK, bring me a Gordons, please.
. . . . .
Yes, we have Gordons, sir. Would you like the blue or the normal?
The normal, please.
. . . . .

My drink is finally brought by the owner, who apologises for the fact the Albariño is warm and offers me a cheese sandwich and some olives ‘in compensation’. Unfortunately, I'm not partial to either of these items but thank her anyway. The gin and tonic costs me five times the price of the coffee I’d planned to have but, given the size of Spanish measures, I couldn’t care less by the time I’ve finished it. The alcoholic content is, of course, far greater than that of the small bottle of Rioja I rejected. I have grave doubts the bar will survive and it would be churlish of me to name it. However, I will say it’s an “Irish bar”. Next to another one, which was rather fuller.
I wonder why.
The President of the Association of Promoters and Builders insists that – though there are 800,000 to 1,200,000 new properties on or close to the Spanish market, prices will certainly not fall any further. Well, he’s just the sort of uninterested party whose word you’d rely on in this area, isn’t he. Even more predictably, he said the best way to go forward was to help the constructors maintain their prices to subsidised buyers. Or something like that. And who’d now bet on it not happening? We're all socialists now.

Telefónica aren’t going to be obliged to share their new fibre-optic lines with any other broadband provider. Or even offer a wholesale service to them. At least not in the above-30 megas sector. Which, on reflection, probably excludes me. So that’s alright.

Barcelona’s feminists have issued a guide to the places in the city in where women can take a leak in public. “If men can be proud of doing this,” they ask, “why can’t we?”. I must say that, when I ponder the issue of equality in Spain, this isn’t the aspect that usually first comes to mind. But it probably will be now.

More Rolex watches have been reported stolen on the Costa del Sol than have ever been manufactured. Presumably by Brits and Russians, rather than Spaniards. Crime down there is an equal opportunities complier. Though the PP party apparently get more opportunity to indulge in it as they have rather more of the town halls.

Galicia

We have a Mormon establishment in or near Pontevedra and it’s not unusual to see a couple of American male members – as it were – walking through town. They’re always dressed identically in white shirts and black trousers and sport a small rucksack on their backs. As this is how I’ve taken to carrying my new laptop to the town’s WiFi cafés, I’ve now jettisoned all white shirts from my wardrobe. And I certainly won’t be wearing a name tag on my shirt pocket.

Which reminds me . . . I asked my cleaner last night if she knew of an Englishman who’d lived 37 years in her village but whom she’d never mentioned to me. “Oh, yes.” she said, “He’s my neighbour. His wife died a few years ago. They’re Jehovah Witnesses.”
“I have a friend who’s a member of the same religion.” I said.
“That’s not a religion!” she retorted.
“Yes, it is.” I said. “They’re Christians. They worship Christ.”
“After a fashion! It’s just a sect!”
Which is, apparently, the same view as that taken by the Spanish state. Possibly because this means they don’t have to consider giving them any money.

It’s been announced that Burger King are to open an outlet in Pontevedra’s old quarter. This is, I fear, the beginning of the end. Unless they go bust in the Great Depression of 2009.

Finally, the global financial crisis. Here's an article which expands on my recently stated view that the EU will find it rather more difficult to cope in times and circumstances far tougher than those of the booming backcloth of the last 10 to 20 years. I mean, the Euro zone members have actually got Gordon Brown lecturing them today on how to stick patches on the problem. How's that for desperation?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

I see there is classical music at 8am on both national and Galician TV at the weekend, rather confirming my suspicion it’s something to do with quotas.

Only 28% of Spanish women are said use the pill, against 49% in France, for example. This is said to reflect ‘myths’ from the 60s that have proved remarkably persistent. Though I guess lingering Catholicism might also play in a part in a country which has nothing like the tradition of laicism of its northern neighbour. Its western neighbour is another thing.

One major difference between the feel-good times of a boom and the feel-bad times of the inevitable down-turn is that one is rather more conscious of the constituent bits of the latter than of the former. For example, we’re told – not to any great surprise – that the town halls will be seeking replacement revenues by having the police clamp down on the requirements to have various things in our cars. And on all other motoring offences. Not perhaps as important as the collapse in your savings, a reduced pension, higher inflation, tougher credit and loss of your job. But still irritating.

On this, it was interesting to note north of the border last week that the French are only now introducing the requirement to have a fluorescent jacket in your car. This has been a Spanish obligation for a couple of years or more. Fractionally more interesting was the news that the Spanish government is thinking of abolishing the requirement that we all carry a back-up set of light bulbs in our cars. The depressingly valid rationale for this is that modern cars are so bloody complex no one has the slightest chance of being able to change a bulb on a highway in the middle of the night.

When the euro replaced the peseta, prices were usually quoted thus – Uno con diez. ‘One and ten’. My impression is things have since changed and that the Anglo use of ‘One ten’ is now common. This raises one obvious question – Am I desperate for things to write about?

And just to prove I am . . . I’ve realised this morning that the owner of my local café/bar is unlikely to think his business will benefit from the installation of WiFi. He may have been willing to invest a huge sum in setting up a separate, properly vented no-smoking area but he’ll probably take the view that his core clientele of grandmothers who bawl simultaneously at each other while pretending to read the papers isn’t going to grow on the back of free internet access. And who could blame him?

Finally - Interesting weather times. Yesterday's temperature at midnight was 20C and at 8 this morning, before sun-up, it was still 19.6, with 27 forecast for the day. Shame about the storms in the eastern two thirds of the country.

Friday, October 10, 2008

I think it was in down-market Clacton-on-Sea in 1995 that I first realised the financial world had gone mad and it would all end in tears. At least in the UK. There was a NatWest stand at the fairground there, offering free overnight bags as an inducement to anyone opening a credit card account and it was under siege from Clacton’s finest. Under pressure from – or perhaps just to impress – a new ladyfriend, I used my bank account number and an address in the north – possibly both false – to get a bag not just for the said lady but also for her two daughters. Of traditional financial discipline there was clearly no evidence and I think I’m right in saying the NatWest bank has since disappeared. I recall being quite stunned at the time as to how things had changed since my youth, when you had to lick the shoes of the manager of the local bank or building society to have any chance of getting money from them. And when your account was summarily closed if you went a penny overdrawn without prior permission.

Back here in Spain, the committee of investigation into the recent Madrid plane crash has issued its preliminary report, blaming design faults in the plane and exonerating the airline company and the pilots. Both of these had been thoroughly excoriated in the media here on the basis of persistent leaks about initial findings. Which only goes to prove how disgraceful these leaks were. The company, of course, is unlikely to recover from the consequences of this treatment, and the allegations its safety measures were deficient.

I heard a rather histrionic actress on the radio this morning, extolling the virtues of her latest film. I'm just guessing but it may play to the most popular themes of Spanish TV, being called something like Sexykiller. But it's a comedy, I believe.

Galicia

The brothel up near Pontecaldelas which used the same letters in changing its name from Tu & Yo to Tony [blog of 6 June] recently came under new ownership and is now known as Club Bonecas. But three days after this, the place was raided and a number of illegal Brazilian immigrants taken into custody. I do hope this means the local mayor is cracking down and not merely that the usual licence fees were not paid.

There was an interesting column in the Correo Gallego yesterday, asking why the Galician nationalists don’t object to the Portuguese trying to subordinate Gallego, when they rise up in arms at any suggestion this is being done by Spanish speakers. If I had a real internet connection, I’d give you a link but the author is Carlos Luís Rodríguez, if you want to chase it up.

Maybe it’s just me but I find it quite depressing that – ahead of our regional elections next spring - the three main political parties agree it’s time to come together to better promote Gallego and condemn Francoism.

Finally . . . The Super Bark Stop – Evidence is mounting that the thing actually works, even if I do have to go out late each night to stick it on top of the offending canine’s kennel. But a week or two of more trialling is really required before I can be definitive about this. What I can say is that the service of the provider – Dog Goodies Dog Shop on www.doggoodies.co.uk – has been stellar. Today I received in the mail a copy invoice I hadn’t even asked for – ‘For your records’. See . . . I can write nice things. And it’s not my fault it’s a British company.

OK, I owe an apology to the Facenda. When I went to their offices, the lady who’d reviewed my forms in July explained [nicely] that it was essentially my Gallego that was the problem, as the letter said that they would transfer the files to Pontecaldelas and therefore I didn’t have to do anything more. So it was my own fault I wasted an hour. If I were fluent in Gallego, it would never have happened. Back to the grindstone. Or does France beckon?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

I thought I’d continue in trivial vein today. After all, it you can’t be trivial when the world as you know it is collapsing around you, when can you be? I’m reminded of the time, back in 1972, when the Chief Purser of a BOAC flight from Melbourne descended from First Class to remonstrate with me for being ‘flippant’ during an emergency. My crime? To ask the near-hysterical air-hostess for bread so we could toast it against the 30 metre flames shooting out of the port engines. “If we’re going down,” I’d said, “we might as well eat on the way.” There’s no amusing some people.

So, here’s a transcript of a conversation my partner had at an Orange phone shop yesterday, about their 3G modem:-
Can we test it to make sure it works up in the hills?
No, we don’t allow that. You can’t have it without signing a contract first.
But what if it doesn’t work there. Can I return it and cancel the contract?
Only if it’s broken.
So, we could be stuck for 18 months with a product that doesn’t work costing us 45 euros a month?
Well, if it didn’t work, you’d just have to fight [pelear] with Orange about terminating the contract.

Slightly dubious about this, I thought I’d have a go today – with exactly the same result. But for this addition:-
Vodafone [British, by the way] are willing to let us test the modem.
Well, Orange [French, en passant] isn’t.
But what if there’s no cover up there?
Well, if you have an Orange mobile and that works, the modem will work?
Are you sure?
Yes.
100 per cent sure?
Yes.

Frankly, I can’t say I share her confidence and a Spanish friend listening to this chat rudely laughed out loud at the suggestion of a guarantee of workability. But, then, his partner’s doesn’t work in the centre of Pontevedra, so he’s a bit biased.

But to get more serious . . . I’ve just had another belated but fascinating dip into the June issue of Prospect magazine and here are some quotes from a book review, headed End of the cult of finance? The book in question is The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, by Charles Morris:-

J K Galbraith once observed that all financial crises produce similar responses: someone has to be blamed; there is a headlong rush to regulate and reform; and, amid the intense focus on the idiosyncrasies of the crisis, the thing that actually caused it all in the first place – speculation – gets overlooked.

Accusations and the rush to regulate are all around but there is little discussion about how we allowed speculative fever in housing and financial markets to become so intense that it turned into a bust.

If the book has a fault it is that it focuses too narrowly on the USA. This is a Western financial crisis, if not quite a global one.

As Galbraith observed, booms arise from a poor memory, so that each new generation proclaims its brilliance in financial innovation – confident in the “specious association of money and intelligence.” On this occasion, the specious association was expressed through financial instruments such as structured credit, derivatives, asset-backed securities and collateralised debt obligations. But these were no more the cause of the crisis than a car’s accelerator pedal is the cause f a road accident.

History shows that periods of sustained low inflation tend to be accompanied by asset-price bubbles – and that’s something central banks should have pounced on.

So, in the end, if there is a finger of blame, it points unequivocally at the authorities – the central banks, financial regulators and, ultimately, governments.

To have a 2 per cent inflation target and ignore sustained double-digit house price inflation, is like following a strict food diet while drinking unlimited alcohol.

The “Minsky moment” is the point at which systemic risk in the financial system threatens a melt-down and demands unorthodox intervention to restore stability. . . . The time to worry about ‘moral hazard’ [letting lenders or investors avoid the consequences of their risky behaviour]has long passed. The costs of inaction are now too high. In democratic countries, public authorities have to intervene and, yes, it’s possible that some lenders or investors will be bailed out who shouldn’t be. So be it. Governments then then act to restrict such risky behaviour in the future.

Governments may need to use public money to fund the recapitalisation of banks. The quid pro quo for this will be greater regulation. . . In the rush to regulate, we may overdo it and stifle innovation. . . . One thing’s for sure, the cult of finance will be eclipsed – at least until it adjusts to the new world in which it finds itself.

So, it’s good to know that, as President Zapatero has told us the crisis is all the fault of the Americans and that Spanish financial institutions are the most robust in the world, there can’t have been a speculative property bubble here in Spain and all the clever Spanish financial wizards must have eschewed the fevered activities of their colleagues around the globe.

Staying with banking but descending from the heights of generalities to the depths of specifics, it seems that Spanish banks will not be behind the door when it comes to generating new or increased sources of revenue. A lawyer friend told me this morning that some British clients had yesterday been charged more than 1,000 euros simply for the issue of the [compulsory] bankers’ draft with which they paid for a Galician house costing 100,000. The cost for these used be around 0.2% of the amount, though Citibank charged me a fixed rate of only 70 euros back in the pre-history of July. When my friend challenged the bill, the bank explained it was a reflection of tough times. And then immediately reduced it to 250 euros. Sometimes it’s good to pelear. Especially in Spain. But my partner and I aren’t planning on doing it with Orange. Even if she is French.

Finally – Is it only a few months since a friend of mine here was telling me what an impressive, if expensive, place Iceland was? You can probably pick up the entire country for a couple of hundred euros now. Or at least its national debt, if you fancy wrapping it up in a bundle and selling it on. Assuming there’d be a taker. There used to be one born every minute but they appear to be in short supply just now. Apart from innocent taxpayers, of course. American, British, German – and Spanish. Hell, that includes me. Twice.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Reading Charles Butler’s comments about how the Spanish regard property made me realise that the ‘irrational’ attitudes and actions that I’ve met in 8 years here were not confined to Galicians. And so couldn’t be attributed – as they usually are – to the latter’s allegedly mystical connection with the land. But then I never did regard them as illogical, merely strange to my way of thinking and acting. In this, I have the advantage of having studied law and lived in both the Middle and the Far East. Just one of these experiences would have been enough to convince me there’s no such thing as absolute logic. Or, alternately, that there are dozens of logics - all of them perfectly valid, provided you don’t go and live somewhere else.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here are some of the odd or ‘non-commercial’ things I’ve either personally experienced or had related to me by friends who’ve experienced them:-

1. You make an offer on a property below the asking price. The seller responds with a price above the latter. You are astonished and the agent is dismayed as he knows no Anglo is going to accept this insult and his commission has just disappeared.

2. You don’t bother to negotiate but agree to the asking price. The seller shakes hand on this but then spends the next 3 months putting obstacle after obstacle in your way until you eventually pull out, leaving the furious agent to sue him for breach of contract.

3. You want to rent a place which the owner normally rents out only for July and August at, say, 4,000. You offer him 4,500 for the year but he refuses. You offer him 5,000 but he still refuses. You walk away.

4. You return and say, ‘Look, I will rent it for 10 months for 1,000 and move out for July and August so that you can get your normal 4,000 during those months and make a total of 5,000 a year. He says ‘Nooo. I may want to use the place during the year.” You know that he never will but you increase your offer for 10 months first to 1,500 and eventually to 3,000 but you are still rejected. So you walk away for the last time.

5. Someone you know owns three flats in the same city, two of which are always empty. You ask if you can rent one of them at the going rate. You’re told that they don’t want the hassle but suspect that the real reason is that they know they will have little chance of recourse against you in law should you prove to be a difficult or immovable tenant.

The Spanish are famous for being an urban-centric people. This possibly explains why, if you live in a city centre you can probably enjoy the internet at its best. Whereas, if you live on the periphery or, worse, out in the countryside, you’re effectively stuffed. In a city – say Pontevedra - you should be able to get a high-speed fixed line, an even faster cable connection or a 3G card that allows you to use your laptop throughout the city. You’ll possibly pay more than anywhere else in Europe but at least you’ll have the internet. Just outside the city – say across the river in Poio – neither the cable nor the 3G card options are available but you can still get a [slowish] ADSL phone line. A few kilometres out, though, you’ll be lucky if you can get what Telefónica calls ADSL Rural. This is half the speed of what you get in the city, at twice the price. In other words, four times more expensive that the already costly city connection. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get nothing. And this from a company which boasts of being the most profitable telephone operator in the world.

I say you can get an ADSL line outside Pontevedra but yesterday my nice-but-noisy neighbour, Tony, told me that none of my neighbours have had what they’re paying Telefónica for for a year now.

And still on the internet, here’s a brief transcript of my conversation with Ya.com yesterday, on their premium-rate number:-
Minute 1: None of your advice has been effective. Can you please send a technician or cancel my subscription. OK, I’ll just get you a confirmation number. Let’s go through your details again . . And again . .
Minute 8: Hello. I’ll be right with you with the number.
Minute 15: Hello. Won’t be long now.
Minute 20: OK, here’s the number.
So, does this blatant, customer-screwing extortion happen elsewhere, I wonder.

You can possibly tell I’m a tad jaundiced on this subject but I should stress I don’t really know whether the Pontevedra situation holds true for all of Spain. Or even all of Galicia. But the Ya.com customer service strategy probably does.

Galicia

Some good news – Galicia and Cataluña are the regions where there’s most compliance with the anti-smoking laws.

Some bad news – Even in Galicia, the compliance rate is only 45%. Thank God my regular café/ bar does obey the law. Now, if I could only get them to install WiFi . . .

A headline in the Voz de Galicia yesterday advised us “The Portuguese government places a higher priority on the high-speed train link between Lisbon and Madrid than on the connection with Galicia.” Well, Que sorpresa!

Still on the Portugal theme, the President of the new Galician Academy of the Portuguese Language says that Galician shouldn’t be called Gallego/Galego but “The Portuguese of Galicia”. And he also thinks Portuguese and Gallego should be brought closer together. God help us! As if we didn’t have enough language complications here already. A plague on these pipe-dreaming Lusistas[?]!

Suspicions are growing that – despite denials – Renfe is going to scrap the overnight train from Pontevedra/Vigo to Madrid and force us to go to Santiago if we want to travel comfortably to the capital. What a shame this would be. Especially for me.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

PS. If Spanish banks are the most robust in the world, what risk would there be in the Spanish government coyping the example of Ireland, Greece, Denmark, Germany, etc. and guaranteeing 100% of our bank deposits? Bloody suspiciouss, if they don't.
Hard not to write about the financial crisis this morning. Especially as the Atlantic has increased the gloom by dropping its blanket on us here in southern Galicia.

For one reason and another, I’m late finishing off the reading of the July issue of Prospect magazine. So it was fascinating to read this intro to an article entitled “How to stop the next bubble”:-The financial crisis has shown that the markets are bubble-prone and that laissez-faire regulation doesn’t work. The authorities need to get a grip if we are to avoid a mega-bubble. But we may need an even deeper crisis for that to happen. Well, three months further on, we’ve possibly achieved this pre-condition. But can one say that the authorities – in Europe at least – have managed to get a grip? Not yet, I suspect. And if the top four of the EU partners can’t agree concerted action, what chance all twenty seven of them? Can this be the first hard evidence to substantiate my long-held belief that the EU dream will collapse under the weight of its own internal inconsistencies? And of the Anglo claim that one size certainly doesn’t fit all? Ya veremos.

Even more fascinating was an article by Julian Gough in which he charactersised what he calls “Incredible Hulk financial capitalism” as a global religion. You may be able to read the whole thing at www.prospect-magazine.co.uk but here are a few tasters:-

Critics such as Naomi Klein are almost exactly wrong when they say that the giddy boom and bust cycles of modern capitalism are forced on unwilling people by big corporations. On the contrary, we the people impose these rhythms on capitalism. We’ve always wanted higher highs and lower lows. That’s why we drink and take drugs. A flat life is no life; that’s why they kill themselves in Scandinavia. Boom and bust; party and hangover; they are human nature, as natural as the seasons or the clap. Modern capitalism just magnifies our urge to binge and purge - on food, on housing, on commodities, on life.

Often we are disgusted by what we discover what we want – but that reflects on us, not on the servant who brings us our fetish gear and saturated fats. It would bring us organic turnips just as happily.

As with all religious expansions, success bred hubristic dementia. The elevation of metaphysical above physical turned into a sort of contempt for the physical. Not even bankers know what a collateralised debt obligation cubed is.

Many talk about the inequalities of modern capitalism. But the truth is more subtle, and strange. Christianity once preached the equality of man but could find no way to make the vision real. Communism tried, and failed, to force equality upon us. But only our modern, excitable, faith-based capitalism has delivered this degree of uniformity and equality. IKEA, with its €6 chairs, is delivering not only the Christian but the communist heaven; everyone equal, sitting on the same chair, illuminated by the same lamp, all over the world.

Living, as I do, in a country where fun is possibly fetished more than in any other in the world and where the last 15 years have seen amazing stupidity in the avaricious and often corrupt pursuit of ever-more profit from a phony but government and bank-supported credit and construction boom, I find it almost funny to hear the regular comment that it’s all the fault of those unethical American capitalists. How’s that for taking no responsibility for your own actions? However human Julian Gough would say these were.

Finally, if you’re both left-of-centre and Europeanist and want to be annoyed by a pungent contrast between what’s happening right now in the USA and Europe, click here. Right-of-centre thinkers – and even some leftish democrats – might well enjoy it. Or at least recognise its validity.

PS. Talking of fun . . . If you’re in Galicia, you might want to drive to O Grove and attend the Seafood Festival there, which goes on until the 12th. You have the local mayor’s word for it that this is the best gastronomic event in all of Spain. And who wouldn’t believe a Spanish mayor?

Monday, October 06, 2008

When it comes to what is happening to Spanish property, I rely on Charles Butler at Ibex Salad and at Mark Stucklin at Spanish Property Insight. Mark has recently professed himself sceptical about data being issued on sales volumes and prices here but Charles has said things really are different here and that it’s wrong to assume responses to a property crash here will be the same as in, say, the UK. At least I think that’s what he’s saying. Charles is such a clever and well-informed chap that I’m not always sure I’ve understood all that he’s written. So, why not check for yourself.

I was going to ask yesterday how many years it would take before members of the EU stopped putting national interest before that of the entity to which they claimed committed membership. After the failure of the weekend’s mini-summit and now Germany’s unilateral announcement about safeguarding her nationals’ bank deposits, I guess I should say decades, rather than years. If not centuries. How much easier it was to be optimistic during the boom years of over-cheap money and too-easy credit. And how much more pious these hopes look now that the going has got tough. I guess the [arrogant?] Anglo view was well summed up by a commentator on British TV this morning who said, firstly, that British banks would fare better than those of most countries because of greater capitalisation and, secondly, that there were too many small banks on the Continent which had got fat during the carpetbagger years and these now needed to be consolidated. The only other option, he said, was to follow the Japanese route of taking 20 years to get over the crisis. Happily, he can’t have been referring to Spain as the banking sector here is at least as robust as the British is said to be. Indeed, unless someone [or something] stops Sr Botín of Banco Santander, they will soon be the same thing.

Property and banking have been closely connected for at least 15 years in Spain and the way things are done here now provides an interesting option for the Spanish government in its challenge to improve liquidity in the banking sector. There are, it’s said, 108 million euros worth of 500 euro notes lying under mattresses around the country. Of these, a mere 54 million would be enough to solve the liquidity problem if their owners toddled along to their bank and put them on deposit. And so, while rejecting any suggestion of an amnesty for folk who used black cash to [at least] part-finance their property acquisitions, the government is said to be looking at ‘incentives’ to persuade them to come out of the long grass and help the struggling banks. Fascinating. Call me cynical but I can’t see it working, myself.

Talking of taxes . . . Some readers may recall my account of the several-hour calvario I endured merely to pay the massive 7% transaction tax on my recent purchase of a little place in the hills. All to no avail, it now seems. For the Xunta’s Facenda [Hacienda] has written to tell me that I should not have done this here in Pontevedra but in Pontecaldelas, 15 km away. It seems – if I’m being optimistic – that, while this error has not precluded them from recognizing receipt of the cash I had to go and get from my bank and pay at the Pontevedra office, the Facenda is not capable of sending a copy of the forms from one of their offices to another. So, instead, I have to go and retrieve the papers from Pontevedra and take them to Pontecaldelas. Where I suspect I will have to fill in new forms. And all this despite the fact there was a special desk in Pontevedra to check that your form was correct. Hey ho, another morning of my life wasted. I guess I could make the point that I might have got things right if they’d issued the forms and the guide to them in Spanish as well as Gallego but I doubt that it’d get me very far. After all, their letter to me is only in Gallego as well. But at least I’m optimistic they’ll talk to me in Spanish up in Pontecaldelas.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The cacique – or political baron/fixer/despot – I mentioned the other day is one Carlos Fabra [‘Don Carlos’] of Castellón. This is a province and so I guess he’s roughly the equivalent of the head of a British County Council. But far more powerful. For one thing, he’s the successor in title to his grandfather and his father and is reported to be preparing one of this daughters to take over the position in due course. How can this be in a modern democracy, you ask. Even if he weren’t under investigation by the tax authorities as to the origin and non-reporting of more than a million euros. Surely he’ll soon be in gaol and impotent. Well, far from it, apparently. His party – the opposition PP – seems to be unwilling or unable to remove Don Carlos from power and today’s El País has an article on him headlined Castellón is his fiefdom. No one escapes his control. He doesn’t accept external interference, even from his own party. He’s the Great Achiever. He grants favours, large and small. He demands absolute personal loyalty. And he represents the classic figure of the 19th century cacique here in the 21st. Reading this – and bits of the article – I was reminded of how I was told more than once when I first came to Galicia that I’d never understand how things worked here until I grasped that life was essential feudal. But, back then, we were living in the era of ‘Don Manuel’ [Manuel Fraga] and things have surely moved on since then. In Galicia anyway. And at least he was the founder of the PP party and the President of a region, not merely the leader of a provincial Diputación. That said, Fabra’s opposite number in the Pontevedra Diputación is also reported to have become a rich man. Not that anyone seems to care much. Interestingly, he hasn’t yet acquired the honorary[!] title of Don. And I guess he may never do so. Though I can’t say I understand these things. It all seems to endorse the view that, while Spain is not a corrupt place when it comes to business and life in general, there’s a question mark hanging over at least her provincial and municipal politicians.

Being positive . . . There’s plenty in today’s press about how strong Spanish banks are, the sources being the usual suspects - government ministers and the Bank of Spain. Given how badly wrong the former got their economic forecasts, it’s reassuring to be hearing the same mood music from the latter. On the other hand, there are voices stressing that everything is relative, that Spanish banks are not unexposed and that all depends on whether things improve in the 18 or 24 months before they have to refinance themselves. Or something like that. Anyway, for obvious reasons, I’m keeping my fingers crossed

It would be petty of me to say low long [short?] it took – on returning to Spain - for me to be irritated by my pet hates of motorists driving up my backside and pedestrians walking right in front of me, as if I didn’t exist. So I won’t. I know that neither of these are considered abnormal/wrong in Spain and I have to be stoic about them.

Which reminds me . . . Things aren’t exactly great in France either but El País today says that The supposedly highly advanced Spanish society has one of the most ineffective laws against tobacco on the Continent. The government - and many citizens - seem to be happy it isn’t complied with. It isn’t enforced and offences aren’t sanctioned. You have been warned.

But back to the trip . . . Returning along the north coast, we had the chance to see a couple of major tourist attractions – the village of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria and the Cathedrals Beach in Lugo province, Galicia. The former is said to be the village of three untruths – it’s not holy, not flat and nowhere near the sea - but it is decidedly picturesque. Sartre thought it the prettiest village in all Spain and he might well have been right. Especially as I’d guess it’s been further prettified since he saw it. Virtually every house is a posada, hotel or restaurant and looks something like this . . .



In fact, the house below is the only one out of, say, a hundred which hasn’t been gentrified and my guess is it will stay this way because the owners were executed for dereliction of civic duty.



All in all, it’s rather like wandering round one of those model medieval villages in the UK. Only life size. And here’s a bit of advice:- You can’t drive into the village proper; you have to use an earlier access road called something like The route to the hostals. If you ignore this and then turn left into the slightly downmarket, village-green bit of the Santillana, you run the risk of returning home without having seen the village proper on the other side of the main road. Though this is probably only true if you arrive late in the day. Earlier, you’re likely to be given a clue in the form of hordes of tourists de-bussing in a car park and walking across said road. Best seen either late in the day or early in the morning. And in autumn or winter. Like Venice used to be.

As for the Cathedrals Beach, you can get some idea of its splendour from this photo. Which I have a reason for showing



The [Portuguese] young lady in it asked me to snap her and her partner, standing a metre or so away from the edge of the cliff. Goaded by my own black-humoured partner, I asked them to move back two metres. When, mistaking me for an honourable Englishman, they duly started to, we both had to scream at them to stop. And then stifle our laughter until we were out of earshot. So, I’m glad the young lady is not recognizable by any Portuguese readers as I wouldn’t like her to be embarrassed by my telling of this tale.

Towards the very end of our trip, we stopped at a services station at the side of the autovia between Santiago and Pontevedra. The front seat passenger in the adjacent parked car engaged me in a conversation about my dog and about where the four of them could get some chicken to eat and whether they needed to make a reservation in the nearby restaurant. It seemed pretty obvious that, at 6pm, he was as high as a kite. And the state of his gaze – completely new to me – suggested drugs rather than booze. This suspicion was endorsed when the guy behind him added some slurred and wide-eyed comments of his own. And it was confirmed when he bluntly informed me they had lots of money and were in the habit of spending it on drugs. Despite their apparently friendliness, I decided to leave at this point and to get as far away as I could before the driver woke up and started the engine of the car. I guess they’ll kill themselves one day and it’d be nice to know it’s only a tree, lamppost or wall they hit en route to eternity.

These guys are not the only menace on our roads, though. I read today that the chauffeur of the deputy mayor has had his licence suspended for driving at 120 in a 50km zone near Vigo airport. As I regularly say, no wonder our insurance premiums are high

Search This Blog