Sunday, November 30, 2008

No sooner has Franco’s daughter told us he admired Brits than all signs and symbols of his existence are stripped from his home town of Ferrol, here in Galicia. As it’s a port, perhaps a gunboat would be the appropriate response to this grave insult. Sir John Moore is probably spinning in his grave up in La Coruña.

Just as I suspected – foreigners are being singled out for particular attention by the traffic police. Sort of. Actually, I’m not the only one, of course, to have noticed what’s going on. A cartoon in the Voz de Galicia today has President Zap injecting funds into the banking system, the car industry and the town halls, while in an parallel sketch he’s drawing a huge vial of blood from a cringeing motorist.

I’ve been saying for years now that – in the UK at least – it’s The Age of the Bureaucrat. This article describes just how things have developed there, during a high-growth period when the great majority of new jobs created were for luxuriously feather-bedded civil servants. As the writer says, “Every time there's a problem, we stick a quango on it like a child's Band-Aid, and the system is becoming so top-heavy it can only topple over. We're quickly becoming as bureaucratic as a third-world country.” Can’t see myself ever going back there. These things have a habit of being difficult to change, whoever comes to power. And then there’s the education system . . .

Galicia

On Friday night my house in Pontevedra was shaken by the loudest thunderclap I’ve heard in my life. The accompanying bolt of lightening apparently knocked out some folks’ central heating boilers. Which is odd as it seemed to shock mine into action. Or at least that’s what I told the engineer who’d had no success with mine until the garage door was almost blown in by the blast and we both jumped out of our skins.

I’ve mentioned that most of the stuff in our Sunday flea-market looks like it just came out of the house of the last person to die up in the hills. From time to time – as befits a seafaring people – there are overseas artefacts of possible interest, like a carved bone walking stick I saw today and thought of buying for future use. But I wonder who could have sailed off and got the top hat and bowler hat I saw on sale today. Complete with their original boxes. My bet is they’ll take a while to shift. Especially as we don’t have an amdram society here that might just make use of them.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

According to Franco’s daughter, he rather liked the British because they obey laws. Oh dear.

Fussy foreigners like me occasionally moan that Spanish providers have yet to develop customer service attitudes met elsewhere in the West. Ever the optimist, I’ve always assumed they will catch up and today I got to wondering whether one positive aspect of the recession might be that it will accelerate matters. We will see.

Talking of changing attitudes, I also found myself contemplating how long it will be before the Spanish start viewing the Euro as the reason why their economy first soared higher and then plummeted lower than anyone else’s. This might or might not be fair of them but I’d bet on it happening within the next couple of years.

Meanwhile, if you’d like a bit more of an insight into the soap opera of Sacyr, La Caixa, Lukoil and Repsol, click here. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this imbroglio is the left-wing PSOE and the right-wing PP parties adopting positions contrary to those they’d normally strike. Which allows them to accuse each other of sophistry. Or ‘lying’, as it’s normally termed here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

I attended a lecture last night by a friend who restores stonework throughout Galicia, after which I enjoyed the Thanksgiving dinner at Pontevedra’s English Speaking Society. Where I took the opportunity to ask several friends whether it was considered rude in Spain for people to get up and leave a lecture at any time from five minutes after its start. The consensus appeared to be that Yes, it is regarded as bad manners. But only in theory because, since in practice everyone does it, there’s no moral obloquy attached to it. In other words, when a rule is widely ignored, it’s no longer a rule. And something which would be inconsiderate if only one person did it ceases to be inconsiderate when done en masse. As with illegal parking, I suppose. And talking during music concerts. Or any sort of performance, in fact. I have to admit the logic is lost on me. But of course there’s always strength in numbers.

Talking of the Spanish approach to inconvenient rules . . . I don’t watch much TV here but enough to be unsurprised the Brussels is taking Spain to the European Court of Justice for not doing anything to stop the ads regularly totalling more than the 12 minutes per hour permitted by European law. Often quite significantly. As with Bulgaria and its rampant corruption, the EU is miffed that previous warnings had been completely ignored. Not that the two cases are equivalent, of course. You’d have to consider something like the Valencian “Land Grab” laws, if you wanted this.

Just in case one wasn’t sated by the pictures of bodies and parts thereof yesterday, there were plenty more in today’s papers. In fact, I’m not sure any of them could resist a large spread.

On the economic front, the government of President Zapatero has decided not to go with tax cuts a la Gordon Brown and others but to inject 11 billion euros into the economy one way or another. Of this, the lion’s share – 8 billion – will be passed directly to the regions/municipalities, to allow them to stimulate things locally in any way they want. And without much supervision and accountability, it seems. Cynics say this is aimed at buying support ahead of difficult negotiations around constitutional reform and regional elections. God forbid.

Galicia

Because of a question on a news item raised by one of the staff in my regular midday bar, I yesterday got to meet a man I’ve seen in there many times over the last eight years. He turned out to be a doctor and we chatted for a while over issues of mutual interest. But he never introduced me to his wife, who was sitting at the table just a metre or so from us. Things can happen quite slowly here in Galicia but I hope it’s not another eight years before I make her acquaintance. Meanwhile, I did address greetings to both of them today as a sort of compromise. Or invitation even. The ball is in their court, I feel.

I didn’t actually go into town a couple of days ago. So Fate dictated that the person hit on one of my regular zebra crossings would be a 65 year old woman. Ironically, a car stopped for her but was then shunted into her by the idiot behind. I can’t help wondering whether it was the local police chief. It wouldn’t be his first time.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Like most foreigners – but very few Spaniards – I have two first names [David and Colin] and one surname. As all resident extranjeros will know, what this means is that every telemarketer who interrupts my day assumes my second name is the first of the minimum of two surnames which each Spaniard has. The happy result is that I’m usually politely addressed as Señor Colin, just before I impolitely slam the phone down. Or, if I’m in a good mood, I advise that Señor Colin passed away earlier in the week. It’s small things like this that keep me sane.

As I’ve said more than once over the years, the Spanish seem to revel in blood and gore. Just as I was starting on my midday tapa today, I glanced at the front page of the ABC newspaper, to be met by a picture of body parts strewn across the floor of a shopping centre in India. Just what I needed.

Thanks to the end of the construction boom, there’s an awful lot of property for sale throughout Spain, much of it new and empty. One of the few positives about this is that it’s not the custom here to stick one to five estate agent placards on poles at the front of the garden. As happens in the UK and, I think, the USA. So, things could be aesthetically worse; I could be driving past forests of these things every day.

Galicia

Some of life’s ironies are less significant than others. Walking this morning past one of Pontevedra’s numerous clothes boutiques for wealthy ladies, I noticed virtually every item displayed was black. And yet the name of the shop was ‘Penelope Blanco’. Maybe blanco is the new negro.

The classical concert we attended the other night was, at best, two thirds full. And the average age probably the wrong side of 55 or 60. This got me wondering as to whether ballet, opera, theatre and classical music have a lesser following here in Galicia than elsewhere. I do know there’s a Galician Royal Philharmonic Orchestra but that still leaves the other three with a question mark over them. Anyone know? And is there a Catalan National Theatre or an Andalucian Opera Company, for example. Or even a Spanish National Ballet? Not that I’d ever attend it, of course.

Pontevedra has a new watering hole, an ex-restaurant which now likes to regard itself an English pub. Or paff, as they say in Spain. But it isn’t really. It’s a pastiche of a place, furnished with end-of-the-19th century kitsch purporting to be from, would you believe, South Africa. But I guess it’s as close as we’ll ever get to the real thing. Which is important when you read the latter might soon be only a folk memory back in Britain.

I’m actually typing this in the above paff and the pix below show two of its four rooms, only one of which doesn’t have a TV blaring from the wall. I’m pleased to see it has wi-fi but I suppose it was too much to ask it would have a no-smoking area. And so the search goes on for a quiet, smoke-free place in which to relax, read, take a coffee or wine and perhaps even to access the internet. Though without too much optimism. Perhaps I should import one of Britain’s dying pubs and make a fortune.



Anyway, this is as good as link as I can manage into this plug for a beer which I’ve never actually drunk but which my blogger colleague, Trevor of Kalebeul, says is his favourite tipple.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Two conflicting lists in today’s paper – While Spain heads the international list for abortions, it ranks bottom when it comes to the quality of semen. Taking the latter into account, you might have thought the former wouldn’t be possible. Perhaps we get a lot of short-term visitors.

But some compensation comes in the shape of sporting prowess, with the Davis Cup now being added to Spain’s long list of successes this year.

It takes a lot for the EU to draw a line at corruption but they’ve finally been forced into it in respect of 500m euros destined for Bulgaria. After numerous public warnings, of course. My guess is the Bulgarian government will now claim its human rights have been infringed.

Galicia

We attended a classical music concert in the fine new Caixanova premises in Pontevedra last night. The theatre there is better than both of the municipal alternatives in the city, and a fine complement to the art gallery in the basement. Which is all very nice but does raise the question of why a savings bank should be using its customers funds for such purposes.

Talking of questions . . . You’ll be asking whether some Spaniards talk even during a classical music concert. Yes, they do. Though I was impressed that the chap on my left was even more irritated by this than I was.

Nice-but-noisy Tony is currently at sea, possibly in the hands of Somali pirates. But, back home, a couple of acoustic apprentices are going through their paces. Rising for school at 7.45 – half an hour after their mother has left for work – they spend the next 45 minutes shouting and bawling at one another in a way which would make their father proud. Is this a nuisance? Well, not so much for those of us who sleep with double earplugs inserted. And even less for those who get up at 7 or 7.30. But you really should ask any of my guests who sleep on the other side of the wall from them. If you really need to

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mr Sarkozy and Mrs Merkel met yesterday and gave us one of the more amusing photos of the year – a rear view of the pair of them walking up a cobbled hill in a French town, with Mr S’s lifts clearly visible. Perhaps ‘stumbling’ would be a better word in his case.

The purchase of 30% of the Spanish energy company, Repsol, by the Russian company, Lukoil, gets curiouser and curiouser. Now we’re told the troubled construction company that bought the shares two years ago effectively got government assistance to do so. One wonders why.

If you’re thinking of moving to the UK and so need to know whatever ‘Britishness’ might be, the book cited here should help. Or you could just buy it just for a laugh.

What was I saying about it being increasingly hard to accept incidents of inebriated police officers when they’re enforcing ever-stricter laws? We’ve also got a report in today’s papers about a judge in Cataluña physically threatening the police who stopped him for drunken driving? Where will it stop? The President being done for murderous road rage?

I would quote the latest figures on the construction sector here but they’re just too depressing to repeat. The OECD now says Spain will be the second worst performing economy in Europe in the near term, with only the UK getting a worse rating. The difference, of course, is that Britain has the option of letting its currency fall so as to stimulate exports. In theory at least. Freefall, though, is not generally regarded as a positive.

Galicia

Pontevedra’s council has issued an incomprehensible map of all the changes being made to the city’s serpentine one-way traffic system. Should be good for raising revenue from confused drivers going down a street in a direction that was legal yesterday but ain’t today. Especially as it will be a while before they change all the arrows on the roads.

Some killjoy Nationalist politician has asked for an enquiry as whether our annual bullfights receive illegal subsidies. Surely not.

If you’re going to Vigo, don’t go out of your way to visit the new A Laxe shopping centre down near the seafront. It’s a remarkably ugly building that’s even worse on the inside. The people responsible for it – who may have previously built flat blocks in East Berlin during the 60s – should be machine-gunned. But probably won’t be.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Here’s a conundrum. Spain’s universities are regularly assessed – both by domestic and international agencies – to be among the weakest in Europe. And yet three of the top ten business schools on the continent are located here. No wonder I read yesterday that the universities – once the students have stopped protesting about reforms – could take a leaf out of the business schools’ books.

Just when you thought you might be getting a bit of a handle on what’s happening in the world, along comes an article on the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deflation. Not to mention the spectre of ‘negative feedback loop’. Perhaps it’s time to find a cave to live in.

Talking of unfathomables, here’s what you need to understand why the Spanish government is prepared to let 30% of Repsol go to a ‘private’ Russian company for possibly even less than a peppercorn. As they say, circumstances change principles. Even if you’re a socialist.

I guess it’s going to be even harder now but the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] says Spain has done nothing to correct 20 of the 49 things alleged to be wrong with its economic structure. Among which, it seems, are pension financing and labour market flexibility. It’s this sort of thing which makes me pessimistic about Spain climbing out of the slough of economic despond as quickly as other countries. By which I decidedly don’t mean Britain.

Arguments have already broken out, it’s reported, between France and Germany as to how much to spend and on what to lift the EU out of recession. So I don’t suppose there’ll be one humongous central fund doling out charity to deserving companies. Other than what’s already in place, of course. It struck me today this might not be a bad thing, when I was reading an article on the moneys which the EU is claiming back from Galicia for all the projects which never quite made it to fruition. I suspect there’s a few of these elsewhere as well. So guess how efficient and effective an EU super-fund administered from Brussels would be.

Talking of Galicia . . .

Yesterday’s Voz de Galicia contained a 6 page colour brochure from the Xunta about a new bridge planned over the river Lerez here in Pontevedra. Plus several ads from the same source of finance. I decided not to mention it last night but, having read this article this morning, have changed my mind. I expect we’ll see more and more of this, with Keynes offered as the justification. Assuming anything is offered.

I think I’ve commented before that civil servant featherbedding is a very British sort of corruption.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

In the USA, the 23rd of November is 11.23.08, whereas in most [all?] of the rest of the world it’s 23.11.08. Similarly, in most of the world the Left is red and the Right is blue. But not in the USA, where the Democrats are blue and the Republicans are red. This dichotomy is, I suspect, the main obstacle in the way of dealing with the world’s financial problems. It should be the main objective of the next G20 to bring the US into line, before anything else is tried.

To be more serious, the truth is that the global situation is so bad no one really has any idea what to do next. Or, more accurately, which measures will succeed and which fail. According to one British columnist – “The IMF has ditched half a century of fiscal orthodoxy and called for a global spending blitz equal to 2% of world output, or $1.25 trillion. We are all Keynesians now. There are no atheists in a foxhole and no ideologues in a liquidity trap.”

Here in Spain, there’s been little take-up of the huge pile of cash the government has made available to the banks. This is either very good news or very bad news but I’m not convinced anyone really knows which. I certainly don’t.

In the UK, Gordon Brown – “the architect of our particularly British debacle” – is about to announce massive tax decreases, on the basis of which he may call an early election and win a further four years in power. And this despite the fact/claim “it was he who ran a budget deficit of 3% of GDP at the top of the economic cycle, when we should have been in surplus like Australia, Canada, Germany, Holland and Spain. We start this slump disarmed. Our budget deficit may soon balloon to £120bn. This, at 9% of GDP, is banana-land.”

And in that banana-land, while the private sector has been losing 300,000 jobs over the last few months, the public sector has continued to recruit and to take on 30,000 new well-paid, well-pensioned folk with job titles such as “principal nuisance response officer” or “integrated whole systems care pathway manager”. It’s a rum world. But who will bet against the profligate Mr Brown defying the odds and winning the election? I suspect the only thing sure to stop him is continuing praise from France, where he seems to be regarded as some sort of economic genius right now. Presumably because of his dirigiste tendencies. And because M Sarkozy believes this will be useful in his challenge of capitalising on the turmoil to reformulate the EU along French lines. A prospect which seemed to have disappeared for ever only a year or two ago.

Galicia

Today's front page of the Voz de Galicia headlines the good news that, notwithstanding the recession, the region’s entrepreneurs are setting up an average of 13 new businesses a day. This remarkable fact really is something to be celebrated, of course, but in the Pontevedra section inside the paper, it’s reported that twice as many businesses are closing in the city as are being started up. Which is not such good news. Though more in keeping with the evidence of my own eyes.

Anyway, here are a few more pictures of the excavations near the basilica of Santa Maria in Pontevedra. The first two show the medieval walls which have been unearthed. Literally.


And this one shows either a large mouse-hole or a cat ‘door’ in the wall close to where I was taking the snaps from . . .


Whether it's a cat or a mouse, it appears to be a smoker. Very Spanish.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

It’s been announced that - from 2010 perhaps – the Spanish tax office, the Hacienda, will try to get to get to grips with the black economy by checking all transactions over 3,000 euros. The odd thing is this is what I was told the situation was when I came here in 2000. Perhaps they were just thinking about it back then.

Prostitution in the UK is far less a feature of the culture than it is here in Spain. Nonetheless, the British Minister responsible for domestic affairs has announced a new measure aimed at reducing it further. Most commentators – particularly women columnists – think the new law is well-intended but unworkable. I agree but at least it reflects the political will to tackle the issue of trafficked and abused women. Something which seems years – if not decades – away in this [nominally Catholic] country. Even with a government in which more than half the cabinet are women. Shame.

When times were good, Spain’s construction companies amassed cash at such a pace they scarcely knew what to do with it. But, luckily, acquisition consultants were on hand to help them. As they always are. So, Ferrovial bought the British Airways Authority [BAA], for example. And Sacyr bought a large stake in the major Spanish oil company, Repsol. Well, times have changed and both the surviving construction companies and their banks are now desperate for liquidity. So it is that Sacyr comes to be selling its Repsol shares to the Russian company, Lukoil. The funny thing is a week or so ago there was universal outrage here when it seemed these would go to the Russian government. As of now, there’s still almost a consensus that the government should - if it can - stop this deal. But there’s one key voice in favour and that belongs to the president, Señor Zapatero. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d say this is because he’s doing favours to friends in the major Catalan bank, La Caixa. But this is surely nonsense.

The La Manga Club down in the south - the favourite watering-hole of celebrity footballers – is another operation in deep financial trouble. As Mark Stucklin says over at Spanish Property Insight, “Problems at La Manga Club herald trouble for tourist businesses in other parts of Spain. That means more bad news for the Spanish economy, and ultimately the Spanish holiday home market.” Oh, dear. Just when Spain needs more drunk or sober Brits than ever, the plummeting pound means they can’t afford to come here.

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if you responded to one of those scam emails from Nigeria, take a look at this amusing account.

Galicia

I mentioned the other day the works taking place outside the HQ of the Rias Baixas tourist board. I later read that they’d found a stone ball there which they thought must have been fired into the city by a medieval siege catapult. So I went to get a picture today. It looked vast in the Diario de Pontevedra but it must have been a deceptive close-up as all I could find was the blue-shrouded sphere in this photo. Though I guess they might have taken it to the museum.


On reflection, it might well be smaller than I expected but I still wouldn't have liked to be hit on the head by it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Well, I’m a little more clued up about why Spanish students are unhappy with the Bologna Process. Many of them protested in Barcelona yesterday, bringing out the riot police of the Catalan statelet. Reportedly, they’re concerned that “traditional Spanish degrees are being scrapped under the process, whose aim is to make academic degree standards more comparable and compatible across Europe.” Specifically, the students predict "educational inequality and insecurity" and the “commercialisation" of higher education. Translated, I guess this means they’ll have to work harder. And possibly achieve their degrees in the stipulated time, not over a decade or so. Or perhaps I’m being unfair. At least to 10-20% of the undergraduate population. Over at Kalebeul, Trevor has a take on this which is even more pungent than usual. I wonder how he survives. Possibly by disguising himself as The Baldie.

It’s good to see that in the important area of energy generation, Barcelona is ahead of the pack. I regret to say that the development reported would have allowed my father to say that great things are taking place in the dead centre of the city.

When I lived in Tehran 35 years ago, it was embarrassing - but flattering – to find that every Iranian believed that Britain still controlled the entire world, including the USA. Astonishingly, things are exactly the same now. According to a British reporter living there, the Iranians “imagine Britain to be fathomlessly powerful and duplicitous, constantly striving to achieve Iran’s collapse – a nation capable, in the Persian saying, of ‘cutting off your head with cotton’. To a remarkable degree, this perception has survived the end of empire and the decline of Britain’s global influence. No country in this age of cramped diplomatic horizons is more comforting to the British ego than Iran.” I miss it.

As it happens, this is the second time today I’ve quoted someone Persian but you’ll have to go to The Economist’s web page for the first. It’s somewhere among the 1260 other comments to the tendentious article on Devolution.

With the British government announcing ever-stricter [and controversial] anti-speeding laws, the subject is topical over there as well, not just in my blog. I won’t bore you with links to articles accusing the UK government of being more interested in revenue than safety but I will give you a thought that occurred to me yesterday. When I came to Spain 8 years ago, enforcement of not-very-strict laws was rather lax. Rather as things currently are with cigarette smoking. Now, however, the law is much tougher and the police ever more zealous. The former situation was surely wrong and the latter right, as evidenced by the declining mortality figures. But the odd thing is it used to be possible to be semi-relaxed about the local police chief being drunk after lunch and regularly driving into the back of other road users. Now, it seems outrageous and totally unacceptable. Though unlikely to change, I suspect.

Finally . . . I don’t know what ‘enables’ it or how it works but I see there’s a feature on this blog saying it has 12 Followers. This is, of course, very gratifying but I do wish the total would advance. Or even retreat. For, with this exact number of followers, I’m dangerously close to delusions of some grandeur . . .

Thursday, November 20, 2008

So, John Sergeant has removed himself from the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing program because of a serious risk the perverse British public would defy the judges and vote him to victory in a few weeks time. For those that don’t know, Sergeant is to dancing what Ghengis Khan was to pony trekking. Or what Stevie Wonder would be to needlepoint, perhaps. He has about as much skill as the ex bullfighter I saw on the Spanish version of the program a few weeks ago but - because of his entertainment value - is highly popular with the audience. The difference is that, whereas Sergeant is regularly savaged by the judges for his terpsichorean incompetence, the bullfighter was lavished with praise simply, it seemed, for being able to stay upright while shuffling around the floor. Something to do with greater respect for ex toreros than for retired political commentators, I guess.

If you’ve been following the saga of The Economist v. the Catalan government, you’ll know that, apart from seeking an apology from the former, the latter has said it will counter international ignorance and disinformation about the Catalan region/nation via an increased number of ‘embassies’ overseas. Which seems an odd thing to be doing in the teeth of a recession that could yet be a depression. But needs must, I guess. And, if scientists can make a new windpipe from a few cells and delineate the genetic profile of a woolly mammoth, maybe they can help out by cloning Dr Goebbels.

Galicia

With petrol prices now falling almost as rapidly as they rose a while back, the question being [re]raised is why the stuff is around 6% more here than in most of the rest of Spain. The suppliers say they have to pay one cent on each litre to the Galician Social Security as a healthcare levy. Which is fine but that still leaves at least another five cents unaccounted for. Perhaps they’ll come clean and tell us it has to be paid to the Galician Petrol Cartel.

I wondered out loud a few months ago whether the mistaken installation of the electricity meter on top of a new wall would be rectified before the house was occupied, by re-locating it in the wall. Well, this photo seems to confirm that they took the easier route of modifying the fence to go round it. Though I assume the cables going in and out of it really are temporary. We should know before the owners take up occupation some time within the next ten years. Having paid around 500,000 euros for the place four years ago. Which must have seemed like a good idea way back then.


The WiFi internet connection I get via my Catalan neighbours has been very slow over the last 24 hours. My guess is they’re doing some heavy film or music downloading. You’d think they’d be more considerate . . .

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

There seems to be a consensus here that relations with the USA are warming up. Maybe so but, for one reason and another, I expect Spain to remain the most anti-American country in Europe.

One of the sticks with which the Spanish media regularly beats the USA is its failure to sign up to the Kyoto treaty. Which make it all the more ironic that CO2 emissions have risen by only 14% there since 2002, against 51% here in Spain. Surprisingly, the best performance is from Russia, where emissions have actually fallen by 34%. As they have done in France and the UK, by 4 and 15%, respectively.

Galicia


A Pontevedra Photo Special . . .

A few months ago - during the summer - I posted a picture of the offices of the Rias Baixas tourist board, illustrating the challenge faced by those who wanted to access it. Well, things have moved on and this is how it looks now . . .


Or, to be more exact, this is the approach to the entrance you have to negotiate . . .


I guess it's a good job tourists are thin on the ground right now, despite the excellent weather.

Finally, this is the place - Campillo - where Pontevedra's youngsters used to gather for the botellón [binge drinking], before they were exiled to the other side of the river a few months ago. There used to be a number of trees here but, as you can see, they've all gone now. Reportedly, there'll eventually be lawns and shrubs here. Meanwhile, the good news is that the excavations have revealed a huge chunk of the walls of the old town . . .


I guess one day the cranes, bulldozers and diggers will cease their frenetic activity and life will return to its sedate, pre-boom state. Unless, of course, the council decides to invest in public works as a way out of the recession. Just when you thought it was safe to venture out into the street . . .

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reader Moscow has kindly cited this article, on how to go about doing business in Spain. It seems pretty accurate to me – and not too dissimilar to one or two other countries – but I particularly like the point that “Listening attentively, while a virtue in many societies, is optional in Spain.” Answering your mobile phone when you’re talking to someone else is, on the other hand, absolutely obligatory. Even if you’re a shop assistant attending to a customer.

But to be very positive about Spain – As I’ve said before, one of the great joys here is that there is certainly concern but no phobia about paedophilia. As a result, it’s still possible for the generations to interact the way they used to in the UK when I was young. And men of my age – or any age, for that matter – are not terrified of what will be thought should they even talk to a child. For an insight into just how bad things now are in Insane Britain, click here. A taster . . . “Negative sentiments are the direct consequence of the mistrust and suspicion fuelled by the prevailing paranoid regime of child protection. It is our obsessively protective parenting culture that is responsible for the erosion of inter-generational relationships.” The irony, of course, is that the Spanish believe the British don’t care much for kids.

Being rather more mundane . . . The operation of speed cameras is obviously a live issue for me right now. So it was interesting to read this article on the UK introduction of the latest average-speed technology. I guess we’ll have it here soon as it seems effective in its primary purposes of annoying drivers, disturbing traffic flow and maximising revenue. The Spanish traffic police announced a campaign against the use of mobile phones last week but, if they were really serious about this, I could nominate several spots where they could just sit and shoot fish in a barrel. It’s one of the de-merits of having a house in the hills that I drive up against a tide of fools coming down round sharp bends at excess speed and with only one hand on the wheel. But, anyway, it’s good to know that at least one or two of Spain’s cretins get nabbed.

I see Carrefour has sacked its Spanish Chief Executive. No reason has been given but I like to think it’s because of the complaints I made to France about the duff printer I bought there early this year, not to mention my thoughts on Carrefour’s response to my request for a new one.

I also see in today’s news that an oil tanker has been taken over by pirates off the coast of Africa. I have to admit to a fleeting hope that it's the one my neighbour, Nice-but-Noisy Tony, is currently sailing on.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Maybe it’s because times are really bad but Spain’s biggest cosmetic surgery company appears to be branching out. A large ad in today’s papers offers free armpit work if you have half the hairs on your legs lasered off. And both free armpit work plus ‘an English’, if you have a full leg job. I’m guessing this is an alternative to ‘a Brazilian’ but perhaps someone could advise.

Another thing I’m ignorant of is why the EU reforms of the European university system [the Bologna Process] get the goat of Spanish students. There were coordinated demonstrations last week in numerous cities around the country, involving thousands of unhappy young campers. Perhaps it will interfere with some of the time-honoured traditions of Spanish universities.

The annual Mr and Miss Spain contests are on us again. Interestingly, you can compete if you’re an unwed parent or a transsexual but not if you’re married.

The Union of the Galician People [the UPG] is regularly said to be the very heart of the Galician Nationalist Block [the BNG]. They’ve just finished their annual conference and the delegates were pictured giving the clenched fist I associate with the communist internationale. Which you can hear in one or more of 40 languages by clicking here. Where I read that it’s also associated with socialist gatherings. Though this doesn’t stop it seeming a tad anachronistic. To me at least. That said, perhaps they’ll all be singing it at future gatherings of the G8, G20, G57, etc. Which should make President Zap happy. Even more so his Economy Minister, who’s pronounced that the weekend’s jaw-jaw will mean ‘less market and more government’. Well, we will see. Mid and long term, I mean. Short term, we’re all socialists now.

Which reminds me – I discovered last week that the great economist Keynes – now back in fashion – had at least one thing in common with humble me. Having been mercilessly scoffed at years ago during a business school exercise for suggesting a car-build enthusiast might be prepared to pay more for the separate pieces of a vintage car than for a finished item, I was pleased to read that Keynes refused to accept that people would always behave in ways dictated by pure economics. So he wasn’t all wrong.

But from triumph to disaster - I had occasion this morning to pick up a jerry-can of heating oil. Half an hour later – for one reason and another – I had a car which stank of the stuff. In fact, the weather was so sunny and warm here today, I half expected to find my car on fire after I’d walked back from town. I also got myself and my clothes covered in the liquid and so put the latter in the washing machine as soon as I got home, along with a couple of towels. End result? Two towels that reek of bloody oil. But at least its price is coming down. Keynes, apparently, had nothing to say on this subject.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Earlier this week, the beer brand Watney’s Red Barrel was withdrawn from the market in the UK. I was reminded of this when cutting up chicken and beef for a couple of curries this morning and wondering just what is injected into the meat. It suddenly occurred to me that I was cooking near water. If this makes sense to you and brings to mind an old joke, you must be as ancient as me.

The Frenchman, Jean Monnet, is revered as the great visionary behind the EU. Fittingly so, it seems. For in 1948, he bought a property from a Swedish seller, making a last-minute demand that the price be paid in French francs and not the US dollars previously agreed. The very next day, the franc was devalued to a tenth of its price, leaving the poor Swede well out of pocket. You could put this down to good and bad luck but, then, this would be to ignore the fact Monnet was on the committee responsible for the devaluation. Plus ca change . . .

The comments to the Devolution section of The Economist’s Review of Spain have now passed a thousand. Interestingly, the most recent – as of late Sunday morning – have been among the best reasoned. If not exactly eye-to-eye. Talking of reasoning and argumentation . . . Over at [Barcelona-based] Kalebeul, the ever-trenchant Trevor had this riposte for the Catalan fanatics - What surprises me is that the ethnic supremacists think that the arguments which failed to convince a considerable majority of guiris [foreigners] will now suddenly work on an interested, international audience. You need a new gameplan, folks.

Living as I do in another region where the minority-supported Nationalists have arguably a disproportionate influence on how things are done linguistically, I also found myself agreeing with this comment from a [?]Dutchman - The Internet is wonderful. Just by reading the comments to this article, anyone unfamiliar with the situation in Catalonia and the Basque Country will get a more accurate image of the attitudes of ones and the others than by reading the original, and brilliant, article. I especially love Pere Joan's message, as it beautifully portrays the sort of fanaticism, fundamentalism and violence that drives regional nationalism in Spain.

I certainly wouldn’t want to say or imply that things have gone as far here in Galicia but the trend is clear. So it will be interesting to see how the Galicians vote next March and how things develop if either of the major parties have an absolute majority and so don’t need to have the Nationalists as part of a governing coalition.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

If you go to The Economist’s review of Spain and check out the on-line comments, you’ll see there are ten times more of these [almost a thousand] in respect of the Devolution section than for the initial overview [The Morning After]. If you’ve got nothing better to do this weekend and you want an insight into Spain’s tribalism, read all the Devolution comments. Or at least dip into them. Essentially, what you’ll find is a lot of intelligent, articulate Spaniards calling each other liar, cretin and [of course] fascist. But at least some of them seem aware this doesn’t play well. There's very much more heat than light and it's all pretty depressing. And grist to the mill of my view that only true federalism has any chance of eradicating this cancer in the Spanish body politic. But possibly not a very high one. Meanwhile, I’m increasingly happy I’m not in President Zap’s shoes.

Galicia

The new ‘children’s park’ down the hill is nearing completion. As you can see, it includes a floodlit, all-weather football/basketball pitch . . .

It’s actually been in use for a couple of weeks now but the only kids who come are from the two permanent gypsy settlements a kilometre or more away. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but since it was totally predictable, one has to wonder why this facility wasn’t built on or close to their land. Did the Poio council just not think things through? Or did, perhaps, the Nationalist [even-more-left-of-centre than the socialists] mayor of Poio think it would be appropriate/amusing to locate a magnetic facility in the heart of an upper middle-class barrio? I guess we’ll never know but, as you can see, the end result is there’s now a gypsy play/sports facility directly directly above the courts of the private tennis club.

Well, that’s not the only result, of course. The people living opposite the park now have rather more noise to contend with than they did previously. And I can’t help wondering whether the ‘social justice’ factor is sufficient compensation for them. Not that they were ever going to vote for a Nationalist politician, if it isn’t. Which, I suppose, the mayor may have realised all along.

Actually, the folk living near the park might not be the only ones miffed at events; I see the council is building a concrete stairway between houses up to some swings and roundabouts at the top of the hill opposite. But the really good news is that they're also taking the opportunity to put down the pavement that wasn’t laid 20 years ago when the first houses were constructed here . . .

Friday, November 14, 2008

Regular readers will know that one of the hangovers from Franco’s regime is a massive film dubbing industry. It’s rare to see a film in its original language with subtitles here and the upshot is that most Spaniards have no idea what an actor or actress really sounds like. This can lead to some very surreal situations such as the one I experienced while driving last night. A radio program was addressing the US cinema’s treatment of the race issue and extracts were played from both To Kill a Mockingbird and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Meaning, of course, that two Spanish dubbers spoke relevant bits. After which, the commentator blithely referred to these as among the finest of performances by Gregory Peck and Spencer Tracey . . . I almost crashed.

So Mr Zap has gone to Washington. Or at least New York. Where he will apparently preside at the death of what he’s dismissed as an era of neo-liberal economics initiated by President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher. And which he blames for all Spain’s current woes. Nothing to do, then, with the cheap credit, excessive levels of both debt and consumption, high inflation, pervasive urban corruption and a massively artificial construction bubble over which his party has presided for 5 years. It’s all down to those nasty Anglos. I’m surprised he didn’t call them fascists.

But, of course, he’s not alone in washing his hands of blood. As this article points out, over in the UK, the even-longer-in-office Mr Brown is doing exactly the same in respect of the even bigger “train wreck” which is the British economy. You have to hand it to these socialists. They certainly know how to bring a grin to one’s face. What is truth?, asked Pilate. And departed smiling.

And talking of corruption, El País reports today that private company directors will now face prison sentences in Spain. Just like those in the public sector, I guess. So they must be quaking in their proverbials. And El Público tells us that fraud in the field of solar panel grants has now reached 3 billion here. Thanks to President R and Mrs T, I suppose.

One of the reasons I’m contemplating moving to France in a few years times is that its health service is reputed to be the best in the world. Or so I thought. But now I see several others are considered superior and the place to go is Holland, Denmark or Austria. Germany even. More worryingly, Spain is below the UK. So perhaps it’s a good job the government here compels me to take out private insurance as a condition of residence. Click on the magnifying glass here for a readable snap of the Euro Health Consumer Index.

Galicia

The author of The Economist review of Spain gave an interview to El Mundo this week. This right-of-centre paper rather naturally focused on Cataluña and the reaction there. Click here for the text. What Reid says about Cataluña applies just as much to Galicia, I believe.

As if to prove the point, there was more nonsense in our papers today about the Galician Nationalist Party’s view that the Ombudsman should be strung up with piano wire for daring to make a comment about the growing conflict over Galician. One of the Voz de Galicia columnists today quotes someone else’s remark that a language has two types of enemy; those who oppress it and those who impose it. Quite.

The houses being built opposite mine here in Poio are just brick shells at the moment. It's taken almost 3 years for them to reach this stage but, in a year or so, I expect them to look like this:-


And then, for two to five years after that, they will surely look like these, 50 metres away:-

But to be more positive, the olive trees and [?]silver birch in this garden weren’t there yesterday. Not to mention the shrub on the roof. Impressive, eh?

Shame about the ugly boxes they adorn. But, hey, what's a boom for if not to be greedy and careless of aesthetics? Ask the odd couple, President R and Mrs T.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

One of President Zapatero's headline decisions after his recent re-election was to create a Ministry for Equality. He obviously felt there were things to do and perhaps he had advance notice of an international survey just released, which shows Spain falling seven places - from no. 10 to no. 17. The leading countries are the usual suspects of most of Scandinavia and New Zealand. But I'm a little dubious about the criteria and their sensitivities when Switzerland can soar in just one year from 40 to 14. And France even more impressively, from 51 to 15. Perhaps all males there were castrated.

Galicia

The Galician Ombudsman - possibly one of seventeen in Spain - has this week asked the local political parties to stop turning the issue of the Galician language into a battle. The angry reaction of the Galician Nationalist Party yesterday was to demand he be 'removed from circulation'. I assume this means sacked in Spanish.

Each time I walk into and out of Pontevedra, I negotiate at least 12 zebra crossings. These days, most of the drivers are pretty good about stopping when they see me waiting to cross. Though there is, of course, a minority who don't stop even if I'm actually in the middle of the road. The first challenge I meet is the one shown below and, as it happens, it's the one which receives the least observance from drivers. Mind you, those coming up the hill have something of an excuse, as it's positioned only a few metres after a blind bend. And then - as you can see - there are the drivers who help by parking right on the corner. Albeit on the pavement so as not to make too much of a nuisance of themselves.


Well, I've received confirmation of a 140 euro fine for a speeding offence I may or may not have committed nine months ago north of Santiago. As with the earlier request to confirm my car details, there's no proof offered. Generally, I'm all in favour of the police clampdown on bad driving here and I do actually try to obey the speed limits. But I fear I may be receiving a second fine quite soon, as I've been on the same 50kph dual carriageway at least once in the long period between the first offence and my realisation that the limit isn't 80kph as you come off the autopista. However, I'm being philosophical as I regard these fines as tax revenue and, so far, they represent only a quarter of the scrapped Patrimonio tax which, from this year, I won't have to pay to the Xunta. In other words, I'm still quids in.

Apropos of nothing at all - but following on from my comment the other day - another 20 year old youth died in the early hours of Tuesday morning, when his car hit a lamppost and was riven in two. Here's an article on this theme from a Voz de Galicia columnist, entitled Semana tras Semana. Or Week after Week.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I’ve mentioned previously the cartoonist of the ABC newspaper, citing his ability to accurately but cruelly depict Spanish politicians. If you click here and then scroll down to the small picture of 11/11 under the name of Martinmorales, you’ll see what I mean. You need to click on it to enlarge it, of course

Panic being the other side of the emotional coin from greed, it would be understandable if any government stretched the truth a little to avoid making a bad situation a lot worse. Some people believe the Spanish government, its construction industry and the banks might just have been colluding to do this with the house price statistics here. Stretching credulity beyond breaking point, the government insists that prices are still rising, albeit only marginally so. Yesterday, though, the Ministress of Housing said she thought they’d fallen by 15%. Whereupon she was summarily corrected by someone else, with the implausible line that she’d just been referring to some other idiot’s statistics. Mark Stucklin comments on this over at Spanish Property Insight.

It’s easy to make in impression in/on tin. And also, I guess, in/on gods made of the stuff. So it is that the Catalan government has had its ‘embassy’ in London send a formal letter of complaint to The Economist over references to this region in its review of Spain. And why not? If you’re going to claim/pretend to be a state, then you’ve got to find ways – however petty – to act as one. As a rule, nationalists are pretty good at criticising – and whingeing about – others but remarkably sensitive when it comes to comments about themselves. But, then, people with a victim complex always are. If I were the President of Spain, I’d get shot of them all. The problem in a democracy, of course, would be getting a majority of Catalan, Basque and/or Galician turkeys to vote for Christmas. So, failing that, I’d work with the opposition to forge a true federal state. For everything else, the opportunity costs are simply too high. Or would clearly look so if you could raise your gaze above tomorrow’s headlines.

The section on devolution in the review has now received almost 500 comments, many from angry or very angry Catalans. Given the tribal tone, It all makes for rather depressing reading. But I did learn something when ploughing/plowing through the rants; Christopher Columbus was not - as they think here in Galicia - from just outside Pontevedra but from Cataluña. Although I don’t think they’d entirely agree in Genoa. Still, I don’t suppose anyone will complain about Cataluña putting his head on their version of a Euro note, once the place is independent. Or an autonomous region of Grand Europe.

There’s no shortage of stuff to read on the global financial crisis, of course, but I’ve enjoyed this debate on the issue of whether capitalism should be transformed. Even more so this article on the failings of the international financial system, described by the author as “a greedy giant out of control”. I may be doing him a disservice but my summary is he thinks it impossible for the invisible hand to work when there’s a combination of greed, dishonesty and artificial churn rendering the market far from perfect. Resulting in a world in which the suckers are you and me and the financiers can make phenomenally profitable one-way bets in a casino which is rigged in their own favour. Until they bring the house crashing down, of course.

So . . . more regulation or better regulation? I guess we’ll have the answer after the New York conference. Perhaps.

Finally . . . God knows I’ve criticised Spanish bureaucracy over the years. But here’s an article on British aspects of the same monster by the inestimable Theodore Dalrymple.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Was it only yesterday I was admitting my [ignorance-based] concerns about the Spanish banking system were diminishing? I ask because of this headline in a British paper this morning -Banco Santander is to raise €7.2bn in fresh capital and foreswear further expansion in a shock move that raises fresh questions about the underlying health of the Spanish financial system. It will be an interesting week. Meanwhile, the president of the competing BBVA bank hasn't wasted any time in going on the attack. According to El País, Especialmente contundente fue la respuesta de la entidad presidida por Francisco González. Este banco comentó ayer, en una nota enviada a sus oficinas, que el Santander ha optado por una estrategia "mucho más agresiva" que la suya, al llevar a cabo adquisiciones en Reino Unido, Estados Unidos y Brasil, "sin que a la fecha actual se conozcan los impactos finales de algunas de estas compras. Todo ello supone importantes consumos de capital y aumento de los riesgos asumidos". It seems it has something to do with parcelling up and selling on mortgages based on phoney valuations way above the real value of the property. As was done for the desperately over-geared seller of the house we recently bought in the hills. Which parcels may now be more toxic than previously admitted. We will see. But I guess we won't be seeing Banco Santander picking up the two major Scottish banks, should the Lloyds TSB deal fall through.

BTW - There's an apparently informed comment on this subject [by mazbox] at the end of the Economist's review of the Spanish financial system. Click here, if you're interested.

Re-reading The Economist’s review today – not to mention all the numerous comments at the end of each section – I was struck yet again how much of a de facto federal state Spain now is and how it might be better for some of the regions to vote themselves out of it. Of course, it’s easy to say now that Spain missed a trick after the death of Franco by not converting itself back then into a truly federal state with some of the ‘intelligent design’ of, say, the USA and Germany. But the inescapable truth is that Spain is stuck with a messy political model that is probably going to be more of a hindrance than a help over the difficult few years ahead. Let’s hope President Zapatero is up to it.

The gentleman in question had a meeting with the country’s bankers yesterday, where they reportedly asked him to take advantage of his seat at next week’s New York conference to ensure that whatever measures agreed on are not primarily aimed at helping the German and French economies. Some challenge. But at least there’s a lot of nice mood music in Anglo-Saxon quarters about the smart response of the Bank of Spain to the country’s banking problems in the 90s and how these might be more widely relevant now. But more unexpected news from Banco Santander might just upset this applecart.

Moving to the UK . . . Insane Britain: No 347. Guidelines on how to mollycoddle your pets. More.

Galicia

I talked of seriousness yesterday and today I see that the Pontevedra police are going to clamp down on drivers who use the city’s loading and unloading bays as free parking spaces. Excellent. But will the campaign last more than the usual day or two? And will the city bring back traffic wardens?

At a session of a parliamentary committee, Galicia’s Chief Prosecutor has described the prosecution of municipal corruption as ‘a complete fiasco’. I wonder what he means. After all, while there may be one or two local people who are reported to be far wealthier than when they entered politics, I’m not aware of any big names being arrested.

At a more elevated level, the President of the Galician Nationalist Party[the BNG] has proposed the setting up of a new public body to act as a credit agency. I’m guessing this would fall into the BNG’s portfolio and that it would help to extend the control over the local business-financial nexus already exercised through the savings banks[the Caixas]. However, the Xunta President – and leader of the PSOE-BNG coalition – has hit the notion on the head, stressing that the financial crisis doesn't call for nationalist solutions. Meaning parochial, I guess. We must be coming up for elections.

Two Spanish soldiers – from a Pontevedra base – were killed in Afghanistan this week. They will naturally be given full funereal honours, with ministers and royalty in attendance. But the latest Galician youth to drive into a wall at of a Sunday morning won’t be accorded such treatment, of course. Which doesn’t seem entirely logical to me. Especially as effective policing of the local nightspots would come at a fraction of the military spend in Afghanistan. But maybe it’s not politically feasible. Or, more likely, I just don't understand politics.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Here is the Economist’s review of today’s Spain. I don’t have any difficulty with its contents, though I guess some will. I was particularly pleased to learn more about how the banks have operated here – at a macro level - and came away with a greater confidence they'd survive current difficulties better than in other countries. Until, that is, I read the apparently knowledgeable opinion of someone called ExtraDry that ‘Spain's banking regulation is no more "sound" than anywhere else’.

Living as I do in one of the regions which may or may not be a nation, a chord was certainly struck in me by the reference to “narrow-minded nationalism and localism”. Parochialism even, some would say.

All in all, I didn’t read anything to contradict my view that - just as Spain found it easy to grow dynamically under an EU regime designed primarily for Germany and France – she will find it tougher than these two countries [and others] to climb out of the recession.

Talking of the EU, here’s an article from the woman who blew the whistle on the massive fraud which characterises this organisation.

And, coincidentally, here’s a Prospect article by a young man who joined the UN because of his ideals and ended up with the conviction that it is irremediably broken.

So, President Zapatero will, after all, attend the global finance conference in New York next week. This is surely right but, given that the solution – allocating him one of Sarkozy’s two seats – would have been obvious to a half-competent lawyer from the off, one can only assume it’s lain in the drawer as the fall-back option during the last month of distracting negotiations. Which would explain Zapatero’s optimism throughout the dispiriting process.

Today’s Spanish papers carry a large ad for a product which claims to give pain relief in a large range of circumstances. The principle is said to be a “low-frequency electrical charge produced by crystals to provide prolonged pain relief which is clinically proven to work.” There’s also a web page for the company, based in Britain. Though I can’t find there any evidence for the claim in the Spanish ads that the product is recommended by the UK’s NHS.

Galicia

I often walk back from my wine and tapa at just the time the mayor of Pontevedra is emerging from the town-hall to go home for his midday meal. This gave me the opportunity today to walk through the crowd of fire-fighters who are demonstrating against their pay and conditions and claiming the city dedicates fewer resources to security than any other in Galicia. As it happens, the protestors are assisted in their challenge of making the mayor’s exit as noisy as possible by the nearby metal fence around the excavations done prior to the creation of another underground car-park. This was erected a year ago, when it was said it would be there for a couple of years. My own suspicion is that the fire-fighters will have the chance to bang on it for at least another four yet.

Closer to home, I passed a school where the parents used to block at least one the two lanes at the end of the road while they waited for their charges. But the two lanes have been reduced to one so there’s little need now for the traffic cop to do something about the offenders. Which, I guess is why he could stand on the edge of the crossing, dragging on a cigarette. While a young man drove past him using a mobile phone. Spain, as I often say, is a country where the emphasis is on fun. Which is fine. But sometime you can’t escape wondering whether it takes much seriously.

The bad news of the week is that the New Delhi in Vegetables Square has given up on the aspiration of being an Indian restaurant in a place where tastes in food are rather conventional. It is now Mama Dona Kebab No. 2, making it the 4th or 5th such place here. At least they’re still offering tandouri dishes.

In the restaurant where we had my birthday dinner last night – a Brazilian grill - there were two large TV screens on the wall, neither of which had the sound on. Instead we had a CD of La Oreja de Van Gogh on a loop. I’ve given up wondering why diners in an upmarket restaurant would need just one TV on the wall, never mind two. Perhaps it’s compulsory to meet minimum noise requirements.

I fear greater age is making me even more obstreperous.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

As it's my birthday today, I'm giving myself the day off. In place of a post from me, here's an overview of Spain from one of the contributors to the 5Spaniards webpage I cited the other day. Reader Moscow praises it for its common sense. Which is good enough for me.

En passant, I did post something late yesterday. Not to be missed in your rush to read the following . . .

Oh, yes. Any typos or spelling mistakes below are those of the writer and not a result of my editorial blindness.

Spain Today

Jaime Pozuleo-Montfort, 4 November 2008

Spain represents today a complex environment driven by civil war discrepancies among baby boomers, an unstable equilibrium between nationalists and centralists, a difficult coexistence of regional languages and Castilian Spanish, an always existing terrorist activity, and now a deja-vu come back to times of recession and high unemployment after a real estate boom abruptly ended.

Many would identify the 2004-2008 period as the toughest political environment in Spain’s recent post-Franco times, in spite of a low terrorist activity and strong economic growth coupled with prosperity and low unemployment rates. The Administration of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has moved forward on the social-liberal front but has rescued from Pandora’s box, issues that belonged in the memory of many Spaniards, including the Law for Historic Memory (Ley de Memoria Historica). Zapatero’s approach to politics is oftentimes considered divisive and stems from an ideology division of the country that once was and will never be, only present in the minds of baby-boomers.

The center-right commanded by Opposition Leader Mariano Rajoy has been incapable of finding a leader of the caliber of former President Jose Maria Aznar, who continues to be, along Fraga, the shadow President of the Popular Party. In a total absence of intra-party debate, and with freedom of speech and brainstorming banned from the party’s rows, well positioned politicians like Madrid’s Mayor Alberto Ruiz Gallardon or Madrid’s regional president Esperanza Aguirre, have continued to remain away from aspiring to become once and for all the well-needed leader the center-right needs in Spain. Rosa Diez, once upon a time Secretary General of the Basque Socialist Party, abandoned her former party to found the only center party with political representation in Madrid’s Congreso de los Diputados (Spanish Parliament). Diez was the only Member of Parliament elected from her own party.

There is no doubt Spain’s 1980s were dominated by Felipe Gonzalez, 1990s by Jose Maria Aznar and 2000s by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Each decade has seen a leading political figure emerge that has later become Prime Minister of the Spanish Monarchy. The leading figure of the 2010s is yet to emerge.

On the economic front Spain’s proud achievement of surpassing Italy in per-capita income terms has now come to an end. Spain’s economy shrank by 0.3% in the third quarter of 2008 and is now on the verge of entering technical recession. The phenomenal growth of mortgage credit and a low-interest rate economic environment that fostered the arrival of millions of immigrants, enabled an economic growth based on tremendous increases in the real estate activity, that pushed up home ownership rates and transformed the country from a society with quasi negative demographic growth just under the 40 million inhabitant mark, to a society of 45 million, 5 million of which are immigrants.

The three amigos Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Pedro Solbes and Miguel Sebastian, Premier, Finance Minister and Industry Minister respectively, have thus far been unable to find the secret formula that will put Spain back on the track of economic growth and convergence. Spain’s continues to struggle on the economic front with an unemployment rate that has reached 11%, the highest in any country of the European Union, and is likely to reach up to 15% through 2010.

This is today’s Spain, a country divided along political ideology, with political forces that lack innovation and forward-looking ideas, and a divisive political landscape that is mimicked by media conglomerates, which align along ideologies and offer tailored-made products to their respective audiences.

The political center was abandoned by both Socialists under Felipe Gonzalez and by Populars under Jose Maria Aznar. Adolfo Suarez, second Prime Minister in Spain in the post-Franco stage, has been the only moderate who has secured the top spot in Spanish politics.

Spaniards have yet to rediscover what center-politics is all about. Independent media are generally speaking absent from the news landscape. Prestigious platforms such as EL PAIS have a widespread admitted bias towards the left, and other leading newspapers such as EL MUNDO or ABC align on the center-right or the right of the political spectrum.

Spain’s continuous struggle to gain a confidence and trust vis a vis its Northern European neighbors is likely to perpetuate. The debate more versus less autonomy for Catalonia and the Basque Country will be always present. The struggle between the Catholic Church and the Central Administration is likely to last longer than expected, and inefficiencies in the labour market will persist and perpetuate if reform is not undertaken. The key to Spain’s future is increase investment in education and a continuation of the investment in infrastructure and public transportation, along running a more efficient local, regional and central Administration.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Here's my take on the Obama beatification. Except it isn't. It's the always-excellent Matthew Parris, writing today in The Times. But I could have written it. Honest.

I think I can say without fear of contradiction that The Economist's latest diagnosis of Spain is not on any Pontevedra news-stand and is unlikely to appear on one in the week ahead. Which is a shame. Vigo, perhaps. Or maybe La Coruña or Santiago.

So the Scottish Nationalists failed to win a bye-election that everyone expected them to walk away with this week. Hardly surprising really, given how obvious it is that Scotland's two major banks would have gone under without help from the British exchequer. Meaning English taxpayers, of course. As I've long said, the Scots were always going to be far too canny to vote for the cold world of independence. Even less so now. So maybe we've seen the peak of nationalism north of the border. But we'll know for sure after the 2010 general elections.

Talking of would-be independent nations, it's reported today that the authorities in the Basque Country have taken to buying juvenile Moroccan immigrants a one-way ticket to La Coruña and putting them on the bus to Galicia. How's that for solidarity?

Galicia

A friend tells me that the radar machine I mentioned yesterday has long been the most revenue-productive in the whole of Spain. And that it may recently have been switched off as being a contributory factor to a high accident rate on the relevant stretch. However, neither of us is going to test things by hurtling past at 80.

My town-house in Poio is one end of a block of four. I mention this because the same friend tells me that he was giving an English lesson in the house at the other end this week and was told that they, too, suffer from Tony's bawling. But, being two houses away, not quite as much as me, of course.

As I write this, Everton have scored 3 goals in the last 5 or 6 minutes of their game with West Ham. What a good birthday present. Even if it's a few hours early. But not as good as the prospect of Tony departing tonight for six weeks at sea.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Spain's constructors and property developers hold an international conference in Barcelona each year, called Meeting Point. All you need to know about this year's event is that the aisles between the stands in the exhibition centre are considerably wider than usual, even though human traffic is well down. Sounds like a gas.

This is the page of a group of people who hanker after a true centre party in Spain. As is the local custom, this will make them 'fascists' to some on the Left. They say their site is The first website written entirely in English and devoted to an in-depth analysis of Spain's developments across a number of areas including politics, the economy, business, foreign policy, education and more. I wish them well. Unless they start to steal my readers, of course. Pending that, you can download the October edition of their digital journal from this site and register for regular receipt.

According to someone in Oxford, these are the ten most irritating phrases currently in use in British English:-
1 - At the end of the day
2 - Fairly unique
3 - I personally
4 - At this moment in time
5 - With all due respect
6 - Absolutely
7 - It's a nightmare
8 - Shouldn't of
9 - 24/7
10 - It's not rocket science

God knows what lawyers would do without No. 5. Especially the supercilious ones.

Talking of the English language, I was unimpressed to see this sentence in an article in a major British paper this morning - Hamilton said the incident was far from a laughing matter but was greatful for the support of his fans back in England. If you need to use your spellcheck to find the error, be greatful you have one.

And turning to Spanish . . . I've always assumed that the Spanish for queue-jumping [Yes, the concept does exist here] - or colarse - is related to the world for tail, or cola. In this, I'm obviously influenced by the fact that the word 'queue' is French for tail. But a Spanish friend insists colarse is related to the word for the contraption used to separate cream from milk, el colador. Which must be a cousin of the English word 'colander', the strainer through which water is drained off vegetables and the like. Anyone want to argue the toss?

I recently mentioned an article by The Economist on Spain without knowing it was written in 2004. So I will now compensate by advising you of their What does the future hold for Spain?, due to hit the newsstands tomorrow.

Galicia

This article on the case for legalisation of prostitution in the UK reminded me that, on the way to and from Vilagarcia last night, I passed the Club de Mont Parnasse, the Club Pigalle and the Motel Montecarlo all within a hundred metres of each other. Clearly a very francophone stretch of the highway. And, with commercial astuteness, sited exactly midway between Pontevedra and Vilagarcia.

Talking about this road . . . There's a hilly, bendy section where, within quite a short distance, the speed limit used to go 50, 80, 60, 70. Needless to say, there was a radar detector in the 60 bit, a couple of metres before the 70 sign. There still is, in fact. And, to be fair, there's a large sign in the 80 section giving you fair warning of it. However, the 60 sign has now been removed, meaning that you hit the radar while under the illusion you're in an 80 zone. In other words, exactly the same sly manoeuvre I fell foul of when driving to Ortigueira early this year. This may or may not be illegal but it's surely another sign [sorry] of desperation in trying to raise municipal revenue. En passant, when you come through this area in the other direction, there still is a 60 sign. But, then, there's no radar machine for that side of the road.

I have, of course - in my capacity as a man who's no longer young and in a hurry - drawn the appropriate conclusion from all this. So, if you're motoring in Galicia and you come up behind a driver who's keeping irritatingly to 50kph, regardless of what the signs appear to say, that'll be me, folks.

Finally . . . During my talk on my blog last night, I said that the hardest part was editing the draft and that, despite great effort on this, I was regularly shocked to find the next morning I'd missed some glaring typo or spelling mistake. And what do I find this morning, when reading yesterday's post? Only "I'ff off now . . ." Which I must have missed at least ten times. But I guess I should be greatful there weren't worse gaffffes.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Sky TV today has a special report on those of Britain's Most Wanted Criminals who live on Spain's east coast. The aim is apparently to enlist the help of the British community there in catching them. It will be interesting to see what results are achieved.

Another interesting development to watch will be the Spanish government's response to the reported desire of the ETA Basque terrorist group to re-start a dialogue. Especially as the last one ended with a bomb at Madrid airport and a lot of flack for the administration. If it does happen, it's hardly likely to be public. So we'll never know until it's over, one way or another.

Reverting to the subject of anti-Americanism . . . The way, over the years, I have defended the USA against its numerous detractors is to stress that the country is so large and diverse that it's possible to find there both the very best and the very worst of humanity. The challenge is to avoid concentrating on the latter. Which is usually done out of ignorance and a susceptibility to stereotypical thinking. Not to mentin political self-interest. I was reminded of this today when reading a columnist who rehearsed all the positives about Obama's election and the global response to it but then added:- This does not get rid of the deep opposition that now exists to the US taking a leading role in the world, and the suspicion of its motives. It does not get rid of the filter of prejudice that takes for granted the best that the US achieves, and exaggerates the worst. If Obama manages to overcome all this, he will truly be a great president. But he's certainly up against it. Especially as, according to the same writer, Expectations of Mr Obama around the world have moved from the vocabulary of politics into magic.

If you'd like an insight into one of the challenges facing President Obama, read this Prospect article on what's happening under Putin in Russia. Let's hope the rather inexperienced new incumbent has better advisers than those of the outgoing George W Bush. Especially as the Russian response to his election was to put rockets on the Polish border. Welcome to the real world, Mr President.

Galicia

A couple of interesting local headlines on that election:-
- What would Obama reform if he were Galician?
- 'Now for a gypsy as Spanish president', says a member of one of Galicia's minorities.

If you have a local government, 11 or 12 local newspapers and a local TV channel, it's pretty inevitable that each of the three local party presidents is going to air his views on a US election. And that each of them is going to offer the cooperation of both his party and of Galicia as a whole to the victor. Who must be touched by it all. And possibly relieved that he isn't going to be opposed here. By anyone, apparently.

Which reminds me . . . Recession notwithstanding, the government of the region/nation of Cataluña is going to be spending 2.2m euros on its overseas 'embassies' next year. An increase of 63% on this year. When it comes to the trappings of a state, where Cataluña goes . . .

We went to see a foreign film at the Caixa Galicia cultural centre in Ponters this week. On entering the room where the three screens were set up, we were each given a ticket for this - free - event. I've long given up being surprised at the Spanish affection for pointless paper but I did wonder whether it occurred to anyone Spanish attending just how unnecessary this was. I suspect not as they're so inured to being asked for 'just one more document' by people whose jobs depend on the production and collection of paper. Essentially, it's a vast job creation/retention scheme, I guess.

Anyway, I'm off now to finalise a talk entitled One Man and his Blog that I'm giving in the infamous town of Vilagarcía tonight. If I don't return, it will be because some angry Galician Nationalist has hit me on a zebra crossing. Where I will be an easy target because of its elevation.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Thank God the interminable US election is finally over and that the result went the way it was expected to. Someone has noted that neither of the candidates seemed very aware we're in the midst of a global financial crisis and I was reminded of a comment I heard 30 years ago in Boston, viz. that the USA has an electoral system which the rest of the world can't afford. Anyway, good luck to the new president with his almost impossible challenges. Will he disappoint as much as Tony Blair? Perhaps even more so but I guess it will matter less, as he'll always be the breakthrough president. Whereas TB is just another busted flush.

The Spanish media seems deliriously happy about the result, whatever the politics of any particular journal or channel. Presumably they see a new chapter in US-Spanish relations opening up, though even if it does I can't see Spain ceasing to be the most anti-American country in Europe merely as a consequence of Obama's election. Even more sceptically, the American columnist Janet Daley asks:- Would anyone like to speculate on how long it will take the British and European left wing media to revert to its default anti-Americanism after the Obama ascendancy? And on how the Left will fill the vacuum in the meantime? After all, America-baiting has been the last bond sustaining the old ideological tie after the collapse of collectivism in eastern Europe. . . Life will soon be back to normal. Anti-Americanism cannot die: too many people need it for their own political purposes. The resumption of it will be problematic and nuanced, but they will get there in the end. I give it six months. I fear she's right but we will see.

Galicia

Both of the houses I own are on the edge of forests. Once the hunting season starts - as it just has - what this means is that Ryan and I regularly encounter dogs that have either wandered off from the pack and got lost or have simply been abandoned because they aren't very good at their job. And so it is we have a new friend, who looks like a cross between a spaniel and a pointer. Or we did have until - having taken him home, de-ticked and fed him - I took him with me on our walk last night and he promptly disappeared. But I guess we'll see him again sometime soon. At which point I'll have to decide whether or not to take him to the pound - where his fate will be uncertain - or to leave him to join the pack of nervous creatures that perpetually wander the forests.

Finally . . . The contruction of 17 houses opposite my front gate continues at its snail's pace and in due course these will be added to the million or so unsold properties on the Spanish market which some now say will take up to 15 years to clear. I'm very friendly with the site supervisor - I'm not sure he qualifies as a project manager - but the truth is the works have long been a bloody nuisance. The worst aspect hasn't been the noise, the dust or the mud on the road but the fact that, for almost 3 years now, the workers have parked their cars and vans outside my house, joining forces with my neighbour who parks in front of my garage to force me and my visitors to drive up to a hundred metres away to find a space. OK, it's really only a pin prick but I feel sure daily jabs can really mount up. I also feel sure you want photographic evidence of this. So here it is:-

First, the workers' vans . . .


And now my neighbour's big Audi . . .


Damn them all!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

One of Bin Laden's 19 children is said to have sought political asylum at Madrid airport, claiming that he's a pacifist. I guess every family has its white sheep.

I was amused by a report of a UK town council which fines folk for not separating rubbish items properly and then treats the garbage centrally in ways which break their own laws and would justify them fining themselves. This, of course, is inevitable when tax increases are dressed up as green initiatives. It took me back to when my daughter was fined here for parking a car half-on a pavement[sidewalk] that was already 100% blocked by three containers for residents' rubbish. I think the logic was that her car might force pedestrians to walk into the road. Unlike the containers, which automatically levitated when anyone approached.

Regular readers will be aware that, thanks to the vagaries of the Poio summer post, I'm working my way through four issues of Prospect all at the same time. Without apology, here's a fascinating article by the philosopher Edward Skidelsky, in which he lambasts several worthy targets. The header runs Contemporary liberalism's insistence that morality is a mere matter of rights and obligations empties life of its ethical meaning. We need a return to the virture ethics of the pre-moderns, and a renewed conception of the good life.
And this in a left-of-centre publication. Times certainly are a-changeing. We'll soon be permitted to be judgemental again at this rate. Not that I ever stopped being.
If you can't manage the whole thing, here's a few quotes:-
- By enshrining individual choice, liberalism has eroded the public language of morality, leaving nothing but a set of rules for frictionless co-existence.
- The romantic ideal of self-development has collapsed into mere consumerism. Far from rising upwards, we are sinking slowly downwards.
- Words such as "evil", "perverted" and "racist" have lost any exact meaning they once had and now simply serve to coerce and mesmerise.
- We have become a nation of relativists on the one side and ranters on the other.
I guess I must be a ranter . . .

He got there before Zapatero . . .
Scottish banks are the most stable in the world.
Alex Salmond, Leader of the governing Scottish Nationalist Party, January 2008

Galicia

If you've read - for example here, Chapter XXVIII - what George Borrow wrote about Pontevedra-Vigo rivalry 170 years or so ago, it won't come as much of a surprise to hear that the former is strongly averse to the latter becoming the capital of the burgeoning EU region of Galicia and North Portugal. A lost cause, I suspect.

In a village not far from me, 12 of the 14 kids in the local school are the children of Moroccan immigrants. It must be tough for them having one half their lessons is Spanish and the other in Galician, especially as they're confusingly similar languages. But it will give them better employment opportunities, of course, and they will be enriched by the experience. Unless they emerge speaking the mixture of both languages called Castrapo.

One strange outcome of the media campaign to expose just how much local politicos - and TV directors - have spent on their cars is the confirmation that the status saloon in Galicia [and Spain as a whole?] is a big Audi. Not a Merc and not BMW. Doubly odd when you think that an Audi is just a jumped-up Volkswagen. Though a fine car, of course. Why, I used to have one myself . . .

Some genius in traffic planning in Pontevedra thought it would be a good idea to raise the zebra crossings on the city's busiest roads to a height of at least 6 inches [15cm] above the tarmac on either side. In one stretch along the river, there are about ten of these within a kilometre. They allegedly do nothing for pollution prevention - not to mention your car. So I was pleased to read today that the height of at least some of them will be reduced. I wonder if they have elevated crossings in Vilagarcia and whether some of the pedestrian fatalities I mentioned yesterday aren't due to people falling off them.

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