Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hoylake and West Kirby on the coast of the UK’s Wirral peninsula are both very genteel places, with tea rooms to prove it. Essentially, Hoylake is where you go to die respectably - like Brighton, perhaps - and West Kirby is where you go to buy a small mansion to demonstrate how much money you’ve made. Strange to relate, Hoylake is home to the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, where Tiger Woods played in a British Open Championship not so long ago. I had a round of golf myself in Hoylake today, though not at the Royal Liverpool. I played at the municipal course across the road - where the great man goes to practice - with one of my oldest friends, Mike, from downmarket Wallasey along the coast, where we grew up together a few years back. All this is by way of an intro to a joke told at my Friday dinner with Spanish friends last week and which I related to Mike as we spoilt a good walk by trying to hit a tiny ball with a thin stick. As I said to him, it’s a classic of the Spanish genre. And here it is:-

A Frenchman, an American and a Spaniard are drinking in a bar in London. The Frenchman insists his bar in Paris is superior as, after two drinks, you’re given a third one free. The American counters with the claim that in his home bar you get a free drink for every one you buy. The Spaniard - a Basque called Patxi - laughs at these claims and tells them that in his bar in Bilbao you can drink free all night and then go upstairs and have free sex. Amazed, the others ask him when he last availed himself of these bounties. “No, not me.” he says. “My sister”.

So, why is this a classic? Because it hits several buttons all at once:-
1. It’s about sex
2. The sex is illicit
3. It’s set in a brothel
4. It centres on the stupidity of someone from another region of Spain
5. It makes reference to vainglorious Basque boastfulness, and
6. Women don’t come out of it at all well.
But it does lack one standard element - no one has ‘the horns’ put on them. No one is cuckolded or cheated on.

What this says, if anything, about Spanish culture I leave to you. But one other significant way in which it differs from many of the jokes of this genre is that it's quite funny. Though you may choose to differ. Especially if you’re a woman. And who could blame you? Funny thing, humour.

I mentioned yesterday that Spain’s GDP may soon be boosted by the numbers relevant to the huge prostitution, drug-trafficking and smuggling sectors of the economy. What I overlooked was that, once this happens, Spain will not only be less entitled to hand-outs from Brussels but will also be expected to contribute more to the central coffers. Which is why, it seems, Holland has been resisting for years the inclusion of prostitution revenue in its data. With some justification, the Dutch feel they pay enough already. The Spanish, of course, pay bugger-all but receive a lot. So, I guess we can expect them to now ally themselves with the hard-hit Dutch. Strange times, strange bed-fellows. Catholic Spain and Protestant Holland, each claiming there's no prostitution of any significance within its borders, despite the evidence of one's own eyes. And ears.

Here in the UK, there is currently a media feeding frenzy over the huge expense claims of Members of Parliament. Stoked by the tabloidisation of even the quality press, the situation reeks of British hypocrisy and prurience. And the vast quantities of froth are obscuring the basic truths that 1. The expenses scheme was a back-door way of giving the MPs a huge salary increase when this couldn’t be done publicly, and 2. There are now far more MPs than can be justified when much, if not most, of the country’s legislation comes from Brussels. There’s understandable panic among the political classes here that a lot more dirty washing is to be hung on the line. And they must be right. But this is clearly blinding them to the real threat facing them, viz. that their numbers will surely now be reduced to a far smaller total of professional MPs who are so well paid they don’t need to max out on their expenses. Not that many Labour MPs will worry too much about this as there will be many fewer of these after next year’s general elections come what may. Meanwhile, click here for a brilliant commentary on all this nonsense.

And click here for an even more stupendous piece on contemporary British society, which will surely leave you weeping if you are around my age. Or even if you just have the ability to look ahead a few years.

After the bathos, the pathos. Boom, boom.

Monday, March 30, 2009

As I’ve reported a few times, there’s a widespread view here that, generally speaking, the Spanish banks are sounder than any others And that, specifically, Banco Santander is as good a bank as you could get. All this strength and stability, it's said, stems from the learning of lessons in the last banking crisis of the early 90s. Nonetheless, there are one or two sceptics/skeptics around and it’s now fair to ask whether we’re seeing the first brown shoots of winter in the Spanish banking industry. For today saw the first banking rescue here, with one of the regional savings banks - or cajas - being taken over by the Bank of Spain, after a ‘fusion’ with another caja aborted. Personally, I suspect it’s true the Spanish banks avoided some of the sins of their international brethren but, at the same time, there probably was room for error and misplaced creativity during the carpetbagger years of the phoney domestic property boom. And so there may well be more chickens out there yet to come home to roost.

On a wider front - Here’s one view of the measures being taken by international governments to keep the world from imploding. It’s generally positive but a negative note is struck by the author on the subject of troubled EU members . . .“The summit's main response to the challenge of government insolvencies will be to boost the resources of the IMF by $250 billion. But it is far from clear whether this will be sufficient to bail out the many vulnerable countries on the periphery of Europe. It is even more doubtful that the IMF will turn out to be the right institution for resolving financial imbalances and political tensions within the eurozone and the EU.” Which will be rather worrying for those commentators who feel that the EU really must get its act together soon to stop the eurozone breaking up. Or perhaps not, if the non-availability of the IMF as the 7th cavalry forces the creation of a debt union and/or the initiation of quantitative easing by the ECB. If this last sentence gives you the impression I have a reasonable handle on things, I should admit that I’m really just winging it. As some of you may have long appreciated.

But ignorance is no bar to bullshit. So on we go . . . The EU has announced changes in national accounting rules to be introduced in 2011 or 2012. Under these, a country’s GDP will include activities such as prostitution, contraband and drug trafficking. This will be fascinating to watch as any one of these could conceivably take Spain zooming past Italy, France and the pound-stricken UK. All of them surely will. So perhaps President Zapatero knew what he was talking about when he forecast two years ago that Spain’s GDP would be higher than Germany’s by 2012. Not as daft as he often looks and sounds.

Finally - Another random aspect of life in the UK that appeals to me:-
- The absence of dogs barking throughout the night and the concomitant lack of a need to retire to bed stuffed full of ear plugs.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I wonder what it says about the UK that the main item on the BBC news tonight concerns the Home Secretary (Ministress of the Interior) offering to pay back expenses she'd claimed for two pornographic films her husband had seen on pay-per-view TV in their home.

Strange times.
This is really yesterday's blog, delayed by IT problems at my younger daughter's place.

Random examples of things that have surprised, pleased, amused or irritated me during the last five days in the UK in the UK . . . .

- Going into a roundabout secure in the knowledge no one is going to cut across me as I exit

- Getting the courtesy of an acknowledgment when I advise another driver that his/her lights are on.

- Seeing the latest innovations on the shelves of the supermarkets.

- Being able to buy wines from a range of countries, most especially my favourite New Zealand white.

- Seeing a young woman in Leeds sporting an off-the-shoulder T-shirt in a biting wind and with the temperature around 5 degrees.

- Not having another driver halfway up my backside.

- Noting the wide array of individualistic attire on the young women in Leeds shopping precinct, quite unimaginable in Pontevedra

- Overhearing a 13 year old girl in M&S telling her father "That's awful. Horrible. There's no way you're buying that!"

- Feeling more than ever that you're being surveyed constantly in the UK and regularly instructed what to do or not to do by power-mad bureaucrats who've been the main beneficiary of a 74% increase in municipal taxes over the last 10 years.

- Enjoying an early morning stroll with my daughter in brilliant sunshine under a cloudless blue sky, with the frost still sparkling on the acres of grass in her local park.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The European Commission has endorsed a report which comprehensively criticises property abuses in Spain. You can read the details here and, even more so, here. As for sanctions – or even much of a response from the Spanish government – my guess is these will amount to nil. But it’s hard not to see Spain being the loser from all this.

Here in the UK, the surveillance industry continues to grow apace. You can hardly drive round a bend now without some solar-panelled sign screaming at you to slow down - regardless of the speed you’re doing. And it was reported yesterday that local governments have used anti-terrorist measures more than 10,000 times in five years to monitor the activities of their malfeasant residents. These include rogue taxi drivers, noisy neighbours and people who don’t pick up their pets’ mess. And politicians wonder why they’re not trusted.

But there was even more depressing news in the media. Not the item about Britain’s youthful binge drinkers being second to only Bulgaria and the Isle of Man in Europe. But the confirmation that this is now more prevalent among young women here than among young men.

Talking of young women . . . I may have mentioned this before but most of the young lasses of Liverpool seem to have faces of a remarkably orange hue. Maybe it’s the ozone in the sea air.

Finally . . . While I may be a committed capitalist, I’m no lover of consumerism, even if it’s an inescapable outcrop. So, the British card industry has always seemed to me to be a massive waste of paper, even before I saw this week a Mother’s Day card to my mother from my father. The message on the front is Happy Mother’s Day to My Wonderful Wife and the poem inside runs:-
From the years we’ve been together
I know without a doubt
That you’re the kind of woman
Mother’s Day is all about.
You give your love so naturally that no one could deny
That our family is quite lucky
And I realise – so am I.

As my father has never previously bought a card for my mother in 65 years of marriage, you’ll appreciate this was purchased for him by one of my sisters. But not as a joke, I suspect. Though it gave me a good ironic laugh. But better late than never, I suppose.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Regular readers will know I occasionally cite the blog of Tory MEP, Daniel Hannan. Who’s possibly rather more famous today than he was yesterday, thanks to a speech critical of Gordon Brown which he gave early this week when the British Prime Minister attended the EU parliament. Just in case you’ve missed it, here it is. I don’t suppose it hurt Mr Brown as much as the unsupportive comments of the Governor of the Bank of England yesterday. But it was a lot more entertaining.

I mentioned yesterday that the Chairman of Telefónica aspires to making it the world’s leading digital communications company. In this, he says, he sees only Vodaphone as a serious threat. So, it was little surprising to read these two companies will be sharing mobile phone networks in various countries. Less surprising was today’s news that Spain’s broadband and mobile phone rates are much higher than the European average.

Like the economist Paul Krugman, the EU Commission sees the need for significant structural reforms in the Spanish economy, if competitiveness is to be increased. These would include improved training, a regularisation of work contracts and a stronger link between wages and productivity. There’s even been talk of salary cuts. Over at Ibex Salad, Charles Butler - acting as a proxy - has something to say on the last mentioned.

When you’re desperate to improve relations with the USA, just about the dumbest thing you could do would be to unilaterally pull your troops out of Kosovo without giving the Americans any advance notice. But this is what the Spanish government has just done and for which it is now trying to make rapid amends. It’s hard to know whether this gaffe is the responsibility of a young, relatively inexperienced Ministress of Defence or of the man, President Zapatero, who appointed her in the first place. Same thing, really.

Generally speaking, you need a lot more syllables with Spanish than with English to get a point across. The examples are countless but the words stupid (2) and estupido (4) are a good enough example. Except that, at least in schools, no one in Britain is allowed to call anyone stupid these days. The correct phrase is now ‘slow processing skills’.

Finally . . . I may be 62; I may have spent my life travelling; and I may have lived in six countries. But my mother today still felt it necessary to tell me which platform the train to Liverpool would leave from. So, thank God I had my haircut before I left Spain.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I see in one of the British newspapers that the chairman of Telefónica aspires to make it the world’s top digital communications company. Even worse, he believes that, wherever you go in the world, the recipe for business success stays very much the same. I guess he means that all you have to do is capture your customers, tie them up and then bleed them dry. But if he does achieve his ambition, I wonder if it will make it less or more likely I’ll ever get a land line for our house in the hills behind Pontevedra.

Here in the UK, I ordered a new mirror for my car via the internet today. Within a couple of minutes I’d received confirmation of its despatch. Which is impressive. Unless, of course, it’s a phoney operation and my bank account has just been cleaned out. Which, in its own way, would also be impressive. I guess.

It was much the same story with Brittany Ferries, when I contacted them to change my return booking. Within seconds, I’d received the revised travel schedule by email. Credit where credit’s due, I always say. And vice versa. But it is a little startling to have service of such rapidity. As I keep saying, perhaps the recession will force a re-think about customer service on the part of Spanish companies. Though not Telefónica, obviously. The chairman clearly thinks he's on to a winning formula.

Finally . . . The latest data on foreigners living in the Pontevedra province of Galicia reveals there are now 3,200 of us, with 90% living in the cities. The principal countries of origin are the usual suspects - Colombia, Brazil, Portugal, Morocco, Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, Rumania, Senegal and, of course, China. Countries providing fewer than a hundred immigrants are Italy, Paraguay, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Peru and France. For fewer than 50, it’s Germany, Bangladesh, the USA, the UK (22) and Mexico. Then Nepal, Japan, Korea, Israel, India, Egypt, Byelorussia and, finally, Ireland. Which provides, we’re told, just one soul. So, when it comes to Anglo and Teutonic ghettoes, nothing like the Costa del Sol, the Costa Brava, the Canaries or the Balearic Islands. Which probably has come negative connotations but I can’t think of them right now.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The one thing you don’t really expect to see broken down on the hard shoulder of a motorway is a hearse - a thought which occurred to me yesterday morning, somewhere between the inappropriately-named Villaviciosa and Santander. Possibly between the sign saying I had 90km to go and the one a minute or two later advising that the city had moved and was now 101km away.

After 8 years in Spain, I was always going to find a ship full of Brits to be a quiet place. In fact, I seemed to be surrounded by boat whisperers who were forever moving backwards or sideways to get out of each other’s way, while simultaneously apologising. Truth to tell, even though I do seriously miss some British courtesies, I found myself mentally agreeing with the Spanish that this is all bit a bit excessive.

As for peace-impairing levels of noise, I only had to move once to continue my reading elsewhere. This was because an indulgent father seemed oblivious to the impact of his kid’s non-stop screams and wails. But I will leave it to you to guess their nationality.

Still on noise – As we approached Portsmouth, a Spaniard from (I suspect) Andalucia decided to share a mobile conversation with the 40-50 almost silent Brits sitting upfront of the boat. Either that or his friend on the other end was seriously deaf. Surprisingly, it didn’t render me nostalgic.

As we came alongside the quai at Portsmouth, I saw the British destroyer Lancaster moored there and recalled I'd been on it in Vigo not so long ago. Not perhaps the big coincidence it initially seemed, as the entire British fleet appeared to be parked up in the port. A terrorist's dream.

Backing up . . . While I was checking in at the ferry port, I came up alongside a snazzy-looking, black Honda Civic at the other booth. From the driver's window a thin, tanned, braceleted female arm was gesticulating - rather imperiously I thought - at the woman dealing with the paperwork. Some time later, the Honda drew up alongside mine in the boat and a young woman of the footballer’s wife genre got out, took her bag from the boot and moved towards the stairs. Two minutes later she was back, almost screaming at me that my door was ‘actually touching' her car as I took my case from the back seat. Despite my Scouse origins, her shrill northern accent was above my pain threshold. And, as the word ‘car’ was strangulated out of recognition, I found myself simply muttering a sarcastic ‘Sorry’, while thinking she clearly had a lot more money than class. But I later regretted this. I should never have apologised. Still too British for my own good.

Monday, March 23, 2009

I’m in Santander today, en route to the UK. And writing this over a dish of squid in onions. And salt . . .

Santander’s historic centre was destroyed in a fire years ago but it still retains its splendid fin-de-siecle mansions along the coast road out of the city. Quite glorious in today’s sun. Of which, ironically, there will be more in Pontevedra today than anywhere else in Spain. A strange spring.

Talking of coastal places . . . I stayed in the lovely little port of Luarca last night and this morning stopped for a coffee in the equally picturesque little port of Cordillero. Both worth a visit but you might like to know that, whereas hoteliers reduce their prices in the low season, bar/café owners and restaurateurs clearly don’t. At least not where the tourists usually eat and drink. To be expected, I guess.

Which reminds me - the products available in the shop at the ferry port are about 25% more expensive than in the supermarket across the road. Also to be expected, I guess. But I know where I'm buying my mother's gin.

I was surprised to read last night that a quarter of British primary schools now have no male teachers. I had thought that decades of us males being portrayed as latent rapists or paedophiles had totally eliminated us from all places where kids might roam.

But to end on a positive note – It’s a big day for me today. My blog finally made it into Google Alert for Galicia. This week, at least.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the thousands of years of Man’s existence, his essentially selfish nature has been kept in check by a variety of belief systems. Most usually organised religion, I guess. So, it’s hardly surprising that the demise of religion has been accompanied by a growth in self-centredness. The Me-Me society, if you like. Personally, I regard the progressive liberals – liberal progressives? – as pretty complicit in this over the last fifty to a hundred years, with their emphasis on individual rights and liberties at the expense of anything else. Duties, for example. So it’s pretty ironic that the pressure building up to compel young Britons to undertake a period of compulsory “civic service” is coming from the Left. Witness this article from the left-of-centre, [still?] Blairist magazine, Prospect. It’s an idea which is already being tried out in both the USA and Germany, it seems. Well, this may be cynicism on my part but I’m not optimistic it will do much to reverse the trend. Though straitened economic circumstances might force a few people to query what they can – or ever could – afford. And whether it’s time again to think of others as well as oneself. Even before parenthood forces it on you.

Incidentally, the avarice associated with an obsession with oneself appears to be a prime cause of the financial mess we’re now in – and in which the not-so-greedy and downright frugal appear to be being hit harder than anyone. So it’s rather ironic - if my thesis holds any water - that the Left sees it all as the result of rampant capitalism. Which is partly right; unrestrained capitalism plus individual greed is a toxic mixture. Is it time for religion to make a comeback, given that Communism and Socialism surely won’t? Or is civic service actually the new religion? This year.

After that bit of homespun philosophy, here’s a more prosaic final paragraph which will only be of interest to owners of dogs with bowel problems. It’s been inspired by my waking up this morning in the middle of a dream about dog turds on my front lawn . . . If your pet is suffering seriously-liquid motions and is going in for a lot of fruitless squatting and straining, it’s possible it’s got coccidiosis. If you’re in Spain, it’s also possible your vet will give it useless – but expensive – blood tests and then prescribe equally useless modern antibiotics. However, what has finally worked on my dog is an old quinolone antibiotic usually prescribed only for humans. The generic name in Spain is ciprofloxacino [ciprofloxacin elsewhere] and there are many brands. The max dose for dogs is 15mg per kilo, against 20mg for humans. So you might want to ignore what the pharmacist says, if you say it’s for a dog and they just read the leaflet and recommend 20.

Of course, I’m only relating my experience and not personally recommending anything. So I take no responsibility for whatever happens. It’s a strong chemical and it would still be best to find a vet who knows what he/she is doing. Or, like me, research the web and then talk to a good vet.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

They’re a pugnacious lot, these Celts. At the Championship-deciding rugby game between Ireland and Wales this evening, there was a fight within the first minute. Of course, genetic studies have now revealed that the English have just as much Celtic blood as either of these nations but we like to pretend we don’t. And blame our bellicose tendencies on the booze. Many Galicians also like to think of themselves as Celts but they seem to come from a far more peaceable strain.

So, BAA – owned by the Spanish company Ferrovial – has been ordered by the UK competition authorities to sell one of its London airports as well as others in Britain. Some have said this is shoddy treatment of a foreign investor – a view which may gain traction in Spain – but others have suggested Ferrovial brought it on itself by maximising its profit at the expense of customer service, falsely assuming that the British competition authorities would be as tolerant of this strategy as those back home in Spain. Perhaps it’s both. Or maybe it was just a case of a company flush with funds being dumb enough to listen to the now-discredited investment bankers who love to see cash churning.

The good news for Galicia’s bureaucrats is that they’ll soon be able to take Ryanair flights from Santiago airport to Brussels. Which will obviate their need to drive down to Oporto in cars whose blackened windows screen off their embarrassment. On the other hand, even in these straitened times, will the region’s politicians be willing to travel cattle class?

Telefónica has announced it will be giving discounts to the unemployed, at least for a few months. No sign, as yet, that it’ll be offering the same to British pensioners whose income has dropped by 40% because of the fall of the pound against the euro. Bastards.

Finally, I’ve read that an English lady, Margaret Gimson, who’s lived in Galicia for many years and is an expert on camellias has written about her experiences here, in a book entitled “Los nuevos vecinos de Eugenio en la Galicia de España”. More info when available.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Reader Jorge feels I’ve neglected 2000 years of Christianity in suggesting the national mood of resignation or fatalism might be due to the influence of Islam. I guess there’s an mixture of things but it’s true that Catholics have a bent for confession followed by expiation through penance. So, maybe that’s it.

I also mentioned it was a standard aspiration here to have a good life at someone else’s expense. So I was interested to read today Spain has been awarded 337.5 million euros by the EU for energy infrastructure projects. When you consider that this is 82.5m than what was originally allocated to Spain, you can see how good they are at this game.

And here’s a good example of the sort of critical British article I was referring to, about Gordon Brown’s Faustian pact with capitalism, despite being a socialist at heart. Hard-hitting stuff. And fully deserved.

For English speakers, the guttural Spanish J can be a bit of a problem. In contrast, Spanish speakers have difficulty with an aspirated H, as in his, her, hotel, etc., etc. The link between these statements is that Spaniards often use their J sound for the English H, which can possibly best be transcribed as KH. I thought of all this when listening to a guy on the radio this morning talking about hip hop music. Or kheep khop, to be more accurate.

I had my car serviced this week and was alarmed to see on the bill that they’d checked the tyre pressures. Sure enough, they were considerably over-inflated. After 8 years, I wonder if there’s any place in Spain which is aware of manufacturers’ recommended pressures. Or cares.

But the good news is that my temporary wing mirror – cobbled together for a cost of around 12 euros – was good enough for the car’s technical inspection today. Though I’m not totally convinced they even glanced at it. However, all the other checks seemed very thorough. And the guy was happy to give me instructions in Spanish, rather than Gallego.

Finally, I see that the Spanish for Do-it-yourself is Hágaselo-usted-mismo. But, though the Spanish seem to love acronyms, I don’t recall ever seeing HUM for DIY. Or even KHUM.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

It’s St José’s day here in Spain today, as well as Fathers’ Day. So a very good excuse for a holiday. Or, better still, a two-day ‘bridge’ comprising both Thursday and Friday, ahead of the real weekend. There may be a crisis but some things are more hallowed than others.

As for said crisis and its political consequences, I’ve already noted there seems to be minimal inclination here to punish the government for its mistakes and its ludicrous statements and promises ahead of the general elections a year ago. And, unless I’m missing them, there seems to be a dearth of critical articles such as this one from today’s UK press. I’m not, of course, the only one to notice this. Visiting Cataluña, the British columnist Matthew Parry found that, despite the fact Spain is being hard hit by the recession, “There is (to British eyes) a curious distancing from political argument. Nobody seems to blame the Government or bankers or anyone in particular. A friend told me that everyone accepted that economically things had been too good to be true for years, and something had to give. Now it has. People just ask why it took so long.” So a mood of resignation, if nothing else. Fatalism even. And, not for the first time, I find myself wondering whether attitudes here owe something to 800 years of Islamic influence. Which should upset one or two readers quite a lot. Perhaps it’s a lot simpler. Maybe the Spanish knew all along they were having a high old time at someone else’s expense – a standard Spanish aspiration – and that a bill of some size would be presented one day. And so it has.

The truth is that not only has the government not been punished at the ballot box – discounting Galicia, where other factors were at play – but it’s actually increased its vote in the Basque country and is now reported to be finalising a deal with the Opposition which will allow it to rule there for the first time since the end of Franco. All very odd.

I’m writing this blog in a wifi café, where – I have to admit – I am sitting as alone as last week’s pilgrim. But at least today Spain’s noisiest young male is not sitting with his slightly less vocal friends at a nearby table. The program on the several TVs is in English, as I can tell from the ads, if not from the songs. In fact, right here in remote Green Spain I’ve just been subjected to Churchill’s bloody bulldog saying . . . well, you know what the little sod says.

No one can say the Spanish aren’t a friendly people. But, based on my three years in Tehran, I’d agree with the view I recently read that “The ordinary Iranian people are by far the friendliest and most welcoming in the world.” That said, I’d be prepared to agree the Spanish run them a close second. Maybe it’s down to the Islamic influence again . . .

Finally, here’s a photo of a house being built down the hill from me.


I show it here for no reason other that it may well be finished in under a year, possibly even 9 or 6 months. This may not seem unusual to you but it is where the average lead time is normally between 2 and 3 years. Which probably has more to do with the climate than with Islam . . .

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Writing about his mother’s funeral, a British columnist today hazarded a guess that only a tiny minority of his fellow countrymen die within a mile of where they were born. Having listed the positive aspects of this, he then suggested there was a downside – “What happens to civic pride, neighbourliness and local camaraderie in a society where people are constantly on the go? There are a hundred sad answers to that. Pubs, corner shops, churches, clubs and other socially binding institutions die. People don't talk to each other in the street. Old people wither away unnoticed. Kids feel no pressure to respect their neighbourhoods, because they see that their elders don't care either. Thus do communities crumble - rural villages as well as inner-city housing estates. Social mobility is one thing; rootlessness and the erosion of local pride quite another. We need a renaissance of the “extended” family - once the greatest support-mechanism known to working parents; now often torn asunder by the frenzy of modern life.” Hard to argue with this, especially from the vantage point of a society in which things have gone nowhere near as awry.

The Spanish Royal Academy has ceded to pressure and announced that the next edition of its dictionary will not include the information that, in some parts of South America, the word gallego [Galician] is a synonym for ‘stutterer’ at best and ‘stupid’ at worst. Though it seems that it will compensate by adding the expression hacer gallego, meaning to take all your opponents’ money from the gaming table. Which seems a good deal to me.

There is money laundering and money laundering, it seems. The Spanish government is reported to have said it will ask no questions of funds coming from tax havens, so long as they’re invested in government securities. Desperate times.

There’s a new clothes shop in Pontevedra - or possibly one I’ve never noticed before. It goes by the name of dayaday[sic] which may or may not be English, of a sort. Like el dumpin, which seems to be Spanglish for 'dumping', as in selling goods below manufacturing cost.

As in other parts of Spain, many Galicians are sure the local cuisine is without peer in the rest of the world. This conviction usually goes hand-in-hand with a gastronomic conservatism that would make my mother – ‘Garlic is the food of the devil’ – seem quite adventurous. I’m reminded of this by a report in today’s Voz de Galicia about a Chinese restaurant in Vigo which yesterday offered a free takeaway lunch to anyone who established they were unemployed. The number of takers? Just two. But they’ll be trying again next week. By which time I should have been able to get hold of a forged card.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

At last a non-partisan article in the Spanish national press on corruption. In El País today, Rosa María Artal spares no blushes in attacking Spanish practices and attitudes and calls for an end to this huge stain on the country’s reputation. What she’s up against is the statistic she quotes herself – Only 2% of Spaniards think corruption is a national problem. But, hey, it’s a start.

As it happens, I hear there’s a program tonight on British TV about land abuses down south. This should further postpone the day when Brits start re-investing in property here. I guess it’s just possible that economic distress will cause something of a re-think here. But it’s hard to be confident.

Talking of the economy . . . The eminent economist, Paul Krugman, came to Madrid over the weekend and re-acquainted President Zapatero with some truths about his room for fiscal manoeuvre within the eurozone and the pain which must be inflicted on Spain, if she is to resume convergence towards EU norms. In brief, ‘Very deep and unpopular structural reforms’. Hard times. Some, of course, have argued that this is exactly why Spain is in the eurozone. But this may take some explaining to the man in the street.

The north west of Spain is naturally not as hot and dry as the south of the country. Indeed, I recently described Galicia’s maritime climate to friends as ‘like living in the Atlantic but without the bobbing up and down’. And in winter we usually get a lot of rain. And I do mean a lot of rain. Though it’s not so wet right up in the hills, I believe. All that said, we’ve just had a month of superb sun and the temperatures today are again up in the 20s. In fact, at 29 degrees, the Galician city of Ourense was set to have the highest temperature of the day for all Spain. This city up in the mountains sits in a natural bowl, alongside the river Miño. As a result, it’s the only city in the country capable of achieving the national extreme at both ends of the temperature scale. Though not on the same day, of course.

It’s not unusual in Pontevedra to see two women coming towards you of similar height and build, wearing an identical style of clothes and sporting the same hairstyle, despite the fact there’s about 20 years between them. These, of course, are mother and daughter and it makes me smile to think how much of an anathema this would be for young British women. From the back, these be-jeaned mothers look like their daughters’ sisters and are referred to by my own sharp-tongued elder daughter as 17/60s. Seventeen from the back and 60 from the front. This is because she’s still nearer 17 than 60 and I guess her attitude could change.

A bar owner in Barcelona has been jailed for several years for driving his neighbours mad with noise. And down in Malaga new laws are being introduced to prevent one practising one’s guitar at home. The local authority says it’s imposing a max of 45 decibels generally and only 40 in bedrooms, which is described as being as loud as a library. I wonder if that’s a Spanish library or, say, a Japanese library. I’m left wondering by how far Tony’s bawling would exceed these. Not to mention every moped in every street in Spain.

Finally, an interesting article on that modern sham, the Irish Pub.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Is has to be said there’s quite a lot of ‘bad language’ in everyday Spanish discourse. Likewise in Gallego, where a common word is carallo. Or carajo in Spanish. Its basic meaning is the male member but its numerous derivatives make it an astonishingly versatile word. Rather than upset anyone by listing them here, I’m happy to send a little dissertation – in Spanish, ironically – to anyone who writes to me at colindavies@terra.es

I suggested the other day that a recession was normally a good time for students to keep their heads down and apply themselves to their studies. Reports of the sudden rise in applications to the Spanish Open University indicate that more people than ever are at least willing to take the first step of signing up for a course.

I’m not sure it’s the same people but the Galician Traffic Department up in Lugo has recently been implicated in a couple of perversions of process. Firstly, there was the announcement that an awful lot of people were being let off motoring fines in return for a contribution to someone’s benevolent fund. And, more recently, there was the uncovering of an elaborate set-up dedicated to the provision of un-merited driving licences to large numbers of Asians from all over Spain. So, if you’re hit by, say, a Chinese, Indian or Korean who doesn’t seem to know much about driving, you’ll now have some idea how he got a licence. Especially if he shows no understanding of spoken or written Spanish.

Here’s The Baldie with some pertinent comments on respective attitudes to race in Spain and the UK. On which issue there is mutual incomprehension, if not downright antagonism. In a nutshell, the Spanish see the Brits as obsessive, holier-than-thou, inverted racists, while the Brits just see the Spanish as simple racists - though often unwittingly and naively so. Which, in turn, the Spanish see as insufferable arrogance. All in all, it’s probably best not to raise the subject in public. Unless you’re Trevor. I steer clear of it, of course.

Here in Galicia, the serious loss of electorate support has finally persuaded the president of the Galician Nationalist Block – Anxel “Cock of the Walk” Quintana – to hand over the reins to someone else. Though the consensus is he jumped before he was pushed by what one writer today called his ‘cannibalistic’ colleagues. And, talking of the recent regional elections, the count of the overseas vote has now deprived the PP party of one of the seats won by them on the purely domestic vote. This won’t change anything as they still have - just - an absolute majority. But it seems a rum turn of events to me when local elections are decided on the votes of people who’ve possibly never even visited here. Especially, I guess, when some of us who pay taxes here don’t have a say in the matter.

Finally . . . While some Brits go native when they arrive here in Spain, it seems some of us only achieve it when we leave.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

I learned today of the existence of The Commission for the Rationalisation of the Spanish Timetable and its Normalisation with Other European Countries. It’s been running since 2003 and my immediate question was – What has it done in 5 years? This was actually posed in a Q&A in the article and the answer, though 83 words long, can be briefly translated as ‘Nothing’. Which didn’t come as a shock.

I’ve occasionally commented that I think the Spanish media goes too far – for me, at least - in its publication of photos of blood and gore. Not to mention bullet-ridden and decapitated bodies. But El País may finally have overdone it, even for local [non]sensitivities. I didn’t see it but earlier this month it published a picture of the naked body of a woman in Mexico who’d been raped and murdered. This actually provoked some angry letters and, today, a response in the paper. Needless to say, this was pure sophistry. To me, at least.

Surveys here suggest most Spaniards don’t actually care that much about Gibraltar. My guess is the same applies in Portugal in respect of the town of Olivenza, which the Portuguese government continues to insist be returned to them by Spain. In this post, Daniel Hannan equates the two but I have to say the place didn’t sound or feel very Portuguese when I visited it last year. That said, if the British government didn’t desperately want to get shut of The Rock, they might be able to make something of the interesting historical and legal parallels.

Talking to my Spanish friends – all ladies, obviously – about the relative merits and demerits of supermarkets here, there was no consensus on which was the best. But we all hated Carrefour. And not just because it’s French. And we all agreed that the Valencian Mercadona chain seems to employ intelligent staff and then actually train them. So, for example, they won’t treat it as a competition if both you and they are heading for the same aisle or door with your respective trolleys. One which they must win, at any cost.

Talking of shopping . . . For the last year or so, I’ve been buying bird seed for the bottom of my garden. As a result, I now have a resident sparrow community numbering around thirty. Anyway, despite the fact that the supermarkets – led by Mercadona – have just embarked on the most vicious price war in their history, I see the price of a packet of seed has just soared by more than 20%. So, it’s bye bye, birdie, I’m afraid. Every little helps.

And still talking of shopping . . . I continue to fail to get the hang of Spanish modalities. Wanting something from one of the local ironmonger Aladdin’s caves, I decided not to hang around and wait to be asked if it was my turn but to do what everyone does and ask an assistant dealing with someone else if they had a glass-cutter. He said Yes and he’d come back to me very soon. I then waited as he finished with the customer and then toured the shop, downstairs and upstairs, in obvious search of something. But, when he came back, he asked me “What was it you wanted again?”. Needless to say, at least two people who’d come in after me had been served while I waited for this.

I can’t recall whether, at the last count, the number of local daily newspapers available in Galicia - pop. of around 3m – was 13 or 14. But to my astonishment, there was another on the rack this morning. It’s El Ideal Gallego and it seems to be printed in La Coruña. And this is at a time when major national newspapers around the world are struggling to survive because of internet developments. Can all of these journals really be kept alive by real café subscriptions and ghost subscriptions from the town halls and the regional parliament? I guess so.

Finally, there were two conferences on Global Warming last week. We've all heard the pronouncements from one of them but few of us will have been aware of the one described in this article. All rather confusing. Pick your experts.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

I saw a strange sight in a café this morning - a solitary chap reading a book while taking his coffee. Clearly, he was unaware it's forbidden both to be alone and to read books in a Spanish café. Plus it's compulsory to chat, preferably at the same time and volume as everyone else. Though you are permitted to flick through any number of newspapers while doing so. But all was explained when I later saw him wending his way along the Portuguese camino to Santiago that runs through Ponters. A foreign pilgrim with higher things on his mind. So, more likely the Bible than the latest 'erotic' novel given away by El País.

Talking of Spanish café life . . . There are a lot fewer people around of a Saturday morning. I guess the reason is two-fold:-1. Many folk are sleeping off last night’s juerga; and 2. There’s no work to be taking an hour’s break from. Or two hours, if you’re a civil servant.

Replying to a message from Mike the Trike this morning, I was reminded of a quote by Angel Ganivet about the Spanish that I’d noted yesterday when fixing broken links on my Galicia web page. It’s included here. As I said to Mike, the universal attitude to rules here – whether you’re an individual or the government – is that they’re to be accepted in principle but ignored if they’re inconvenient to you personally. Screw everyone else. Especially ignorant, insensitive funcionarios in Brussels who are threatening Spanish culture by trying to stop 10 year olds throwing fireworks at each other. And the British worry about their bananas being straightened! Or used to until the directive was scrapped last year. By the way, there’s also a quote from Katherine Hepburn which nicely sums up Spanish society.

I mentioned yesterday a hard-hitting El Mundo editorial against corruption in the opposition PP party. Graeme of South of Watford has kindly confirmed his view that the target was really its president, Sr Rajoy, and not the party itself. Or even corruption, I guess. The other thing odd about the article was the way in which it talked about the guy accused of bribing party officials – Sr Correa – as if were already a convicted, jailed felon, rather than someone who merely stands accused of, admittedly, a series of offences. However things look, isn’t there a presumption of innocence here?

Finally, here's a fascinating article on leadership, at the end of which the writer poses the question - So, if we cannot bear heroes with feet of clay, must we prepare ourselves to have no heroes at all, and instead look up to boring functionaries who rely on reassuring clichés and the bland avoidance of the truth? Sadly, the truth is that in the increasingly tabloidised Age of the Bureaucrat there can be only one answer. But I guess it's better than fighting the Germans every few years. My suggestion, which I expect to fall on stony ground, is that we start the fight-back by arraigning Rupert Murdoch before a war crimes tribunal. Which would possibly be rather ironic as he may well be a brilliant leader.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Well, four more car-knackers yards and still no wing mirror. Boy, are these down-to-earth places. But I was wrong to suggest none of them has any system for storing parts from wrecked cars. The big one near Vigo certainly does. But it compensated by having an anarchic ordering system which was essentially a free-for-all. So, as I’m still too British for this rough and tumble, it naturally took me longer to get a negative here than anywhere else.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand how rules work here. On the way into town this morning, I saw two motorbike cops cast a glance at three cars blocking the ambulance emergency bay outside the health centre and then just drive on. Ten minutes later, I saw them do likewise in the centre of town for a car parked three quarters on the pavement. It had its hazard lights on, of course, and I know the Spanish think this makes cars invisible but I could certainly see it and I imagine the cops could too. Perhaps they were on their way to the richer pickings of the little cul-de-sac where many of us have been hit in the last couple of weeks, even though there’s space aplenty. Which makes a good lure, of course.

My impression is that there’s a pretty widespread view here that the three to twenty years spent at university are somewhat less than taxing for the majority of students. At times of economic duress, you might think they’d keep their heads down and concentrate on getting a qualification to help them secure employment. In contrast, Spain’s streets are still ringing to the sound of demonstrations against the Bologna Process designed to adapt Spanish universities to European standards. For what it’s worth, the students say they’re protesting against back-door privatisation but one does wonder whether the real concern is the ending of comfortable Spanish practices.

I say there’s economic duress but, if the students read only the newspaper front pages, they could be forgiven for not being aware of it. For some time now, these have been filled by accusations of corruption against whichever party the paper’s owners don’t support. The right-of-centre El Mundo did have a hard-hitting editorial the other day, demanding that the president of the conservative PP party gets to grips with the corruption daily chronicled by El País. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Graeme from South of Watford felt this was really just another bit of undermining of said president as a prelude to him being replaced by El Mundo’s favoured candidate for succession - the woman Graeme loves to hate, Esperanza Aguirre, the Presidenta of the Madrid Region. And he might be right.

Two weeks after the elections there, things are still unclear in the Basque Country, as the government and opposition parties strive to forge some sort of deal that will deprive the local nationalist PNV party of power after thirty years. Whatever this signifies for that region, it should mean that in Madrid the minority socialist government will lose the voting support of one of the smaller parties which have kept it in power. Which will make things interesting, if there’s a vote of censure brought by the resurgent Opposition. Indeed, another of the smaller parties who’ve been bribed into supporting the government – the Galician Nationalist Party – has reacted to its loss of power here by becoming rather more critical of Madrid than it managed at any time over the last four years. It has, for example, suddenly joined us sceptics in dismissing claims from the Ministress of Development – previously endorsed - that the AVE high-speed train will be up and running by the end of 2012.

Finally . . . I’ve been updating/correcting my Galicia web page and I was reminded that someone wrote to me a couple of weeks ago to say that the para below showed I was a racist bigot. I have to say, I’m not entirely clear why. But the amazing thing is he said he’d been brooding on my offence since he first read the page 5 or 6 years ago and had now decided to show me – at very great length – just what an arrogant British bastard I was. It takes all sorts:-
Located up in the north west corner of Spain – above Portugal – Galicia is separated from the rest of the country by extensive mountain ranges on all sides. To the south, though, only the river Miño separates it from Portugal. For hundreds of years Galicians looked west for the solutions to their problems - to the New World – rather than to the rest of Spain. In its turn, Spain regarded Galicia as a poor - and not-too-bright - relative and treated it rather shabbily. Until recently, the roads through the mountains were less than adequate and the journey from say, Vigo, to Madrid took 10 to 12 hours. With the opening of the A52 and A6 autopistas, this can now be done in less than 5 hours. Possibly even 4 if you drive at the sort of (illegal) speeds which are quite commonplace on Spanish motorways.

Here’s a link to the page, if you want to read more about Galicia. Please let me know if any of the links there still aren’t working.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I’ve stressed over the years just how much Spain – or Galicia, at least – is a personal, face-to-face, here-and-now sort of place, where there’s a high premium on verbal skills and charm. This has serious consequences for, say, anyone who’s waiting for a reply to a letter sent to any company in Spain. Except Línea Directa, which is, of course, a subsidiary of a British company and knows what service expats expect. Anyway, I had an excellent example of this today when I went to book a service for my car. A problem arose when the boss told me they didn’t service Rovers but this evaporated when I assured him I’d previously talked to one of his colleagues about booking it in. OK, he replied, but I couldn’t leave it today. When I said I hadn’t expected to and wanted to book it in not even for tomorrow but for next week, he said OK but Tuesday would be better than Monday. So we agreed on this. But here’s the really funny bit – when he brought out the work sheet, there was absolutely nothing written on it for any day next week. Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this and my guess is that Monday is kept free for the customers who’ll arrive at 9 demanding their cars be done that day. For my Spanish readers, all of the above is inconceivable in the UK. And in many other countries, I imagine. That’s why we still think Spain is different.

Actually, today brings an even better example of the face-to-face nature of life here. I have to replace a wing mirror hit by a flying rubbish container in a recent storm and I’m not disposed to paying the 245 euros demanded by the Rover garage, especially as they’re available on the net for 80. But a second-hand one should be even cheaper and God knows there are enough accidents to suggest I should be able to find one. So I’m checking out the local car knackers. From the two near Pontevedra I’ve been to, I know the person at the front desk will have no knowledge whatsoever of available parts and will simply tell me to talk to a grease-monkey working somewhere in the pile of junk at the back of the office. Fair enough but this does persuade me it’d be a waste of time calling the numbers of the five companies between here and Vigo cited in the Yellow Pages. As luck would have it, I’m off to Vigo this afternoon so will dedicate a couple of hours to an odyssey which takes in all these yards, if necessary. Thank God I have the time. I don’t know how employed folk manage it. Perhaps they just cough up 245 euros. Or send the spouse.

News of a political party that’s new to me at least . . . The indefatigable British Euro MP, Daniel Hannan, offers this advice to all Brits in Spain able to vote in the June European elections. Along the way, like all of us, he confesses to not really knowing whether the PP is more corrupt than the PSOE, or vice versa. Of the ‘new’ party –Alternativa Española – he says it is “A Eurosceptic, anti-corruption party that has broken away from the PP. Having no dodgy mayors to defend, it is keen to address the concerns that Spanish as well as expatriate residents have about land security. It was the only party to campaign for a "No" vote on the European Constitution (apart from a small anarchist bloc and a Catalan party whose sole concern was about the status of the Catalan language in EU institutions).” Hannan adds that he doesn’t like the fact they are “Catholic and traditionalist” before finishing with the comment that the party campaigns on the issues most frequently raised by Spanish residents with him. Incidentally, he’s wrong about the EU referendum; the Galician Nationalist Party also supported a No vote, on the grounds the treaty wasn’t socialist enough. Of course, that was before they recently lost a lot of support. So maybe they think otherwise now.

Talking about nationalist regions . . . I see the Catalan President has said that the solution to the economic crisis is to work more, not to be paid more. And that sacrifices have to be made. No wonder the Catalans are unpopular. If he keeps this up, the region will be thrown out of Spain, whether it wants to go or not.

Here’s a bit more on the corrupt corporatism than led Lloyds TSB to make the catastrophic takeover of HBOS last year. As the writer puts it, “This is the ultimate New Labour scandal. It has the lot: cronyism, back-scratching, destructive micromanaging by Gordon Brown and an unimaginably large loss of public money. Corporatism is what happens when big government does sweetheart deals with big business. It results in a conspiracy of powerful elites against the interests of consumers, shareholders and voters.” Knowing a thing or two about how acquisitions are done and, in particular, how vital proper ‘due diligence’ is considered to be, I have to wonder what secret personal guarantees were demanded by and given to the CEOs who were steamrollered into this by a Gordon Brown desperate to save both the British union and his own arse. But especially the latter. We will never know, of course.

Because I will be dedicated to Vigo matters for the rest of the day and evening, this post is early. While yesterday’s fell foul of the Barca match and was late. You might want to make sure you see them both.

I leave you with a question from a commentator who is, I think, notorious for getting his forecasts wrong. Which doesn’t mean, of course, he can’t pose a good question. Even the dumbest fool . . . “How can global co-operation be achieved when governments around the world seem to have completely divergent economic philosophies and agendas for this coming weekend?”. Anyone got an answer as good as the question?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

This is the second post of the day. The earlier one was about last night’s match between Real Madrid and Liverpool. To which I’d just like to add that it was amusing to hear the comment in the bar that at least it was a consolation there are more Spanish than English players in the Liverpool team. Which may well be true.

Back in the rough-and-tumble of Spanish politics and justice, the crusading judge, Baltasar Garzón, has admitted he didn’t declare one of his salaries when he worked in the USA a few years back. But he didn’t do this in bad faith, he insists. El País says that, whether he’s guilty of anything or not, it doesn’t vitiate the strength of the corruption case he’s spearheaded against the PP party and their cronies. But, then, they would say this, wouldn’t they?

According to Brussels, the withdrawal of credit has been more severe here in Spain than anywhere else in the Eurozone. Additionally, the cost of credit here is now 43% higher than the EU average. This strikes me as typical of the attitude towards customers here but it’s only fair to point out that the President of the bankers’ association has denied it all.

The omens are not looking good for the new world order that Gordon Brown is hoping for after the April and May G20 summits. Which won’t surprise anyone but him, I suspect. Though it will disappoint many.

Talking of Europe . . . Just in case you’re missing the ineffable Ambrose, here he is with his customary tactful reticence. “Thanks to the Bank [of England]”, he says, in the UK it's "a crisis”. Whereas, in the eurozone, it's "a total catastrophe”. Even more so for Spain, he claims, as we face "crucifixion.”. Oh, dear.

Less portentously, Google Blog Alerts for Galicia is still giving mine a miss. So it was all the more galling to find that one of their citations this week comprised nothing but text taken from the web page I wrote on Galicia several years ago. Insult to injury.

Which reminds me . . . If regular readers were just to click on one of the Google ads on the right from time to time – or even daily – then I’d probably earn enough over a year to pay one of the recent speeding and parking fines I’ve been hit with by the ever-more zealous revenue collectors disguised as Civil Guards. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Google have machines clever enough to pick this up and automatically blackball me. So, please don’t do it.
Football Special

This is a one-off. The normal post will follow later . . .

It was a strange experience watching the Real Madrid v Liverpool battle last night. And this was not merely because I’m an Everton supporter and liked to pretend I didn’t care who won, as long as they deserved it.

In a Pontevedra bar dedicated to Real, the only topic of early conversation was whether the referee was blind, biased or bribed. But, as the game wore on, and Liverpool’s superiority born of speed, accuracy and effort became glaringly obvious, the comments turned to ones of respect for Liverpool and utter disdain for their own team. It reminded me of the time, years ago when I knew little Spanish, and an old man in a bar kept telling me how ‘noble’ British teams were. I had no idea then that this is the highest compliment a Spaniard can give. And so I now pay it to the people around me in the bar, who didn’t quite applaud Liverpool off at the end but were nor far from it. At least those who returned for the second half. Similar plaudits must go to the Real supporters who did clap Gerard off the pitch and to Raúl, who ran to shake his hand as he left. Now, that was noble.

On screen, only ten minutes passed before the priority of the commentators became to tell us all about the film that would follow the match. Details of which were then endlessly repeated. And, not long after half-time, they turned to programs on in a week or more time. Again and again. Which says it all, really. Maddening Spain, wonderful Spanish people.

The highlight of the evening for me – ignoring Gerard’s amazing goal - was naturally a picture of the Real supporter defiantly brandishing an Everton scarf. I wonder if he got home.

The low spot? Seeing the brilliant Real keeper, Casillas, conceding four goals and being on the losing side after stopping at least five more. No wonder he departed in tears. Perhaps Real should have fielded a team of eleven goalkeepers.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The PP corruption saga I labelled the National Soap Opera has just taken a rather unexpected turn, in what must be Act 8 or 9. The crusading leftist judge who’s been persecuting the right-of-centre Opposition, has been accused of tax evasion around US earnings. As I understand it, the charge has come from within the judicial system, where - of course - there are right-wing as well as left-wing judges in a very politicised establishment. The Spanish political cockpit is a raucous and rumbustious arena and one can’t help wondering whether this is the price being paid for disturbing one of the nests of vipers. Or should that be 'nexus'?

Addressing said PP corruption issue - on which it majored before the recent elections - El País on Sunday was honest enough to say it didn’t seem to have played much of a part in the decision-making of the electorate. None at all might be a more accurate comment. It’s tempting to conclude that the voters in, say, Galicia don’t simply care much about skulduggery in Madrid or Valencia but even this isn’t to go far enough. Reports of support given by local residents for mayors accused of corruption suggest it’s actually seen as a good reason to continue voting for him/her. Sometimes Spain does rather seem like a patchwork of the 18th and 21st centuries.

Which is a thought which also struck me when I read that the country’s pharmacies will soon be operating a computerised system that will do away with the mountains of paper that always need to be processed for all the customers ahead of me in the queue. Though not in my own case as – being prematurely retired - I don’t have social security and am forced to hand over the full price for everything in return for a simple prescription. Or verbal request.

I suggested recently that, if the property market is to pick up when the current stock of unsold dwellings is exhausted some time in 2012, then constructors really should be starting on new builds around now. In contrast, Mark Stucklin of Spanish Property Insight [see link] tells us that none of the major developers started a single property in December or January and, probably, February. So there could be a period of famine once the feast has finally petered out. Or will the prices of the last remaining houses and flats start to soar in 2011, when it becomes crystal clear no one will be able to buy anything in 2012. And are things ever as neat and as predictable as this?

There was an interesting development around Gibraltar recently. One of the radio channels claimed that Britain had conceded the place to the Spanish and that Spain had ceded its North African enclaves to Morocco. They then interviewed people for their reactions. Which elicited some nice anti-British comments, apparently. Good, clean fun.

Having touched on Spanish cronyism yesterday, it’s only fair I cite this article on the UK equivalent. British corporatism doesn’t take quite the same form perhaps - being less concerned with personal fortunes - but it’s still corruption. As the writer says, “It involves big government inviting big business into bed and then taking decisions which the principal players call the public interest but is actually their own interest. It may not begin as a giant conspiracy against taxpayers and voters, but that's quickly where this kind of politics leads. So, private shareholders get stitched up, parliament discusses the consequences barely at all, voters can only look on and the opposition seems not very exercised by it all.”

Finally, a couple of pix of the attempt by one of my neighbours to squeeze her large Audi into a small space.

From the front . . .


And, better perhaps, from the back . . .


Monday, March 09, 2009

As you’ll know, various towns or cities lay claim to being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. Or Crístobal Colón, to give him his Spanish name. Indeed, one such town is the one in which I live, Poio, on the other side of the river from Pontevedra. A local writer has even produced a book detailing the evidence for this. But now an historian – and a Spanish one at that – has suggested he wasn’t from either these parts or Cataluña but from the main claimant Genoa. And that, more interestingly, he wasn’t Christopher/Crístobal Columbus/Colón but Pedro Scotto, reflecting his Scottish ancestry. Honest. You can read more here.

I’m not sure the post-election mess in the Basque Country is any closer to resolution but I felt it was a nice remark from the leader of the nationalist party that has ruled there for thirty years that the PSOE and PP parties who were constantly at each other’s throat and who could never come together to rule any other part of Spain could somehow manage it when it came to the Basque country to keep out the party with the most votes. I’m sure it’s a little more complicated than that, or possibly no more than a reflection of a simple lust for power, but it’s a comment that’s sure to play well with the local populace.

If you’re confused by the fact it’s Spain’s Fine Arts Institute which gives medals to bullfighters, then your grasp on Spanish culture is tenuous. I mention this only because two leading exponents of the art have returned their medals in disgust at one of their number – presumably an inferior performer – being honoured. Personally, I think they should all do the decent, artistic thing and fight it out to the death. Sans bulls. Hemingway would surely approve.

The Spanish savings banks [the cajas/caixas] are now the country’s leading estate agent. This is because they’ve taken on so many properties from bankrupt construction companies in settlement of their debts. And they’ve formed a new association to flog them to buyers who are currently thin on the ground. Which is why some lucky employees are being invited to bid for them, perhaps in lieu of some of their salary. Separately, the European Central Bank has said the withdrawal of credit facilities has been greater in Spain than elsewhere. Though there may be a connection between these developments.

I was premature in anticipating Tony's return from sea early last week. But he's certainly back now, with a voice that's in fine fettle. Cue standard kids' response of crying [5 year old] and bawling back [9 year old]. Incidentally, we calculate these two get around nine and a half hours sleep a night [11 to 7.30], which I believe is well below what they need. But perhaps they have a long siesta.

Finally, I see that the IRA terrorists whom Ted Kennedy preferred to call "freedom fighters" have murdered two soldiers and injured several civilians in Northern Ireland. I wonder if his knighthood will be now withdrawn before he’s even allowed to pick it up.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

I thought I’d come across a new bit of Spanglish the other day, as is in this sentence - “Pontevedra FC tiene chance para estar entre los cuatro primeros.” However, my Spanish friends tell that, in this case, the word ‘chance’ is French in origin. But I have my doubts. By the way, it’s pronounced ‘chan-thé’.

But a real Spanish word that’s new to me is ‘calabobos’. This comes from ‘calar’ [to wet through] and ‘bobo’ [idiot] and means ‘drizzle’. In other words, rain so fine it will soak you if you’re dumb enough not to realise it’s falling.

A day after writing about how Spanish companies treat their customers, I can’t resist citing this report about a Telefónica client taking 18 months and ending up in court in order to terminate an internet service. Given how much badwill there is towards the country’s national and regional monopolies – whether de jure or de facto – it’s understandable the companies will go to any lengths to keep them in place. They surely don’t want the floodgates opened so that their customers can desert them as quickly at BT’s did a decade or so ago. Of course, it must help that, when the government changes, the head of your company relinquishes his position to a close friend of the incoming President.

I’ve suggested Gordon Brown has his work cut out getting a new world order in place when national interest is so much to the fore. And when most – if not all – nations are implementing protectionist measures of one sort or another. Indeed, some see the Americans as the worst offender in this regard, with one commentator making the point that, when it comes to free trade, “Washington has more in common with French president Nicolas Sarkozy than with Gordon Brown”. Which is more than a tad worrying.

On the topical issue of what form the EU will emerge from the crisis in, there are two interesting views from the UK today. The first of these is from a German lady who used to be a Europhile but has clearly gone native. She explains why here, suggesting Brussels has little choice but to return some powers to the nation states. Specifically on the ex-boom states of Spain, Ireland, Greece and Portugal, she comments that “One option for these countries is to leave the European monetary union. This can't be ruled out but it would create problems for both the country leaving and, perhaps more importantly, those remaining, so some short term fix may be cobbled together. The problem is that within EMU, the only way for these countries to regain competitiveness is to squeeze their economies so that the rate of inflation not only falls below the eurozone average, but also stays there for a long time, to make up lost ground. This would not be an easy task at the best of times but, when average inflation is already low, it implies actual deflation. I doubt that this would be politically sustainable.” Or, as I was saying, no gain without pain. The question being how much pain is tolerable?

The other comment deals with the allegation of schadenfreude levied against British sceptics. As the writer says, “It is not in our interest to have economic chaos on our doorstep.”

Incidentally, I can’t say I’ve seen many articles in the Spanish press – even the business sections – posing the question of whether the EU or its monetary union [EMU] can survive. And what it could mean for Spain in any of the various cases. Actually, I haven’t seen any. Perhaps the notion of failure is considered too ridiculous to contemplate. Or perhaps everyone has their heads in the sand. Especially the President.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

There is, it seems, someone who accurately predicted – back in 2005 - the financial mess the world is now in – an economic historian called Edward Chancellor. This is when he wrote a report entitled “Crunch time for Credit”. What a shame he wasn’t in charge of anything.

The political wrangling that’s currently taking place in the Basque Country may or may not be a example of good democracy in action. Over at The Spanish Shilling, Lennox sheds some interesting light on one or two aspects. But, as I say, I bow to almost anyone when it comes to understanding what’s going on there. My general view remains that, if a big slug of an existing nation wants to sail off on its own, then is should be allowed to do so if that’s what the majority want. Whether it’s Scotland, Wales, the Basque Country, Cataluña or Galicia.

If you’re a foreigner who sold a Spanish property between 2004 and 2006, it’s very likely that you were charged excessive tax and can now reclaim it, with interest. If you’re patient - and lucky - you may get it back before you kick the bucket.

On the other hand, if you’re Spanish and plan to drive in the UK, you should know that the law will shortly allow the British police to copy their Continental cousins and impose huge roadside fines on people who don’t live there. Or even on Brits who can’t prove that they do. Given my luck of the last year, I fully expect to be hit during my next visit. On a point of detail:- “The standard fine for a careless driving offence — including driving too close to the vehicle in front of you – will be 300 pounds.” This really will be problematical for Spanish drivers, as few of them consider tailgating at high speed anything other than obligatory. Incidentally, the report on this said the average length of the driving test is 19 minutes in France, 20 in Spain and 36 in the UK. Not that this necessarily means anything. Perhaps they take a break for tea.

In the last ten days, I’ve signed up for three UK-provided services via the internet. Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest British companies have any less interest in profit than Spanish companies. But it certainly does seem they have a different view on how to maximise it. In each case, the process was easy and quick and the customer-orientated follow-up was amazing. Or maybe I’m easily astonished these days. That said, the British approach of enticing customers and then persuading them, via excellent service, to stay does rather contrast with what I’ve called the standard Spanish process of trapping your customers, screwing them and then making it difficult to impossible for them to escape. Cue comments from Spanish readers about examples of appalling service in the UK. Which surely does exist but I’m making a general point, based on recent personal experience. It's one of the things that make me worry about Spain's ability to compete internationally now that the good times are over.

Finally, three fotos . . .

This is A Casa da Luz, in Plaza Verdura in Pontevedra's lovely old quarter. It hasn't been occupied for at least 8 years but used to be the HQ of the local police. Now it's being converted into the offices of the Rias Baixas tourist organisation. It gets its name - Electricity House - from the fact it was the first place in Spain to have power, generated from a local stream. Anyway, this is what I'm told and it's a nice story.


In contrast, here's the front of some flats recently completed in the nearby port of Combarro.


If you think this is bad, here's what they look like from the back . . .


I think I've mentioned before that this is what I call the 'toilet' style of architecture. Sadly, it's become quite common along the coast here. Or should I say 'very common'?

Friday, March 06, 2009

The percebe – or goose barnacle – is an ugly but highly prized and very expensive delicacy here. Even more so in Madrid. I read today that someone is going to market a paté of the repulsive-looking thing. I guess, like the original product, it will taste of nothing but sea water. However, it’ll certainly have a couple of edges in that, firstly, it will actually look edible and, secondly, it won’t have the consistency of rubber.

Over at her blog, my Vigo friend, Anthea, has been noting the sort of thing that makes Spain both wonderful and weird, at least to us foreigners. She touches, of course, on one on my pet-hates – the ubiquitous smoking – and this reminded me that I’d wanted to say that, while the number of people indulging in the habit may not have reduced, the legislation does seem to have diminished the amount of smoking done in places of work other than bars and restaurants. Which is presumably the explanation for this mass of cigarette butts outside the office in the residential street I walk through on the way to town each morning . . .


I can’t recall whether it’s Act 7 or Act 8 of the National Soap Opera but the crusading judge, Baltasar Garzón, has had to comply with the decision of the Public Prosecutor to transfer the PP corruption case to the courts of the Madrid and Valencia regions, rather than to Spain’s supreme court. Presumably it will now fade from public view. Especially now the elections are over.

In answer to reader Justin’s query about Gibraltar, I wrote early this morning that the Left seemed admirably less agitated than the Right about Princess Anne’s visit there this week. But - by pure coincidence I suppose - both of their house organs – El País and El Mundo, respectively – had only a brief column on page 19 today. So I reached for ABC, confident it would be on or near the front page. But I finally found it on page 23. Not a huge issue, it seems.

While doing this, I caught sight of the headline ‘Amor y esperanza’ but, to my disappointment, it turned out not to be about Graeme from South of Watford and Señora Aguirre, the Presidenta of the Madrid region.

Here’s more on the need for the EU to get its act together to avoid the Armageddon some feel/felt was impossible – “What is so dangerous, and different, this time, is that France and Germany do not at the moment see eye to eye at all. As well pointed out by Judy Dempsey today in the International Herald Tribune, the Germans are appalled by the lack of budgetary discipline in Paris, and horrified at the idea of having to bail out profligate countries in the east. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy haven't quite sparred in public yet - they've left the sparring to Hungary, the Czechs and others who have taken shots at their bigger cousins. But common ground must be found, and soon, because the EU cannot afford countries to go bust, and it cannot afford disunity while negotiating with the US and China over the future of the global economy.” Here’s the link to the IHT article cited.

Referring back to Gordon Brown’s aspiration – demand? – for a global New Deal, the aphorism that all politics are local is never more true than in times of crisis, when personal and national self-interest are maximised. So it will, in all truth, be a stupendous political achievement if the EU survives. How it will look economically and socially – especially for countries such as Spain – is anyone’s guess. Bloody awful, is my suspicion. But, hey! No pain, no gain.

But, meanwhile, here’s some info on the latest solution - quantitative easing. This is different from everything else tried so far, except to the extent that no one has the slightest idea whether it will work or not. But, ignoring its failure in Japan, some have convinced themselves that it will. Let’s hope they’re right as, whether it does or it doesn’t, we’ll be paying for it for a long time, they say.

I regularly say that the most important thing in Spain is to have fun. Sometimes, though, the definition of this can be a tad troublesome. Here’s a video which is currently very popular here but which some see not as a bit of harmless fun but as an example of macho aggression. These would be the people regarded here as killjoys. At least by half the population.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

My perception is it takes between one and five years to build a property in Spain. Which is one reason why, although the property sector currently has little life in it, new houses and flats keep coming on the market in large numbers. And will do so for a while yet. Someone has now said it’ll be the end of 2011 – or three years - before the stock of properties is finally sold off. Which means that, if you want to sell houses and flats in early 2012, you should be starting to build them around now. As this is probably not happening, I guess we can confidently predict a shortage sometime in 2012 and, so, escalating prices.

I’ve said a number of times that, although I’m personally against the imposition of any language, this is an issue for the local populace, speaking through the ballot box. Well, on the surface at least, it looks as if the Galicians have voted against the nationalist BNG party’s measures aimed at promoting Gallego at the expense of Spanish. My own take on this is that the Galicians were happier when they were free to use either Gallego or Spanish, and to move back and forth as courtesy dictated. And as I witness every day. It will be interesting to see now whether the new Xunta does anything to reverse or just palliate the measures introduced in the last four years. I guess it’s unlikely laws will be taken off the statue book. However, inspections aimed at ensuring kids are being taught in Gallego might just reduce, for example. As with the anti-smoking laws, legislation in one thing but implementation quite another.

Central to my thoughts on this is the perception that there’s traditionally been more harmony – or less disharmony – around language here in Galicia than in both the Basque Country or Cataluña. My theory for this is that the two languages here are so similar it’s pretty easy to master both of them and to move between them as the occasion demands. Indeed, as I recall, one of my Gallego readers once put this forward – “It only takes 3 months for a Spanish speaker to master Gallego” – to justify it being compulsory. Anyway, it’s only a theory and I won’t mind at all if any of my Galician readers shoots it to pieces.

Up in Cataluña, meanwhile, things seem to be going in the opposite direction. Presumably in accordance with the wishes of the majority. Trevor The Baldie has crisp words on this. And other Cataloony nonsenses. His word, I think. Not mine.

It’s an article of faith here in Spain that the country’s banks – having learned their lessons in an early 90s debacle – have not operated as stupidly as those in other parts of the world. Given their investments in the artificially booming construction sector, this view has naturally been questioned. And now the Standard and Poor’s credit agency has rather dented their image by downgrading several of them because of concerns about their balance sheets – specifically their exposure to bad debts. But not Banco Santander.

On a wider front . . . In his address to the US Congress, Mr Brown has called for global measures to deal with the world’s economic problems. This is at a time when a mere 27 EU partners can’t reach a consensus. Or even the 15[?] members of the eurozone. So, something of an optimist, our Gordon.

I see Ted Kennedy is to be given an honorary knighthood. He’s been around a long time but the only words that spring to my mind when his name crops up are:- 1. Chappaquiddick, 2. Mary Jo Kopechne, and 3. “Freedom fighters” as a preferred term for IRA terrorists. I once wrote to him saying I was setting up the Texas Freedom Fighters Front and would like similar sympathy and support in Congress. Oh, and some cash for our bombs. But he never replied. Seems a perfect candidate for the highest British honour in today’s debased times. After all, some of the Blair’s appointees to the House of Lords are openly on sale.

Finally, I also see the Bank of England is to start, in effect, printing money. And the European Central Bank is expected to do likewise. As someone has written - “The ECB has argued, quite reasonably, that printing money will potentially generate high inflation in the coming years. But the more pressing prospect of impending European economic collapse, and indeed the threatened disintegration of the euro itself, are compelling enough arguments for it to change its mind. Preventing high inflation is a worthy aim, but useless if, after all your efforts, there's no functioning economy left.” So, hold on tight for the ride, folks. We are in new territory. But the positive news is - “It is a policy America's Federal Reserve embarked on some months ago and there are tantalising signs that the operation could be starting to work.” Time to buy those cheap shares

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

My plans to join the EU gravy train don’t seem to have taken stock of the fact that Brussels is primarily a sink-hole for failed domestic politicians. These folk may have proved wanting back home but they still have an edge on me. This realisation has been prompted by the announcement that the ex-president of the PSOE and the Xunta here in Galicia will probably be a candidate in the European elections later this year. This will apparently be his reward for giving us an object lesson in how not to manage a coalition. If he does make it to Brussels, it’s unlikely he’ll be as criticised there for his extraordinarily expensive car and office furniture as he was here.

Meanwhile, in the Galician Nationalist Party - the BNG – wheels are now swiftly turning in the direction of dumping the president who has ‘ignobly’ declined to resign. As its title of El Bloque [The Block] implies, this a group of more than 10 parties, I think, all of which are pretty left-of-centre. One of them – Esquerda Nacionalista – has called for him to go and this can surely now only be a matter of time.

If my grasp of Galician politics is tenuous, it’s non-existent when it comes to the Basque Country, where there are even more parties of varying size and nature. But, however large or small, they’re all important now because of the absence of an absolute majority in favour of any of them. For more insights into the situation there and into the various permutations, I refer you to this piece by David Jackson, who appears to know his onions.

Regular readers will know that I’m schizophrenic about the EU. I have always believed it would one day collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions but, as someone with all his assets in Spain, I’m not happy about the possibility of the break-up of the eurozone and the possible devaluation of the Spanish currency. So I sit on the fence. But not those long-time eurosceptics Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and Simon Heffer, who now appear to be hovering like schadenfreudistic vultures over events on the Continent. In a piece dated 23 Feb., Ambrose kicked off with - “The ultra-Europeans have overplayed their hand. We can now glimpse a chain of events that will halt, and reverse, this extremist push towards an Über-state that almost no one wants.” Then later added - “As the Bundesbank warned long ago, EMU will eventually buckle under strain over time without the cement of political union. This means a de facto EU treasury, a unified wage system, and the plausible prospect of a debt and pensions pool. None of this exists. Nor will it.” And he ended with - “The ideologues ignored the warning. Indeed, they saw EMU as the great catalyst, forcing the pace of Europe's integration. This fuite en avant has proved a grave miscalculation. It forgot about the voters. The elites will now have to face the great euro storm of 2008 to 2009 with the limited tools they have, bridging the economic chasm between north and south as best they can. Good luck. Viel Glück.” Not content with this, he returned to the fray yesterday with a piece which starts - “Architects of EMU were well aware that a one-size-fits-all monetary policy for vastly disparate nations would create serious tensions over time. They gambled that this would work to their advantage. The EU would be forced to create new machinery to safeguard its investment in the euro. It would be a ‘beneficial crisis’, bringing about the great leap forward to full union. We are about to find out if they were right.” Which might just count as back-tracking, possibly stimulated by news of a possible eurozone rescue. Meanwhile, though, Simon Heffer has weighed in with his view that, as predicted by the great economist Milton Friedman, the writing is on the wall for the EU, as idealism clashes headlong with reality. As for me, I really don’t know whether EU-ism is mortally wounded or not. But I suspect that, if it does die, it will be because – like communism and pure socialism before it – it runs against the grain of human nature. At least as it is in the 21st century. It cannot function on a basis of democracy and it may not prove possible to impose it top down. However many times people are told it’s in their economic interests for this to happen.

To lighten up this post – and in the hope that you won’t have seen it yet – I bring you the news that Spain’s President Zapatero yesterday took a leaf out of George Bush’s book and told his visiting Russian counterpart that investment was being made in tourism so that many Spaniards could go to Russia to “ stimulate, favour and fuck.” Apparently, he meant to say apoyar but came out with follar – a word I, coincidentally, gave the etymology of a couple of weeks ago.

Then there was a conversation overheard at a party by Euro-deputy David Hannan . .
3 year old daughter: Mummy. Can I go to the toilet?
Pija mother: Yes, darling. But we don’t say ´toilet’. We say ‘bathroom’ or ‘lavatory’
Daughter, with an exasperated sigh: Can’t say toilet, can’t say fuck!

Though she’d probably get away with it here. Everyone else does.

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