Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Following on from my comments on the importance of being regarded as a ‘friend’ in Spain, there’s been a little bit of (public and private) dialogue on the essential superficiality of some of these relationships. Indeed, someone has rightly pointed out that stranger-ship much also be superficial, if it can be converted into friendship by the exchange of just a few words. Or even by the bumping of shoulders. But, yes, it’s true – many Spanish relationships are very superficial. More like acquaintanceships, really. Some of us have no problem with this but others find they need the sort of deep relationships they’re used to in other cultures. Where living away from your family – or having piss-poor relatives – means you have to have good friends as a safety net and a support mechanism.

Anyway, the estimable Ben Curtis – of Notes from Spain and lots else – has learned the hard way to eschew the sort of critical comment I am wont to make and has taken things to the other end of the spectrum this week. He’s started a series on what makes the Spanish the great people they are. His first blog was on the impressive honour system which rules in bars here and his second offering in on how meals are shared here and how the bills are divvied up at the end of them. Click here for this one and scroll down for the first one.

It will, I’m sure, surprise no one that El Tráfico has announced they’ll be ramping up the number of random breathalyser tests this summer. But who can object to this, so long as it involves none of the chicanery that takes place around speed traps?

News about Spanish banks continues to confuse me. Santander and BBVA still rank among the world’s most profitable banks but the industry as a whole (“The most robust in the world” – Pres. Zapatero) is reported to be about to close 10,000 branches and shed 35,000 employees. Of course, most of these could be in the troubled savings bank sector, about which Charles Butler comments here. One of the interesting aspects of these (less than transparent) banks is that the regional governments have a veto over any of ‘theirs’ being taken over by one from another region. And it seems that the central government – which needs all the friends it can get – is going to chicken out of removing this political barrier to commercial progress.

As of 1 July, we’re supposed to be free to change our electricity supplier. As we have only a limited time to exercise our choice, it would have been nice to know what the competitive prices are. But this has proved beyond the capacity of the government and the industry and I forecast that 1. there will be little other than inertia, and 2. prices will rise. Beyond the 2% announced yesterday, I mean.

Finally . . . For those who don’t know, BBC3 is their TV channel aimed at the ‘young’ audience. But I suspect the channel is secretly premised on a maximum IQ of 90. Sky News, on the other hand, now seems to be aimed at viewers who would find BBC3 too taxing. Which is why I’m very glad I can also get news-for-adults from France 24, Al Jazeerah and even, at times, the EU’s EuroNews. And I never thought I’d ever say that.

Monday, June 29, 2009

If you live in a country long enough, you begin to realise that apparent illogicalities and inconsistencies are really perfectly rational and consistent. By the rules of local custom and practice, I mean.

I repeated yesterday my explanation of why the Spanish can come across to foreigners as, on the one hand, rude but, on the other, kind and gracious. It all comes down to whether you rank as a friend or not. And an extension of this explains the bizarre fact that the 'rude' Spanish are the best in a world when it comes to apologising.

Take the (relatively frequent) example of someone who unwittingly bumps into you because they essentially have no spatial antennae. At this point, the physical contact is even more effective than a mere exchange of words in establishing the personal relationship which justifies gracious treatment. Which immediately comes in the form of an embarrassingly profuse apology.

And this logic also explains why someone who comes out of a shop and walks straight across you (instead of waiting a micro-second so they can walk behind you) invariably never says anything. Or even gives the impression of being aware of your existence. Simply put, you haven’t exchanged words or touched each other. So you’re not a 'friend' and there’s no personal relationship. Now, in theory at least, you yourself could establish the relationship which should lead to an apology by speaking to the perpetrator. But this is tricky. If you show any degree of anger – or even what our American cousins call ‘assertiveness’ - you will immediately be in the wrong and are likely to get the treatment once dished out to V S Naipaul in Madrid – “Go back to South America! We have no concept of personal space here.” If, however, you utter a mild expression of hurt – say, “Hommmbre!?” – then you might just get a apology. But it won’t be an effusive, gracious one because face has been lost and the giver is a little on the defensive. In short, you’ve rather forced yourself on him/her as an (aggrieved) friend. And this is not always taken well.

Another example of Spanish ‘difference’ explained itself to me last night, in the wifi café I was writing and drinking in. In many (most?) countries of the world, you’re not really welcome as a singleton who takes up a table for four. But here in Spain no waiter or waitress ever gives the impression either that you’re unwelcome in the first place or, an hour and just one drink later, have long outstayed your welcome. Could this be because tipping is rare in Spain and so the staff don’t rely on it? By occupying a table for four, you’re not denying anyone the money they’d get on a larger order. Plus, you’re less work than a larger group. So . . . same money, less work. No wonder no one objects. The owner might but would be foolish to show it; competition is tough.

I’ve now seen several examples of trucks parked at the new bus-stop down at the roundabout. In each case, they’ve had their hazard lights flickering away. In another example of Spanish custom and practice, this means they’re not technically there and so can’t be given the sort of fine the rest of us get on a monthly basis these days.

Finally . . . If any Spanish reader wants a fascinating explanation of the apparently insane illogicalities and inconsistencies of British society, then he or she could do worse than to get hold of a copy of the book on Englishness by Jane Fox which I cited a few months ago.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Regular readers will know I do like to point out that the Spanish don’t display much of a duty of care to strangers. Meaning they can be remarkably inconsiderate of the interests of others. On the other hand, I do stress they have a very high duty of care towards family and friends. And that, most importantly, it doesn’t take much to become a friend. Once you do, then the Spanish can be not only very affable but also remarkably gracious and kind. This is quite a contrast and, since the Spanish see themselves only in the latter light, they tend to get pretty annoyed at the regular foreigner’s comment that they’re a rude people. To stay positive, here are three recent examples of the sort of thing that more than compensates for the stuff of which I complain:-

1. In the café where I take my morning coffee, I asked the young waitress if she’d take a minute to listen to a video of a comedienne telling a joke in Asturian and then tell me whether it was fully comprehensible to a speaker of Gallego. She willingly did so and then talked a bit about Spanish languages and ended up saying she’d bring me in a book on them. This is the first time we’ve spoken, other than for me to order my café con leche.

2. When I polled up at the petrol station at the nearby shopping centre at 2.40 yesterday, the young lady told me they’d closed at 2.30. But, seeing the crestfallen look on my face, she immediately ignored her own comment, came out and filled my tank.

3. This evening, I was waiting in my car at the side of the road for some people who are renting my house in the hills. A car drew behind me and the driver came to my door, offered his hand, and asked me if I was Juan Pablo Garcia. When I said I wasn’t there was much smiling and well-wishing and off he went. Only to return a couple of seconds later to ask whether I was parked because of problems with the car.

As I say, it doesn’t take much to become a friend and then to be entitled to such generous treatment. In fact, thinking about it, all it seems to require is that you cease to be a stranger by exchanging a few words. Perhaps this is why the Spanish talk so much. Which some would say is rich, coming from me. But, then, perhaps that’s why I fit in. As I’ve written before, it doesn’t pay to be a shrinking violet in Spain. You’ll be a perpetual stranger and come to hate the place.


If you’re coming to Pontevedra this summer, be aware that the place is full of public works that are proceeding at a pace which would shame a lame snail. Six week from our annual huge fiesta, the alameda where much of it takes place is an almighty mess and there are already warnings this won’t be cleared up by mid-August. Of course, even if it isn’t, the show will still go on and you’ll have a great time. If not necessarily in the place where you should be having it.
Regular readers will know I do like to point out that the Spanish don’t display much of a duty of care to strangers. Meaning they can be remarkably inconsiderate of the interests of others. On the other hand, I do stress they have a very high duty of care towards family and friends. And that, most importantly, it doesn’t take much to become a friend. Once you do, then the Spanish can be not only very affable but also remarkably gracious and kind. This is quite a contrast and, since the Spanish see themselves only in the latter light, they tend to get pretty annoyed at the regular foreigner’s comment that they’re a rude people. To stay positive, here are three recent examples of the sort of thing that more than compensates for the stuff of which I complain:-

1. In the café where I take my morning coffee, I asked the young waitress if she’d take a minute to listen to a video of a comedienne telling a joke in Asturian and then tell me whether it was fully comprehensible to a speaker of Gallego. She willingly did so and then talked a bit about Spanish languages and ended up saying she’d bring me in a book on them. This is the first time we’ve spoken, other than for me to order my café con leche.

2. When I polled up at the petrol station at the nearby shopping centre at 2.40 yesterday, the young lady told me they’d closed at 2.30. But, seeing the crestfallen look on my face, she immediately ignored her own comment, came out and filled my tank.

3. This evening, I was waiting in my car at the side of the road for some people who are renting my house in the hills. A car drew behind me and the driver came to my door, offered his hand, and asked me if I was Juan Pablo Garcia. When I said I wasn’t there was much smiling and well-wishing and off he went. Only to return a couple of seconds later to ask whether I was parked because of problems with the car.

As I say, it doesn’t take much to become a friend and then to be entitled to such generous treatment. In fact, thinking about it, all it seems to require is that you cease to be a stranger by exchanging a few words. Perhaps this is why the Spanish talk so much. Which some would say is rich, coming from me. But, then, perhaps that’s why I fit in. As I’ve written before, it doesn’t pay to be a shrinking violet in Spain. You’ll be a perpetual stranger and come to hate the place.


If you’re coming to Pontevedra this summer, be aware the place is full of public works that are proceeding at a pace which would shame a lame snail. Six weeks from our annual huge fiesta, the alameda where much of it takes place is an almighty mess and there are already warnings this won’t be cleared up by mid-August. Of course, even if it isn’t, the show will still go on and you’ll have a great time. If not necessarily in the place where you should be having it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Here’s an interesting and well-written take on the Jacko madness du jour . . .

On this, did anyone else see Sky news reach a nadir this morning, when one of their star reporters vamped by speculating on which door or window of his house MJ’s body might be brought out of? Thank God for France 24 so I could switch over and find out all about Sarko’s trip to the Caribbean to stamp on some revolting natives. Caraille, presumably.

Actually, I was impressed to see that France has no colonies, only ‘overseas Departments’. Surely this is the way to go for Gibraltar. It could simultaneously become both a county of England and an autonomous community of Spain, with shared sovereignty. An immediate end to all the emotional arguments about a British colony on Spanish soil. Even better than being an enclave. This, I have to say, is the sort of brilliance for which I’m never paid.

Anyway, inured as I am to low levels of concern for risk and high levels of inconsideration for strangers in Spain, I'm still occasionally taken aback. Like today, when I saw that the zebra crossing down by the new bus-stop was blocked at both ends by vans which were presumably delivering stuff to the nearby shopping centre. The poor pedestrians were reduced to playing peek-a-boo with their lives in the gap in the middle.

Here's a series of 3 fotos, to illustrate my occasional inability to understand Spanish priorities . . .

Firstly, some new tiles down near the houses of my neighbours in our community. Incidentally, my suspicion is we're all going to have to pay for these, as we did for their snazzy new entrance.


And here is the walkway behind my house, down to the communal gardens and the pool.


And here are the steps at the end of the walkway.


Why am I showing these banal objects? Well, the walkway planks were replaced about 2 years ago - as part of a project that took 4 years - after one of my legs had gone right through a rotten plank and I almost fell 20 or more feet to the concrete below. As you can see, they haven't been treated against Galicia's rain and damp. Unlike the (red) steps going down into the garden.

So the question arises - Why is it more important to replace perfectly good tiles while woodwork remains dangerously untreated? Is it simply because the President of the community lives down at the tile end of the development? Or is it because everyone knows none of us has a chance of successfully suing anyone if we do actually fall to our death or serious injury? Especially in the former case.

To end more positively, here's a foto of my resurgent jasmine . . .

Friday, June 26, 2009

What a strange morning, today. I couldn’t find any news at all on any TV channel. Except, of course, that a rather confused, if talented, pop star had unexpectedly died. It left me wondering, firstly, whether The Second Coming would receive such coverage. And, secondly, whether we shouldn’t call last night’s development The First Going.

Anyway, I was pondering this morning the implications of living in a society where no one really believes anything anyone else tells them. Well, here’s one significant consequence for those selling property in today’s falling market in Spain. Actually, things can currently work out badly for the buyer as well as the seller. I’m still half-waiting for the tax authorities to write to me to say they believe I paid more for the house in the hills than I did. Even though, if you can follow this, the price declared (in my case the correct one) is much higher that that which the town hall has on its books (the valor catastral). The consequence would be an additional 7% transfer tax on the difference between the actual price I paid and their over-inflated notional market price. I guess there’ll be some theoretical appeal process but I won’t take much comfort from this. As I don’t from the fact it’s now more than a year since the transaction took place. In Spain, a lag of this order hardly counts as serious.

What it all means is that the tax authorities can use a plummeting market to take extra money from both the buyer and the seller, not caring whether this is fair or not and probably knowing that it isn’t. Their operating logic appears to be that, if you can afford to run a car in Spain right now, you can certainly afford more taxes via legitimate/illegitimate speeding and parking fines. Even more so if you can afford to buy a property. And even if you’re forced to sell one. It’s all just a game, after all.

The president, Señor Zapatero has repeated yet again that the Government will not make the sacking process cheaper for employers, despite the pressures being put on him to do so. He defended his stance by saying that such a change was not contemplated in his election manifesto. But, then, this would also be true of the increased taxes on petrol and cigarettes just announced. And the higher income tax he’s trying to get approved by parliament, with the support of minority left wing parties. Plus, as we now know, the ‘permanent’ tax rebate of 400 euros each is going to have a shelf life of about two years. There seems to be a widespread view that Sr Zapatero is not very able, not much of a leader and not to be trusted on whatever he says. His good fortune – in this televisual, ‘progressive’ age – is that his charisma bypass operation was less successful than that of the leader of the Opposition, Señor Rajoy.

I say that President Zapatero is not to be trusted on anything he says but the news today on anti-recession government spending in Europe suggests he's sticking to his word that he’ll only try ‘socialist’ solutions to the crisis. At 2.3% of GDP, Spain’s spend is twice as much as other EU members. So I assume that mountains of government debt are now piling up. To be paid for later, as in the UK.

For those looking for an explanation of Iran’s ludicrous infatuation with the power of the British government, here’s a good start.

Finally . . . Spain has a lot of great looking cake shops (pastelerías). But here’s why giving in to temptation is usually not a good idea. Believe me, Lenox is spot on; they may look like the cakes you can buy in France but they certainly don’t taste like them. As he succinctly puts it – “Here in Spain, cakes are to be seen and admired, but never, ever eaten.” You have been warned.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

All this media attention to events in Iran has prompted me to re-think my plans to re-visit the country sometime soon. Preferably after realising a lifetime ambition of going to Samarkand first. But it’s also given me a good excuse to further postpone polishing up my Farsi. At least until MI6 get in touch with me.

By far the most pleasant recollection that’s been prompted is that – with all due respect to Spanish señoritas – Iranian young women must rank as the most beautiful in the world. Though perhaps my perspective would be different now, if I was more impressionable back then.

On the other hand, the talk of freedom has reminded me of a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment when my Farsi teacher – an unsimpatico cove by the name of Tavakoli – told me that neither I nor anyone else in Britain understood or could ever understand what it was to be free. “You have freedom from the moment you’re born”, he said. “And take it completely for granted. None of you will ever know what it’s like to walk from a plane knowing that you can now think whatever you like.” A sentiment endorsed when a friend warned me that he couldn’t chat in front of his four year old daughter, in case she unwittingly relayed something dangerous in class. That, of course, was under Savak, the Shah’s notorious secret police. When “Evin prison” were the two most terrifying words you could hear in Iran. Turns out they still are.

All of which has reminded me of this little tale I wrote a while ago.

I was going to write something trite about Spanish priorities now but, having just re-read this, I’ve decided to leave this for now. My heart’s just not in it. Sometimes life really is more of a tragedy than a farce.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Good item on the early morning news today – A glass of red wine with each meal is not only beneficial but essential for longevity. I’m almost there but will now try harder in respect of breakfast.

Last night saw the celebration of the feast of St Juan (Xoan) here in Galicia and, indeed, throughout Spain. This involves leaping over fires - for one pagan reason or another - but I discovered the real significance of the festival when I tried to enter the car park of the shopping mall on my (Poio) side of the river this morning. Different municipalities, different holidays. The place was closed.

I had planned to engage in the traditional eating of sardines which marks this feast day – I once managed to finally get some at 3am – but the hayfever that mysteriously hit me yesterday turned out to be a summer cold. So I stayed in to sweat it out, swapping red wine for a hot toddy make of Scotch. Life can be tough. I don't much like Scotch.

Talking of holidays . . . The kids have broken up and are now off school until mid September. Which means the 11 o’clock surge in the wi-fi café now brings not only raucous adults but also noisy offspring. I wonder if the library offers wi-fi.

I mentioned the other day that activists on the left of the political spectrum appeared to have arrogated the Progressive label to themselves. But now I discover there are Progressive Conservatives as well. Indeed, they all belong to the constituency of ‘Progressive Politics’. Soon the word will be as confusing and as useless as Liberal. Meanwhile, though, it seems that Gordon Brown’s biggest fault is that his face doesn’t fit. Literally. “Gordon Brown is a victim of the fact that progressive politics has become personality-dependent, charisma-driven, messianic almost.” Poor idealistic bastard.

By the way - The program on Spain I cited yesterday (Paradise Lost) is on ITV tonight at 9, or 10 Spanish time, if you have a satellite.

Finally . . . an solicited testimonial for “In the Garlic”. I’m re-reading (and re-enjoying) this book by a couple of ladies who know Spain well. I’ll try to resist quoting too much from it but I smiled today at the comments that, when you take anything back to a shop here, you have to remember that the customer is always wrong. Especially if it's Carrefour, in my experience. And that Spanish road signs remain “un asunto pendiente”, a matter yet to be sorted. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, neither of these will come as much of a surprise, of course.

And now I'm off to have zamburiñas in garlic in my favourite tapas bar and then to watch the Spain-USA football match in my preferred bar. Both of these are about 20 metres from this wi-fi café. Spain can be oh so . . . . well, convenient at times.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Last year – just before the elections, as I recall – the government surprised us all with a promise to give many of us (though not me) a tax rebate of 400 euros. This, it assured us, was not a one-off election bribe but would be permanent. Which turns out to mean about 2 years. For the relevant minister has warned that, though it won’t be touched this year, it just could be next year.

As I’ve written, it isn’t easy to govern Spain from Madrid and one of the most intractable issues for the President to solve is that of regional finance. In short, he never resolved this when times were good and, now that they’re bad, the omens are not encouraging. For a start, one doesn’t exactly get the impression that the message coming from the regional governments is “OK, we realise our extortionate demands reflected the boom of previous years. And, now that the state’s coffers are somewhat depleted, we’ll come back to you with something more reasonable”. Rather the opposite; everyone wants at least the same formula that, effectively, gave Cataluña more money from the central pot. Or, rather, it didn’t, as even this long-running deal hasn’t yet been closed.

Perhaps a concentration on this issue explains why President Zapatero gives no evidence whatsoever he’s listening to the choir of voices telling him something has to be done about re-structuring a labour market which, it’s said, expensively protects the few and leaves the many without any safeguards whatsoever. The latest of which is that of the President of the European Central bank. Meanwhile, the metalworkers’ strike in Vigo just got a little more violent, with a bomb explosion at an office of the employers. Perhaps President Z fears there’ll be more of this, if he ever opens his mouth on this subject. Other than to say he will be implementing ‘socialist solutions’ to the recession and its concomitant highest unemployment in Europe.

Well, it turns out the Brits are quite important to Spain. Visitors are 18% fewer than last year, dragging the tourist industry total down by 12%. Some of this, of course, is due to the fall in the pound but one wonders how much Spain’s damaged image has played in the downturn. Perhaps there will be some comment on this in Paradise Lost, a program on Spain being shown on British TV one night this week. Possibly even tonight.

One of the joys of early spring here is the scent of jasmine from the two bushes in my front garden. And I was pleasantly surprised to see they still had flowers on them when I returned from a two-week trip to the UK in April. And astonished to see that new flowers were emerging this morning. I wonder if it’s connected with the recent heat.

Finally . . . It’s good to see that some folk in Pontevedra have petitioned the town hall in respect of action about the increasingly feral seagulls that plague the old quarter’s lovely little plazas. If nothing is done, I guess I’ll actually have to do something about my plan to buy a plastic eagle owl, to affix to whatever table I’m sitting at.


Technical postscript: A plea. Does anyone know how to solve the problem of a computer that goes black for a couple of seconds and then tells you the screen controller (controlador de pantalla) stopped working and has been recovered? If it’s a question of modifying/uninstalling the ATI Catalyst Control Centre, how is this safely done?

Monday, June 22, 2009

In an interesting development here, the head of Spain’s secret service has demanded that ten of his personnel undergo lie-detector tests, in an attempt to find out which of them leaked data to the press about his use of public funds for private purposes. This, of course, is unheard of here. And everyone is truly shocked.

The other fascinating development is that Ana Obregon – one of Spain’s legion of blond women of a certain age who people the afternoon TV – has taken up with a 27 year old British footballer from the Sheffield United team. She herself may or may not be 50 or thereabouts. But why ever not? And it makes a change from Cubans

The wheel turns. Eight years or so ago, when I first came here and spoke not a word of Spanish, one of the few people I met from day to day was the 17 year old daughter of a neighbour who needed English lessons. To say she was a self-centred princess would be something of an understatement. But I bumped into her today and found she’s now a qualified paediatrician, of great charm and beauty. I wish I was at least 30 years younger.

Talking of Fortune, it must have been heartbreaking for Lewis Hamilton to come in last at the British Formula 1 race yesterday, having won last year. Incidentally, they say it’s effectively impossible to overtake on the Silverstone track, raising the question – Why on earth would anyone pay to watch a race there? But, then, I often wonder this about this sport.

It seems only a short while ago I was reading of the threat of deflation in Spain but I couldn’t help noticing yesterday that the price of my squid has gone up by 33% and the bread by 20%. But the wine has stayed the same. So I had an extra one to celebrate.

Iran again – Here’s a good take on the Supreme Leader’s demonisation of Britain. By London's head honcho.

Finally, if you’ve been waiting for fotos of the bus-stop down at the roundabout but didn’t read Friday’s post, then you need to scroll down.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

For those with an interest in what’s happening with the Spanish banks, here’s an expert view. Well, expert compared with mine, anyway. The writer cites the opinion of a Spanish banking analyst that "We're going to see a complete change in the banking landscape in Spain." Presumably this means more than them going into and out of the estate agency/realtor business.

Over in the UK, there seems to be a wilful determination to ignore the truth underlying the scandal of the extraordinary expense claims of British MPs. Which is that, not wanting to raise their very visible salaries, they years ago introduced a system under which they could claim almost anything as a tax-free expense, up to an annual maximum. And most of them did. Displaying impressive creativity as they, or their partners, scrambled around for things to spend on. As one commentator puts it today – “Since the 1970s, governments have conspired with backbenchers to use the additional costs allowance as a means of boosting parliamentary emoluments but without incurring the public anger that they feared would follow an inflation-busting increase in their official pay.” But I’ve yet to hear any MP admit to this. They all seem to prefer to looking petty, venal, stupid, hypocritical and crooked. But least some of them are resigning. I guess both the government and the opposition prefer the public thinks merely individual MPs have taken them for a ride over the last 5 years, rather than the entire Labour and Conservative administrations of the last 3 decades. Or Parliament conspiring against the people.

Which reminds me . . . Exactly the same thing goes on in Brussels, of course. But with even less transparency. However, resignations are very unlikely there as it’s now a criminal offence to publish details of MEP expense claims. Not that anyone cares.

Here in Pontevedra the start of summer has brought the appearance of a new category in our ever-widening panoply of beggars – a Rumanian dwarf. At least, I think the lady was Rumanian, as she was using the standard phrases and wearing the standard clothes. Does anyone know the Rumanian for “Are you Rumanian?”. Which would, of course, be quite useless if she isn’t.

The writer of this article displays near term pessimism but longer term optimism for Iran, a viewpoint I share. As he says, “The coming crackdown will be bitter, not just because of the challenge in the streets, but also because the elite are at odds with each other over it, as well as over who should run the system and how. It is a crisis of legitimacy as well as of authority.” Elsewhere, another commentator has this to say about the country’s dichotomy:- “Today there are two Irans. One is prepared to support the Supreme Leader’s bid to transform the republic into an emirate in the service of the Islamic cause. Then there is a second Iran – one that wishes to cease to be a cause and yearns to be an ordinary nation. This Iran has not yet found its ultimate leaders. For now, it is prepared to bet on Mousavi. The fight over Iran’s future is only beginning.” Personally, I’m convinced the Iranian people will see off the autocratic Mullahs in the same way they saw off the despotic Shah. But much blood will be spilled along the way. A proud but sad country. And deserving of more understanding from the West.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

I’m still confused about the Spanish banks. Or maybe that should be the savings banks. For, while Banco Santander reports 2008 results equal to those of the previous year and the banking industry as a whole delivers the third best results on record, one of the major credit agencies has cast aspersions on 20-30 Spanish banks and the government has embroiled itself in the creation of a rescue fund. Which may or may not operate with more of an eye to politics than to economics. I guess it will all come out in the wash.

As forecast, the government has tripled the fines for speeding and reduced the period during which you can promptly pay and obtain a discount, though the latter has risen from 30 to 50%. Worst of all, there’ll now be no tolerance in the application of the law; you will be fined for exceeding the limit by as little as 1kph. Presumably we’ll all need to buy speed limiters or cruise control mechanisms to ensure we don’t inadvertently slip above 120 on the empty motorways. Or buy a GPS thingy to tell us every ten seconds what speed we’re doing - on pain of a massive fine and loss of points if we actually touch this, rather than the (OK) radio. You’ll also be hit hard if you wear earphones to listen to a podcast, though not if you have the radio on deafening full blast or have another four people in the car, joining you in a 5-handed (mouthed?) simultaneous shouting match. Can there be any more eloquent evidence of the intention to make el tráfico part of the tax set-up - at a time when President Zapatero is assuring us there’ll be no more tax increases? Truly has he dipped deeply at the Blairist well of stealth taxes.

Thanks to regular messages from my considerably-left-of-centre and politically-active (ex) stepson, I’m reasonably acquainted with the angst currently being suffered by he and his colleagues in the UK about what to do next and under which banner. Rejecting New Labour, they’re also unwilling to be too associated with Old Labour, Socialism or even Liberalism. And, whilst they may have more in common with Continental European Social Democrats than they care to admit, they don’t wish to adopt this label either. As I read their stuff, I get the impression they’re edging toward the public use of the term they routinely apply to themselves – the Progressive Left. You have to hand it to them for chutzpah – they are progressive and the rest of us are, thus, incontestably regressive. Que cara!

Incidentally, my (ex)stepson sees me as “a nice (and, therefore, deluded) Tory”. I suspect this is his British half speaking. His Spanish half would be far more blunt. At the minimum, I’d be “a liar”, I guess.

Finally, for those interested in knowing more about Iranian culture, click here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

I see that Iran’s Supreme Leader has labelled the British government evil and treacherous. Hard as it may be to credit, this is essentially because all Iranians have believed for close on a hundred years now that perfidious Albion keeps a tight control on all global affairs. Even harder to take for Americans will be their subordinate view that our cousins are nothing but dupes of the British. Flattering but, of course, ridiculous. That said, it might well take another hundred years to rid the Iranians of this delusion.

Closer to home, here at last is the photo of the bus-stop down at the roundabout. Enjoy . . .


We may not have double-decker buses but double-decker bus-stops we do have!

And here is the engraving on the plate glass at one end . . .


Just down the road from this is the rather lovely restored old stone house which houses the Poio tourist office.


And here are three pix of what someone thinks is a suitable extension at the back of it . . .




I apologise if this is three too many.

The good news is that, in our climate, it won't be long before some sort of foliage climbs up the chicken wire and obscures the place.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Given that Iran is much in the news at the moment and the TV reports give reasonable cause for dismissing the place as rather backward, I’d just like to redress the balance a bit here. I’m influenced, of course, by the fact I lived there for three years - admittedly in the carpetbagger years of the 70s - and developed a deep affection for its language, its culture and its people.

Writing in his book “Iran: Empire of the Mind”, Michael Axworthy reminds us it was Persian scholars who were primarily responsible for the 9th century renaissance in the Muslim world, when the lessons of Greek philosophy, mathematics, science, medicine, history and literature were discovered and applied. Further, it was another Persian – the great Avicenna – who was responsible for collating these and making them known to the West.

And a couple of hundred years on – but still well before Chaucer and Shakespeare – the great Persian poets were writing works still widely quoted today.

I guess Iran is important once again today, though not in a way most of us would want. I believe it will again find its proper place in the world. Though not, I fear, for a while yet. Meanwhile, I will raise a glass tonight in support of those trying to drag it back from the Middle Ages. And a second one to the inventors of Twitter, something which I’ve hitherto had neither interest in, knowledge of nor admiration for.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Earlier this week, El Mundo carried an article by Britain’s Svengali, Lord Mandelson, on the challenges faced by the EU over the next 5 years. Why, for God’s sake? Given his own problems and those of Mr Brown and the Labour Party, surely he’s got more important things to do. And surely there’s someone in Spain better qualified than he is to write such an article. Perhaps he’s cheap.

And while I’m posing questions . . .

1. How come I’ve never been accosted by any of the Mormons I regularly see on the streets of Pontevedra – either in town or at home? Do I not look like a good conversion prospect?

2. Why do Spanish adults think the pavements are for bicycles as well as pedestrians? I mean, you can (almost) forgive immature kids and adolescents for swerving past you, but their parents?

3. Why do Spanish papers of all stripes regularly carry syndicated articles from Anglo commentators such as Timothy Gorton Ash and Henry Kamen? Aren’t there enough good journalists here, where it’s still a respected profession?

4. Why, when you ask for your bill and give your table number in perfectly serviceable Spanish, does the waitress hold up three fingers when she says “Tres euros.” These are not difficult words to understand.

Anyway, there’s a large roundabout on my side of the river, at the centre of which is the city’s fire station. The road around it has been re-configured several times over the years – to allow access to the nearby new Guardia Civil barracks, as well as to the AP9 autopista and several other roads. In fact, you now need an IQ of at least 120 to get round it safely. And some experience of orienteering would surely come in handy. So I wasn’t surprised to read yesterday that the police claim that, at least once a week, someone goes the wrong way round it. And we’re not talking foreigners here. Not even Portuguese.

Finally . . . You’ll appreciate that beaches are important in fun-loving Spain. We have dozens of them along our coast and along the sides of our famous rías (estuaries/fiords). But this hasn’t stopped the Pontevedra council from paying for a new one to be constructed along the river, not far from the centre of town. And it’s now open.

Which is more than can be said for the bus-stop. But it can’t be long now. I saw a group of six be-suited men inspecting it this morning. Or at least chatting about it. Photos soon.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Notwithstanding El País’s claim that the Spanish government is finally facing up to reality, the Finance Ministress is still claiming that there’s nothing specific about our bust and that we will come out of the recession at the same time and speed as everyone else. So optimism has not entirely departed the scene.

This site provides the answer to the question I raised the other day – which clearly foxed readers – about what the speed limit would be between an End of 60 sign and a 70 sign a hundred metres later. It’d be 90. Briefly.

While investigating this, I also read it’s compulsory here to use your right indicator when you’ve overtaken someone and are returning to the inside lane on a motorway. I’ve seen this frequently here and often wondered about it, as I can’t recall it happening anywhere else in the world. Especially when the road is empty. More to the point, the traffic police are – needless to say – now fining drivers who don’t do it. So, yet another thing to bear in mind when on the road. And I used to say that driving here was still the pleasure it was in the UK 30 or 40 years ago!

The central government has said it will put in writing its latest promises for the commissioning of the AVE high-speed train here in Galicia. Which is nice, though I doubt anyone will place any more reliance on these than on the verbal commitments of the last 20 years. Meanwhile, I’ve read that 80% of the bit connecting Galicia with the central meseta will go through tunnels. Since this would mean about 30km underground, this could well be more than the length of the Channel tunnel. I wonder if I’ll live to experience it.

Meanwhile, the bus-stop-in-progress edges towards completion. A yellow chevron has now been painted in front of it and the word BUS painted over this, in very large letters. Twice. As if this will make any difference at all. The only real question is, will the police fine those who ignore the chevron? Or will I have to make a citizens’ arrest or two?

Meanwhile, some good news at last! When I opened one of the two boxes of wine I (over)bid for on Saturday, I discovered there were not six but 12 bottles in it. I take this as a sign from a higher authority that I should do what I contemplated yesterday and double my alcohol intake - in search of a rich combination of generosity and creativity.

Plus I’ve realised that the new office for collecting traffic fines is at least 200 metres closer to my house than the old one. Which should come in handy, when I get my fourth fine shortly.

Finally . . . I leave you with the report that a Spanish guy was arrested this week for trying to blackmail 250 women he’d persuaded to pose sexily for him on the internet. Two hundred and fifty! Can it really be that easy? Or did he just tap into a cyber version of Spain’s infamous club scene?

Monday, June 15, 2009

On British TV this morning a death from swine flu was described as the first in the UK. Here in Spain, it was referred to as the first in Europe. Different perspectives but both right, I guess.

Talking of news . . . The rather worrying lead story in today’s ABC was that Romanian gangs favour Spain because it’s “a paradise in which to carry out crime”. Allegedly, 35% of all Romanian criminals outside their own country are operating here, against a mere 30% in the UK. Spain, say the Romanian police, is seen by their criminal fraternity as a country of opportunity. But, as one could say this of any and every country, one is left wondering why Spain is so favoured as a paradise for crime.

And talking of the dubious transfer of money from one wallet to another . . . I see that the folk who collect the motoring fines down in Pontevedra are moving into a swish new office, round the corner from the present one. But I guess they can afford it. Interesting to see that – like the bus-stop-in-process – its glass window is engraved with relevant details. Either this is suddenly very fashionable here in Ponters or somebody’s relative has gone into this business.

Even during the boom years I found it hard to understand how Pontevedra’s numerous shops could all be profitable. Perhaps they weren’t. For a short walk through one of our galerias this morning revealed that at least ten of them are now boarded up. As is the (genuine) Chinese massage place, only opened last year. Against this, a new and expensive tapas bar in the centre of town appears to be overflowing with clientele. But ‘twas ever thus. It will be struggling next year, when the next in-place opens and the sheep-like pijos and pijas move on.

Of course, it’s often said that many shops in Pontevedra are just laundering facilities for the vast sums generated by the drug trade along our coast but I find it hard to believe this sector is suffering much of a downturn.

Finally, some excellent news for would-be creative souls. There is a gene (G-variant) which bolsters the creativity of some of us when we take alcohol. However, there’s a limit. “A drink too many and the soporific effect takes over, overwhelming the endorphins and sending even the G-variant drinker to sleep.” In my case, the G might stand for generosity, as my daughters claim there’s no comparison between what I’m prepared to spend when I’m sober and when I’ve had just one glass of wine. Which would explain why I successfully bid for 12 bottles of wine I didn’t really want after the cricket lunch on Saturday. Now, if I could combine generosity and creativity . . . Must try two glasses.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

This is the second post of the day. The first was yesterday's, delayed until early this morning.

Well, it took an awful long time coming – I suppose a few elections got in the way – but the Spanish Government has finally decided to face up to reality, admit the depth of the recession and lower its economic forecast. The previous estimate of a 1.6% fall in GDP for this year has been massively increased to 3.6%. And they’ve naturally warned us that more tax increases are on the way, having just addressed the usual suspects of higher cigarette and petrol levies.

Of course, the problem for the government is that it's a minority administration and so must get the support of smaller parties in order to get its budget approved. One of these, needless to say, is the Catalan nationalist party which is not at all happy either with the current model of regional finance or the proposed replacement that's been under discussion for some time. Spain doesn’t get any easier to govern when times are bad. Quite the opposite.

Here in Galicia, the metal workers of Vigo and Pontevedra have been operating wildcat strikes for some time now, in support of a demand for increased wages. You might question the wisdom of this in the teeth of a recession but the workers clearly believe they have a good case and are becoming increasingly violent in their campaign for its acceptance. I wonder if this is a augury of things to come. Especially as the government now admits that the recession – and its concomitant unemployment – won’t end until 2011. At the earliest. Interesting times.

But here, at least, is some good news. I think. . . “The Government is to change 47 laws to try and increase competition in the service sector in Spain. These are intended to reduce bureaucratic costs and liberalise several activities.” But will the Law of Unintended Consequences put in another appearance?

Limping down to Vegetables Square today for my midday Albariño and squid, I happened upon a carpet of flowers in the main square, prompting the realisation it was the feast of Corpus Christi today. Confirmation came in the form a short procession during my lunch, comprising a statue of Christ bleeding on the cross and a group of Galician bagpipe players, dressed in their uncomfortably heavy national dress. Given the heat, my heart went out to them. It was, by the way, a good thing I saw the flowers on the way down. Coming back, the kids were joyfully tossing handfulls into the air.

Earlier in the morning, I’d unwittingly caused two young women in the wifi café to almost jump out of their skin, when I switched on Spotify at full ballast without realising my earpiece wasn’t connected to my laptop. I very much doubt they’d heard Leadbelly wailing blues before, at any volume.

Finally . . . Problems with my ankle today reminded me of this old story of an exchange between a couple at a cocktail party:-
Him: I’m a little stiff from Badminton.
Her: I don’t care where you’re from, go away.
Or words to that effect.

Actually, my difficulty in putting the weight on the ankle gave me the opportunity to do something I’ve waited almost a lifetime for – to choose between the walking stick I bought in the Seychelles when I was 19 and the one I bought in Tehran when I was 26. How’s that for planning?

Back to the here and now, I’d rather hoped to bump into Pontevedra’s celebrated Draculín (Little Dracula) when crossing the bridge into town. He regularly sports an elegant cape and cane but, as these are purely an affectation, I’d planned to flourishingly trump him with my genuine need. But it was not to be. Mostly because I decided I couldn’t hack the long walk into town across the bridge and decided to drive in.
This is actually yesterday’s post, with apologies for lateness.

I spent the entire day participating in a charity cricket match and its aftermath in Vigo, once - of course - I’d taken my car back to the garage which had relieved me of a prince’s ransom for its repair earlier in the week.

It was a most enjoyable day, even though the ‘International’ team of Brits, South Africans, New Zealanders and, yes, one Spaniard lost narrowly to the Pakistani team which runs Vigo’s Taj Mahal restaurant. Given my spate of bad luck, I’d expected to be seriously injured, especially when I realised we were going to play with a hard ball, without protection of any sort. But, in the end, I only sprained my ankle. And discovered that ‘total sun block’ isn’t.

Having got my car back, driven painfully home, fed a hungry dog and settled down on my sofa to watch the TV Galicia report on the game, I decided to forego hobbling downtown to a wifi café to post this. Which I feel quite sure you’ll understand.

Friday, June 12, 2009

I read something today which years ago I would have greeted as good news but which now I don’t. The government is planning to make numerous changes to the road traffic regulations and, as far as I’m concerned, there can be only one objective in all this. And it’s got little to do with road safety. For instance, you currently stand to lose some of the 12 points on your licence if you park on a bend or in a bus stop bay. But soon you won’t. My guess is the police don’t enforce the current regulations because they realise virtually every driver in Spain would soon lose all their points and be banned from driving. Which would be killing the Golden Goose. Far better to jack up the fine and encourage the police to implement the more lenient law. And it’s surely no coincidence that the discount for not arguing the toss but coughing up immediately is going to rise from 30 to 50%. And that you’ll be able to pay Mr Plod on the spot with a credit card. No wonder “critics of the changes consider that the Guardia Civil have now become tax collectors.”

But there was some good news today. . . .

Firstly, they were fitting glass sides to the bus-stop-in-process this morning. Engraved glass at that, giving the crest of Poio council, amongst other things. Surprisingly, there’s no chicken.

Secondly, the agent for the household insurance on my place in the hills allowed me to change the policy-holder and bank debit details without sending me back home for a copy of a missing document. And without demanding a copy of the title deeds of the house. Of course, it wasn’t all plain sailing. I’d tried to do this at the offices of the insurance company itself yesterday. But, by some bizarre, stuff-the-customer logic, they felt they could change the bank account details but not the policy-holder. For this, I’d have to make a separate journey to the agent with whom the policy had been taken out. I waited in vain for the words “But don’t worry. We’ll do that with the agent and save you the inconvenience of wasting another hour in your life.” But to get back to being positive . . . this success with the agent suggests either things are getting easier in Spain or I am getting good at these sorts of challenges. But as hubris rarely goes unpunished, this is surely the prelude to a really irritating problem next time I have to do something routine.

Although Banco Santander steams on and on in the UK, here in Spain all is not well in the banking sector. The second largest bank, the BBVA, has announced plans to close several hundred branches and the Finance Ministress has admitted that, thanks to duff loans and fishy deals with regional governments, the savings bank sector is in for a major shake-up. I say ‘savings bank sector’ but, as has been noted before, these institutions now comprise Spain’s largest estate agency/realtor - because of all the properties they’ve taken onto their books in lieu of mortgage repayments. Needless to say, Spain’s real estate agents are less than pleased about the competition, especially as it’s not hard to guess which applicants are going to get preferential treatment when it comes to a mortgage. Anyway, you can read a bit more about all this here, should the mood take you. The Finance Ministress says “The system will be strengthened: We'll have fewer but more solid financial institutions." But she would, wouldn’t she.

The Catholic Church is urging us, via a major advertising campaign, to put a cross in the box which authorises the State to give it a minute fraction of our taxes. This is because, about thirty years later than planned, the Church is no longer getting a lump sum each year (increased for inflation) regardless of what taxpayers have done or not done on their submissions. In other words, this is the first year in which it hasn’t been a complete waste of time to ponder what you were going to do and then tick or not tick the box accordingly. You might wonder why the State is giving a subsidy to one of the richest organisations in the world but I’m afraid I can’t answer this. Possibly something to do with education. And inertia.

Finally . . . I see that Bonnie Tyler – an icon in Spain – is coming to Vigo to take part in the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of something called Century Rock. Last time I saw her on British TV she looked decidedly worse for wear. So I guess a good time is guaranteed. Even if she doesn’t sing. Especially if she doesn’t sing, perhaps. Move over Amy Winehouse.

Postscript: Half an hour after I wrote this, I set off to town in my newly-fixed car. Or, rather I didn’t, as it wouldn’t start. After an hour, the guy turned up from the garage - actually, the owner – and proceeded to give it the high-tech attention of a bash of the starter motor with a nearby branch. What was I saying about hubris? Back to the workshop tomorrow morning.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

In British politics – in contrast to the more robust Spanish variety – no one ever bluntly calls anyone a liar. And certainly not in the parliament. But this commentator gets as close as one can to labelling Gordon Brown an inveterate economiser with the truth. My guess is the Spanish would see this British political norm as just another example of the core national sin of hypocrisy.

And talking of lying, The Economist said of President Zapatero’s Budget speech a few weeks ago that, while he’d pulled several rabbits out of his hat to confound the Opposition, he “must have known he could not fulfil his pledges, which seem to have been devised for the European election on June 7th.”. If so, his sleight-of-mouth was not terribly successful, for his party lost said elections.

I’ve often said I wouldn’t like to have the challenges of the Spanish President, given the fissiparous nature of politics here and the eternal campaigns from the regions to wrest ever more power from Madrid. The Economist refers to this in the above article, as well as to the constraints on the President’s ability to deliver on any promises he makes at a national level. Perhaps, in these circumstances, he has no option but to lie. Otherwise he’d just have to stay silent. Which is a tall order for a politician. Deaf ones I know of. But dumb ones?

As for eschewing hypocrisy and majoring on bluntness . . . I had lunch with some old Spanish friends yesterday. The wife very kindly volunteered that my Spanish had come on a long way but the husband retorted “No, he could still do better.” Being a gentleman, I didn’t mention his English. Because he hasn’t got any. Relating this to my to my elder daughter last night, she said it was a very Spanish trait to speak “without hairs on the tongue” . And she reminded me of two pupils she used to have in Pontevedra. The younger sister was much the taller one and when Faye commented on this she replied “Yes. People are always saying ‘How pretty your sister is! But you’re very tall.’” Poor kid.

After getting three speeding fines in one year – compared with none in the previous 43 – I’m naturally now taking a keen interest in the signs at the side of the road. And a confusing experience it is too. For instance, what to make of a sequence which goes – No sign at all for 3km after the start of a road; then an 80km sign; then (merely fifty metres later) a 50 sign? Or another sequence which goes – Firstly, an End of 60 sign, followed (a hundred metres later) by a 70 sign, followed (another hundred metres later) by a 50 sign Can they really be deliberately trying to confuse us? Can anyone tell me what the permitted speed is in the hundred metres between the End of 60 sign and the 70 sign in this second sequence? 80? 90? 100kph? I guess it's not 70 or 120.

Despite the fact the sun was forecast for today, I woke at 7 to an Atlantic Blanket that all but obscured the cityscape of Pontevedra several hundred metres below me. But by midday things had changed for the better and the warnings of very high temperatures for tomorrow began to look rather more credible. Now I’m worried about getting sunstroke at the cricket match on Saturday, rather than drowning. Don’t you just love this global warming.

Finally, here's an article on Galicia recently published in the Financial Times

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Spanish politicians of both the government and the opposition are regularly assessed for their popularity ratings and rankings with the public. As with other things here - such as the marks for the university entrance exam - these are expressed out of ten, not as percentages. So, for example, President Zapatero might rate 5.1 and the Leader of the Opposition 4.8. Or vice versa this week. And each of these may be more or less effective (or popular) than their colleagues. These comments have been prompted by a photo of Gordon Brown with Peter Mandelson at his shoulder. Despite the fact the latter has twice had to leave the government in disgrace, he’s now back as the most powerful member of Brown’s entourage. Given that, thanks to his skills in the black arts of political spin, he’s widely known as The Prince of Darkness, this says quite a lot about Gordon Brown’s situation. Anyway, it would be interesting to see what marks each of them would get from the British public under the Spanish system. Even though it’s not possible to get a negative number. Theoretically, at least.

If you’re interested in knowing how corrupt Spain is, the University of Essex has pronounced on the subject. I can’t find their actual document but here’s a press report. In line with my own perception, the main conclusion seems to be that Spain is ‘relatively corrupt’ but that corruption is not so much widespread as very deep in certain spheres. Town halls and the construction industry, for example. And now more than ever, if a snapshot of last year is still relevant, after the collapse of said sector.

Here in Galicia, our weather is, shall we say, variable. We had unseasonable sun for long periods in February and March and my younger daughter and her friends recently enjoyed a great week of temperatures in the 30s here. But the Atlantic is again showing us who’s boss by smothering us with its blanket of cloud and rain. It was miserable again today – for the 6th day in succession and - and I’m now wondering whether the charity cricket match I’m due to play in on Saturday will be possible. The good news is that the sun is forecast to return on Friday and to linger for Saturday, before heading off for another holiday, warming d*****s down in Timbuktu, as they used to sing. Actually, I’ve just googled this and found that the word originally used was even less acceptable than the one I thought it was. Apparently it’s ‘roasting peanuts’ now. The things you learn here!

Hell! Just when I leave my notes at home and so have to write a post – yesterday’s - off the top of my head in a wifi café, I get more than 200 hits. I don’t suppose many of the new ones will return. Unless they’re interested in head gasket problems with the Rover K series engine.
Spanish politicians of both the government and the opposition are regularly assessed for their popularity ratings and rankings with the public. As with other things here - such as the marks for the university entrance exam - these are expressed out of ten, not as percentages. So, for example, President Zapatero might rate 5.1 and the Leader of the Opposition 4.8. Or vice versa this week. And each of these may be more or less effective (or popular) than their colleagues. These comments have been prompted by a photo of Gordon Brown with Peter Mandelson at his shoulder. Despite the fact the latter has twice had to leave the government in disgrace, he’s now back as the most powerful member of Brown’s entourage. Given that, thanks to his skills in the black arts of political spin, he’s widely known as The Prince of Darkness, this says quite a lot about Gordon Brown’s situation. Anyway, it would be interesting to see what marks each of them would get from the British public under the Spanish system. Even though it’s not possible to get a negative number. Theoretically, at least.

If you’re interested in knowing how corrupt Spain is, the University of Essex has pronounced on the subject. I can’t find their actual document but here’s a press report. In line with my own perception, the main conclusion seems to be that Spain is ‘relatively corrupt’ but that corruption is not so much widespread as very deep in certain spheres. Town halls and the construction industry, for example. And now more than ever, if a snapshot of last year is still relevant, after the collapse of said sector.

Here in Galicia, our weather is, shall we say, variable. We had unseasonable sun for long periods in February and March and my younger daughter and her friends recently enjoyed a great week of temperatures in the 30s here. But the Atlantic is again showing us who’s boss by smothering us with its blanket of cloud and rain. It was miserable again today – for the 6th day in succession and - and I’m now wondering whether the charity cricket match I’m due to play in on Saturday will be possible. The good news is that the sun is forecast to return on Friday and to linger for Saturday, before heading off for another holiday, warming d*****s down in Timbuktu, as they used to sing. Actually, I’ve just googled this and found that the word originally used was even less acceptable than the one I thought it was. Apparently it’s ‘roasting peanuts’ now. The things you learn here!

Hell! Just when I leave my notes at home and so have to write a post – yesterday’s - off the top of my head in a wifi café, I get more than 200 hits. I don’t suppose many of the new ones will return. Unless they’re interested in head gasket problems with the Rover K series engine.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

One of the greatest challenges in learning Spanish is mastering the subjunctive. This is used far more than in English, where it’s all but died off. Things are not helped by the fact there are not one but two forms of the imperfect subjunctive. In theory, these are equally valid but some say one is preferred for speaking and the other for writing. Worse, there’s a future subjunctive as well. But I wouldn’t have the faintest idea when this is used. And I’m not sure many Spaniards do either. At dinner with colleagues on Friday night, an innocent query from me almost led to fisticuffs on the subject of the correct form of the future subjunctive of the verb To Go. Which was rather ironic as nothing else in eight years has got them so excited. But, then, several of them are teachers.

I see that Marks and Spencer are not doing too well these days. Their results will be even worse next year, when I do my annual shop in the UK and give them a miss. This is because they no longer sell the cotton Oxford shirts I favour. In their place are offerings of greater cotton quality but without the button-down collar and the breast pocket essential in jacketless times of the year. Worse, the price has almost doubled, from 25 quid to 40. Which makes a big difference when you buy 6 to 10 at a time.

But, in truth, this pales into insignificance against the bill I’ve just paid for the repair of my car engine. That said, it was not as bad as I’d feared. They’d estimated 2,000 euros but it was only 1,995. And this does include 18 euros for putting the wing mirror on. When I asked what had caused the head gasket to go, they told me it was the fault of the Bosch oil filter which another garage had installed in March, when I had the car serviced by them. But they would say that wouldn’t they?

Anyway, as I’m still in shock, you’ll forgive me if I leave off now to go and put a wet towel on my forehead and give the dog a good kicking.

Monday, June 08, 2009

There’s certainly one hard conclusion that can be drawn from yesterday’s EU elections – If things continue as they are as regards participation, there won’t be anybody at all voting within 20 years. I think turnout was as low as 34% in the UK, against 46% here in Spain and 43% in Europe as a whole. This latter number was 62% in the halcyon days of 1979 but has fallen in every one of the subsequent elections, to reach this new low.

But what else can be concluded? In the middle of a recession and against the background of delirious claims that capitalism is dead, right-of-centre parties won the day both in countries where they’re in opposition (Spain) and in countries where they’re in government (France and Germany). And even extreme right-wing parties progressed to become, it’s said here, ‘the third force’ in Europe. It will be interesting to see how much free speech is allowed to these – including the UK’s dubious BNP party – in Brussels. I imagine not a lot, even though many of our grandparents died for it.

Here in Galicia, the Nationalists suffered an ever larger blow than in the regional elections of a few months ago, seeing their share of the vote fall from 12 to only 9%. They've been complaining a lot recently about the new PP Xunta rolling back the measures they implemented on the promotion/imposition of Gallego but it rather looks as if the public’s sympathy lies with the new government. Whose party actually got over 50% here.

I got my laptop back today, after ‘only’ two weeks. They told me it had been knocked out by static electricity. Which I found rather odd. But not as strange as their claim that they couldn’t get me at all on my mobile last week to tell me it was back from the makers. When I pointed out that my fixed line number was on the repair docket, I got the famous smile. But at least no data had been lost.

Finally, I had a night out with some old and new Spanish friends on Saturday night. It included a rather surreal experience around the issue of child-parent relations. One of the men – acquainted with my own close relationship with my two daughters – told me at least five times in ten minutes how ‘bonito’ this was and how much he aspired to the same. Whereupon his sister-in-law laid into him in no uncertain terms for neglecting both his wife (her sister) and their child. It turned out he’d left them at home - along with his two other kids from a previous marriage. As I’ve said before, I’m well aware Spanish families are not all as close and hunky-dory as we Anglos imagine but they don’t usually wash their dirty linen in public. And certainly not in front of foreigners. Perhaps it was a back-handed compliment to me. I wish.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

El País clearly has it in for Italy's President Berlusconi. After printing the photos this week that so annoyed him, they have a major section and an editorial on him today. One wonders why this is. David Jackson has suggested he's resented generally in Spain for endorsing the stereotypical image of Latin men and that the owners of El País resent his attempts to buy them out. Which may all be true but there's now a third possible reason in Berlusconi's decision to take legal action against the paper. Let's hope he's not successful.

The major cities in Galicia are Vigo, La Coruña, Lugo, Ourense, Santiago and Pontevedra. Puttting two items of today's news together, I realised that Ponters is the only one of these to lack both a branch of El Corte Inglés and an outlet of the chain called La Boutique del Sexo. Which seems very unfair.

Which reminds me . . . If you're in the La Coruña area tomorrow, you might just be able to catch the last day of the first ever Galician Festival of Erotica. If you take your camera along, you could even make your own porn film, along with a hundred other like-minded souls in the crowd.

The Spanish are famous for a relaxed attitude to rules they find personally inconvenient. But few of them go as far as the residents on both sides of a road which runs through nearby Marín. These folk have taken exception to the new solid white line down the middle of the road, as it prevents them from turning into their garages without a two kilometre round trip. So they've painted over it in the middle of the night. Three times now. The show could run and run.

Which is as good a lead as any into the first bit of Spanglish for a while. Viz. runrún, which means 1. a rumour, and 2. a humming noise. So possibly not Spanglish but merely
onomatopaeia. Or both.

Finally, visiting Cangas this evening, I noticed several houses not far from the sea bearing placards protesting against them being adversely affected by the 'capricious' Law of the Coast, forbidding construction within a certain distance of the shore. If so, then so is the relatively newly built town hall in the same line. Which is a tad ironic.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

By now possibly everyone knows that El País this week published photos taken at President Berlusconi's Sardinian villa. What fascinated me was that, although the paper disguised one man’s face, they treated us to his erect penis. My guess is it would have been the other way round in the UK. Anyway, it seems that the not-overly-blessed gentleman was actually a Czech politician, betrayed by his wrist band. He claims the photo had been touched up – which is possibly what he had in mind for the prostrate women he’s seen approaching with his invitation – but he doesn’t tell us how. Perhaps he has reasons to be pleased.

Over in the UK, Gordon Brown has today had some respite, attending the D Day commemorations in Normandy. Looking back on a disturbing few days for him, perhaps the most telling development was the editorial from The Guardian - the Bible of the Left - which called for him to be ‘cut loose’ now, rather than later. It’s hard to argue with this. Especially as it was written on Wednesday, before the debacles of the last few days. But what I found most interesting about the editorial was the way in which it several times described Labour party members as ‘progressive’. This is standard Liberal thinking, of course - viz. that anyone who disagrees with them is immorally regressive. More impressive was the endorsement of my comment the other day that the only way for Labour to survive is via a strategic alliance with the Liberal Democrats.

Against this background, it was inevitable that the “high priestess of the Left”, Polly Toynbee, should finally put an end to her year-long dithering in The Guardian about Gordon Brown and call for his departure in no uncertain terms. Can he really have much longer? And will be able to avoid clinical depression?

Talking of editorials, El Pais today has one which reminds us that the Spanish European elections campaign has been of a low tone and completely domestically orientated. Clearly unimpressed, the author says what’s at stake is really the legitimacy of the EU. But I wonder whether there’s anyone else in the country who takes this view.

In its second editorial, the paper high-handedly castigates Messrs Blair and Brown for not correcting the policy errors of the Thatcher era. Indeed, it accuses them of continuing them. If the writer means the policy of centralising power in London, then he or she is clearly in agreement with Simon Jenkins. Of course, what New Labour is being punished for is doing this at the cost of massively increased taxes for the middle classes, with no commensurate improvement in those public services that are more controlled than ever by the government. As I’ve said many times, possibly one of the worst administrations in British history, in stark contrast with its professed ideals and, indeed, its promises. But brilliant at electioneering. And possibly well-studied by Señor Zapatero, who yesterday reminded us the Opposition are really just modern fascists who are planning to lay waste to the country. Not at all progressive, then.

Here in Spain, so-called property experts are still predicting it will be years before the country’s property overhang is disposed of. No one knows what the current total of unsold properties is but it’s somewhere between 800,000 and 1.2m. Whatever it is, it can only get bigger in the short term, as places started 3 to 5 years ago come onto the market. No wonder the consensus is that prices have a lot further to fall yet. Meanwhile, the banks are trying of offload those properties taken as security against loans that are now bad. Primarily to their own staff at considerable ‘discounts’. I wonder if they are taxed on these benefits in kind but guess not.

Talking of slow-moving constructions, two stainless steel rubbish bins were added to the bus-stop-in-progress this week, though I never happened to coincide with any of the workers on my four trips a day past it. My amateur guess is that, with proper project management (¿Que?), it could have been built inside a week, against the several months so far. But it hardly matters as it’s only going to be, like its predecessor, a glorified parking space.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the driving offence most committed here – or perhaps this should be most policed – is that of speeding. Followed by not wearing a seat belt, not having the correct child-protection measures in place, driving over the alcohol limit and then using a mobile phone. The police have announced that ‘safe drivers’ will at some time in the future be rewarded with additional points on their licence, safe in the knowledge that, thanks to their chicanery, there won’t actually be anyone in the country innocent of any offence.

Very close to home, there were two very adverse developments yesterday, to add to my catalogue. Firstly, Tony junior has found the bloody saxophone someone gave him last Christmas. And, secondly, I heard the dreaded word “Papa!” through the wall. Sure enough, Tony is back from the sea and I was woken early this morning by triple bawling. Time for extra earplugs.

Finally, did the Spanish royal family really not realise that Ryanair would take publicity advantage of the Queen’s flight from Santander to London last weekend? How touchingly naïve, if not.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Can it really get much worse for Gordon Brown? Has anyone ever seen a government crumble in front of their eyes before? No wonder the Westminster village is agog. Even beats the Thatcher defenestration, I suspect.


Here in Spain, President Zapatero has been able to pull a rabbit from the hat just before the European elections on Sunday. After months of rising steeply, the unemployment figures suddenly dropped last month, we’re told. But even the government-supporting El País finds this a tad hard to credit, pointing out the numbers were ‘early’ and hadn’t been seasonally adjusted. Needless to say, the Opposition merely accused the President of lying. But that’s what they say about all his utterances. And vice-versa. One irony is that quite a few of us were sceptical about the bad numbers, suspecting they were not as awful as painted. If so, I guess it wasn’t very difficult for the government to indulge in a bit of sleight-of-hand when it most suited it. But, that said, statistics are not generally believed here. Which is why it amuses me so much that they’re often given to two decimal points.


Contemplating my bad luck of the last two weeks, I got to thinking about how and why things go wrong in Spain. In a nutshell, it tends to be when you want some after-sales service, especially technical. As a Spanish friend said when I relayed my comment about good customer service here amounting to giving bad news with a smile, the reply was “No. Good service here is getting any answer at all.”. Putting this another way, thanks to very rapid growth, Spain probably lacks a depth of infrastructure commensurate with its wealth and economic ranking. But, anyway, all this got me pondering where Spain would have a competitive edge in international markets. And my inevitable conclusion was that it would be where products and services didn’t need any follow-up. In other words, things that are consumed, enjoyed and forgotten about, most obviously wine, food and tourism. All of which just happen to fit with the national obsession for having fun. Which I don’t suppose is a coincidence.


But this is just what it says on the label – a Thought from Galicia. I won’t be very upset if anyone shoots it to pieces. Honest.


One obvious exception has just occurred to me – Aren’t some excellent shotguns made here? Though I don’t suppose after-sales service matters very much once a beautiful piece has blown up in your face.


None of this is to say there are no excellent operators here in Spain, corporate and private. The plumber who worked at my house for eight hours this week was a good example of the latter. Almost impossible to tie down but superb when he finally turned up. I asked him if he were a perfectionist – there are some here – and he replied “No. For example it really annoys me I can’t do the brickwork as well as a bricklayer. But I do like to do the very best job possible.” I rest my case.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

I haven't been near a TV for a few hours so I don't know whether Gordon Brown is still the British Prime Minister. But I wouldn't take a bet on it. The Labour party seems bent on getting rid of him pretty promptly, apparently without realising that they're sealing the fate of the party in the process. Only a fusion of the right wing of the Labour party with the Liberal Democrats to form a true left-of-centre social democratic party makes any real sense in today's times. But I guess the ghost of the SDP debacle hovers over this. So we can expect to see the Labour party march over a cliff during the next 12 months. What an inglorious - but utterly predictable - end to the sham experiment of New Labour.

Talking of which . . . A week or two ago, I cited Simon Jenkins book on British politics of the last 30 years - "Thatcher and Sons". His thesis is that Mrs T revolutionised the UK in two ways:- 1. She liberalised and dynamised the economy by, inter alia, privatising much that was in the ownership of the state, and 2. She compensated for loss of ownership by increasing government control via a process of relentless centralisation which was continued by Major and Blair and was always going to be brought to its apogee by the manic Mr Brown. Thus the Age of the Bureaucrat - with its crazy targets and its mad acronyms - was actually started in the 80s and has continued, under 3 prime ministers, ever since. With each one of them trying to outdo his predecessor when it came to centralising power, destroying local democracy and making daily life horrendous for hundreds and thousands of Brits. As Jenkins says, the real irony (tragedy) is that this has all led to far higher costs because the government and quasi-governmental bureacracies established to set and monitor the targets know only one way of working - expensively.

I could quote from almost every page of the book but will resist the temptation. I'll just mention a passage in which he refers to a visit Blair made to the USA in 1993, duing which time President Clinton stressed that modern politics is all about charismatic leadership. If so, then at least Britain and Spain have something in common right now- no evidence at all of such a thing. Though Sr Zapatero probably shades it from Mr Rajoy. Who?

Someone else you might not know is Heather Brooke. Thanks to an article in El País, I now know it was this journalist who did all the hard work to shine a light on the expense abuses of British MPs, for which The Daily Telegraph is now getting all the kudos. She must be seriously upset.

One of Spain's most famous judges has been fined 100 euros for an error which resulted in the flight of a major drug dealer. I wonder if he got the same prompt-payment discount of 30% I was given yesterday when I found a Banco Santander bank that wasn't packed to the gunwales.

I put a corduroy jacket in for repair last week, in one of those little Spanish shops which have disappeared from the UK scene. When I picked it up this morning, I was rather nonplussed to see they'd merely stitched a patch over the hole near the breast pocket and, to say the least, it wasn't flush with the rest of the garment. When I showed it to my lawyer friend, Elena, at lunch to guage her reaction, she merely asked me if I'd done it myself.

And I'd thought things were beginning to get better.
This is actually last night’s blog, which I couldn’t post because I was occupied with a plumber until almost 11pm. He’d arrived two hours late – well, actually two weeks - but made up for this by working five hours without stopping. Best of all, he did both things that needed doing and didn’t postpone the second until ‘another day’. I’d considered keeping him there by gunpoint but, in the end, this wasn’t necessary. (PS. He came back this morning for another three hours).

Anyway, the worst way to choose a new car is probably to rush the challenge because you live alone at the top of a steep hill with the nearest shops more than half a mile's walk away at the bottom. Meaning you have to prevail on the generosity of friends for loans of alternative transport. But the good news is that Spanish friends are superb in these circumstances. Especially if they live in the city centre and hardly ever use their cars.

The challenge is, of course, a calvario in any country but it’s not helped here by the non-availability of sales personnel at certain hours of the day and on two days of the week. However, there are moments of lightness. Each manufacturer has at least three models in its range and the names of these stretch credulity. Most of them are in English. Which means, of course, you don’t understand what the salesman is saying when he talks about them. As in ‘Train’ for Trend in the case of Ford. Here are a few examples. Incidentally, I suspect it’s effectively impossible to get a car at the lowest end of these ranges:-

Ford
Ambiente
Trend
Sport
Titanium

Toyota
Live
TS
Active

Kia
Concept
Active
Emotion

Hyundai
Classic
Comfort
Style

Skoda
Urban
Young
Style
Sport

The prize for nonsense goes to Kia, who have a car called the Cee’d. This is pronounced sed or thed, depending where in Spain you live. They have a sporty version of this called the Pro_cee’d. Presumably this contrived English word is deliberate. Which makes it ironic that it’s pronounced pro-sed or pro-thed in Spain.

I would give you the alleged derivation of Cee’d but you wouldn’t believe me.

There will be a more serious post this evening . . .

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

I read this morning that car sales in May in Spain were well down on last year. Which left me even more surprised that no one in any of the showrooms I’ve managed to find open so far seemed particularly keen to sell me a new car. If any of them has had any sales training, the investment appears to have been wasted. But, anyway, it put me in good spirits as I set out to talk face-to-face to the Ford salesman who’d promised to call me yesterday to let me know whether the June price would be even better than the May price he gave me last Friday. Alas, no. It had actually increased 500 euros. And the rationale? Firstly, it’s June and, secondly, I don’t have a 10 year old car to exchange under the Spanish government’s just-introduced swap scheme. This, it seems, has boosted both the trade and the spirits of the car dealers and led them to reduce the discounts they were previously offering to those of us with, say, a 5 year old car with a useless engine.

But I had a bit of good luck last night when I bumped into my old piano teacher and he told me the Suzuki dealership was now housed in the Opel showrooms. So I went there after visiting the Ford place, only to discover that it isn’t.

So another productive morning. But the good news is that the car wreckers down in Poio will give me 200 euros for the car and arrange for it to be officially taken off the road. Or rather “About 200”. I wonder what on earth it depends on. Me getting the car there and finding I have no other option but to leave it with them, I imagine. I’m guessing 100-150 in practice.

But the really good news is that I didn’t pay the garage 245 euros for the wing mirror knocked off in a January storm but got one for 70 euros via the net when I was in the UK in April. And nor did I pay them 50 euros to put it on. So, anyone want to buy a green RHS wing mirror for a Rover 45? If not, I guess there’s always e-bay.

There was a rather odd supplement in the Diario de Pontevedra last week. Essentially, it was a celebration of all the public works which make the city even more of a mess than it’s been for the last 10 years. And I guess it was paid for by the local council. Or, in other words, the taxpayers. But I was delighted to read that between Monday and Friday between 5 and 7 of the evening, you can go up onto the balcony of the town hall and have a guided gaze at the excavations going on in what used to be Plaza de España around an underground car park that should be with us some time in the next ten years. I may not be able to resist.

Which reminds me . . . Another breezeblock or two were added to the bus-stop-in-process yesterday and then faced with granite. But my suspicions are growing that some architectural genius who is either ignorant of or oblivious to our weather has designed a facility that not only has wood in the roof but which is also open to the elements. I do hope I’m wrong and that plate glass is going to installed at the back and around the sides. Vamos a ver.

For what it’s worth, the latest forecast for Thursday’s European elections give the right-of-centre PP party 43% of the vote, against 39% for the ruling socialist PSOE party. The predicted turnout is 45% but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were rather less than this.

Finally, if you’re fed up of reading about expenses abuse by British MPs, you might like to raise your sights and read Henry Kamen’s article in yesterday’s El Mundo about corruption among the members of the European Parliament. Who’ve banned any publication of their own expenses, I believe. One wonders why. Or, rather, one doesn’t.

Postscript: As I finished this, the Ford salesman called to ask me to go back again tomorrow to discuss an improved offer. Which is a lot more sensible than his stance this morning. Things are finally looking up. Sort of.

Post postscript: The internet provider Ya.com who threatened to sue me last year and against whom I’ve lodged an official complaint with the Consumer Bureau has just called to invite me to subscribe to ADSL through them. I needed a laugh.

I leave you with the thought that the call from the Ford guy endorses my long-held suspicion that no business in Spain treats an enquiry as serious until the potential client follows up with a second face-to-face meeting. Which makes it either very logical or illogical that they usually, in the case of cars, won't give you a price on the phone.

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