Thursday, December 31, 2009

Access to the net is still intermittent. So, later than they would otherwise have been, here are some Thoughts about Spain while driving between Pontevedra and Palencia, 23.12.09

So much of life in Spain is a mystery. This is hardly a new observation, I’m sure. But you can only begin to understand things here when you grasp the Spanish concept of time. Which is another way of saying their priorities.

Is it too much to say that Spain’s solid economic growth of the last 40 years – and especially the artificial boom of the last decade – has resulted in a politico-commercial complex which is redolent of the robber baron era of late 19th century America? Or the carpetbagger years of Iran in the early 70s? Or Contemporary Russia? Has money been made too easily by men of the ilk of the guy who heads the association of businessmen, who owns the just-collapsed Air Comet airline and who has defaulted on loans of 26.5m euros which he may well have fraudulently obtained in the first place? Or by companies such as Telefónica, which has made millions for its managers and investors in South America but which still declines to give you a phone line or the internet if you live a mere ten kilometres from town? Have these people and companies got fat during times when it was easy to exploit both employees and customers? Will they now struggle with the rather tougher challenge of managing low growth and even decline? I imagine so. Especially if and when the EU subventions tap is turned off in 2013. Can bad political and managerial habits really be changed quickly? I rather doubt it and fear for the consequences for Spain. Where it will now be rather more difficult to make an easy killing (the pelotazo) or to get something for nothing. Most obviously in the construction industry, I guess.

Incidentally, you can see Graeme’s profile of the above businessman here. You don’t have to be a socialist to agree with him on this issue. That said, I’m sure I must rank as left-of-centre in Spain and that the longer I live here the more likely I’ll vote for the PSOE.

Meanwhile, if you want another corporate example to go alongside Telefónica, see this post from David Jackson on his local electricity company, Endesa.

And talking of trying to get something for nothing . . . I recently posted a brief essay by my Dutch friend Peter Missler on the Spanish love of lotteries. Reader Alberto took exception to this and you can read his thoughts (and his after-thoughts) in the Comments to the post of 21 December. I’d just like to add the observation that not all forms of gambling are the same. Some of them – horse-racing and poker, for example – can involve a good deal of research and/or skill. Which, of course, reduce the odds against you. This is not true of a lottery. There’s absolutely nothing you can do to increase the odds in your favour. Which probably explains why it’s hard – impossible even – to envisage a professional gambler basing his career around buying lottery tickets. If he did, he’d be less of a gambler than a complete idiot. I think this is what surprises some of us most about the money spent on lotteries in Spain. If you really want to gamble, there are better ways of doing it. Though, as I say, these can involve hard work. And perhaps this is where Peter had it most right. Or was it someone else (John Hooper?) who said that the Spanish have a touching belief in the ability to get something for nothing.

Backtracking a bit . . . It is, of course, possible for an entire country to operate as a robber baron as well. As in the case of traffic fines in Spain. It’s been one of joys of being in France over the last week to drive along country roads where the speed signs are clear and consistent. And not deliberately misleading so as to facilitate state-sponsored theft.

Finally . . . I’ve often wondered why the Spanish virtually spit out the letter P. My comment about Palencia and Valencia the other day gave me the answer to this conundrum. If you don’t spit it out, it’ll be taken for a V or a B. As when a friend asked me to meet him in Café Van Goch and I spent half an hour looking for a place called Bangkok. Well, not really as there’s no P in either of these. But it’s nice little story . . .

And still on Spanish, can anyone explain when someone would “Cuando iba siendo . . . ” instead of “Cuando estaba . . . ”?

Happy New Year to all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Internet access is intermittent. So, a little later than it should have been . . .

THOUGHTS ON THE FRENCH AFTER 3 DAYS HERE

Funny folk the French. They don’t greet you effusively on the village streets but they do slow down in their cars when they see you and your dog walking down a narrow street. As if they were thinking about you and considering your safety. And they acknowledge it if, when driving, you show them the courtesy of letting them pass on a narrow road.

But, boy, are they quiet! At least in this village. No kids running round the streets, no dogs barking ceaselessly and no music blaring from anyone’s house. Is there anyone here apart from us, as we try to make up for the lack of noise on everyone else's part?

And here is the very village, looking as quiet as it is.

Oddly, the place doesn’t seem to have any sort of café, bar or pub at all. Let alone a brothel. As I say, funny people.

What it does have is a central parking place, with this sign asking people not to obstruct others. None of us can imagine such a sign even existing in Spain. Or being obeyed if it did.


And it does have another border collie – there are lots in the hills around here – which appears to be gay. As he’s been dancing his unwanted attentions on Ryan, we’ve named him Gordon. Which will do even if he’s not gay but just desperate.


The French are even odder than I first thought. In a restaurant last night, we could hear ourselves think. Not just when the place was half empty but even when it was full.

I’d forgotten that French TV also favours a tame audience of bored-looking stiffs sitting behind the performers or presenters, facing the camera. Even those just selling products on the shopping channels. Very odd.

The big New Year’s Eve program looks like being the same appalling celebrity-men-versus-celebrity-women ‘quiz competition’ which I saw when I was last in France at this time of year, 10 years ago. Plus ça change . . .

Postscript

Ryan escaped from the garden this morning and my daughters feared he’d run off with gay Gordon. But he returned alone when whistled. Albeit with a smile on his face.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Thoughts as I was driving between Pontevedra and Palencia, Wednesday 23rd December 2009.

Did my daughter get the train to Valencia by mistake? Probably not. She’s the one with her head screwed on. The despistada one is flying into France from the UK. So this time won’t be confusing Santiago de Compostela with Santiago in Chile. [Not true. Family joke]

Spanish radio allows a lot more discussion of single topics than would be the case on the BBC. But why are they talking about religious solutions to the economic crisis? Oh, my God. I’m tuned into Radio María!

What does it mean when it says Obras (Works) and there are yellow lines for many miles, but no sign of any works? Is the speed limit reduced? Does anyone take any notice?

Why are the police stopping us in Verín? No, sergeant. I don’t have any snow chains.

So, how long will be have to wait here?

Thank God it was only 20 minutes and now we’re on our way, albeit slowly. Driving in convoy, in what the Spanish call a bus de turismos.

I’ve got a two hour margin before the arrival of the train from Madrid in Palencia. Will it be enough?

How come there are vehicles hard up against the central barrier and clearly going nowhere? Did the drivers really try to overtake in the un-cleared lane which has 10cm of snow in it? It certainly looks like it.

I guess conditions in Galicia must have been as bad as this when the British army, under about-to-be ex-Sir John Moore, were retreating from the French in the winter blizzards of 1808. Poor sods.

Has that 4x4 really parked up in the snow-covered lane just so the driver and his partner can take photos of the bus crashed on the other side of the autovía? Yep, it has. Only in Spain? Probably not.

When conditions are as extreme as this, driving is determined by the ultra-cautious at the head of the convoy and by the ultra-incautious – not to say insanely reckless – who cause the crashes that hold everybody else up. The link between them is, of course, frustration beyond levels which arrogant idiots can tolerate.

How strange. This side of the A52 is almost totally clear – at least in one lane – but things are very different on the other side. The going there is very slow and difficult. No wonder there’ve been several crashes. I wonder how long it will take people to get to the coast.

Oh, no. The traffic junction at the exit onto the A6 at Benavente is practically stationary. Does this mean the autovía is reduced to one lane? And how long will it take to join it? Fortunately not and about 5 minutes, respectively.

Hallelujah, the A6 is completely clear going south and the snow cover is rapidly disappearing. At normal speeds, I should be able to get to Palencia before the train arrives. After six and a half hours driving, against the four and a half it should have taken..

What am I complaining about? The traffic on the other side of the A6 had been stock-still for dozens and dozens of kilometres now. I guess many of the drivers are heading for the A52 in Galicia and don’t know that, even when they get past this horrendous jam, it could take them another 10 hours to get over the mountains and down to the coast.

Approaching Palencia. There’s a large sign saying Tramo de Concentración de Accidentes – which is the succinct Spanish for Black Spot. I wonder if this is because there’s the largest brothel I’ve yet seen in Spain on the right hand side. Which looks like a converted railway shed. So a different kind of shunting these days. And even more steam being let off.

Great! Have arrived in Palencia 30 minutes before the train is due. Just have to find the station now. There are no signs at all and the first person I ask for directions turns out to be Chinese, with a rudimentary grasp of Spanish. “Go further and turn right”. Do your own accent.

Fortunately, I find a helpful chap who can tell me exactly where the station is. Arrive with 15 minutes in hand. Nowhere to park. This yellow line will have to do. Can’t leave the car but am desperate for a pee. Oh, well. When in Rome . . . There’s a nice big tree.

The train from Madrid was due to take 90 minutes. It’s 45 minutes late. Happy Christmas, RENFE.

We’re Francia bound. And wondering what the snow is like around Burgos. Will we make it before the end of the day?

Postscript:

Yes. 1,150km in 13 hours. All in all, a miracle of good luck.

Or perhaps it helps to have a sister and a daughter who both pray a lot, waiting at our destination.

But not an old dog who falls off the back seat and then pees himself in consternation.

Won’t be eating the remaining bits of shortbread in the packet which had dropped to the floor.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Now that the schools have broken up, the wi-fi café I use was packed out this morning with teenagers. I’m a great fan of the café society but teenagers buying their breakfast of coffee and croissants? Is it just age that makes me see this is an extravagance? And one which must be financed by their parents. In the midst of a recession.

Having scoffed at the Spanish obsession for their lotteries, I now have to admit I’m the owner of a 6 euro ticket, given to me as a gift last night. I haven’t yet checked the numbers but believe the most I can get on this participación(?) is around 30 euros. All of which reminds me that several readers have said how much they enjoyed Peter Missler’s article cited in yesterday’s post. So if you didn’t read it, you might want to reconsider. On the other hand, reader Alberto very much didn't appreciate it.

There was an interesting article in El Pais this week about a competition organised by The Guardian to calculate Tony Blair’s annual income. There were a few snide comments about TB - possibly all deserved - but the real question came in the last sentence – “Why are there no such competitions here?”.

And then there was the story about the wine made in Australia which they thought had been produced from the Albariño grape but which hadn’t. The bottles no longer say “Albariño” it seems. Instead, the wine is labelled “A tribute to Galicia”.

Checking my tyres tonight before a long journey tomorrow, I was surprised to find my two front tyres over-inflated by 20%. Then I realised the mechanic must have put too much pressure in these as well as in the two at the back that were replaced a couple of days ago. How kind and considerate. And I have the gall to complain about poor customer service here.

I see there’s been a huge cocaine haul “off the Spanish coast”. Guess which one. By the way, from his pronunciation, I’d say the Sky News reporter had never previously heard of Vigo.

I leave you for at least a day or two with yet another gloomy report on the Spanish economy by Edward Hugh. It’s a long read and not a particularly easy one but it’s packed with facts as well as opinion. I would take issue with Edward on one thing: he says that “The 30,000 or so infrastructure contracts created under what is known as Plan E will be completed by the end of the year”. Well, if the rate of progress of the work being done in our Alameda is anything to go by, I very much doubt that all these projects will be completed by “the end of the year”. Unless, of course, Edward means the end of 2010. Even then . . .

A very happy festive season to absolutely everyone. Even my reintegracionista reader(s).

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tomorrow is the day when all eyes in Spain will be glued to the TV, as people check whether the huge amount they’ve wagered on the first of the Christmas lotteries will be giving them any sort of return beyond the risible. I mentioned these lotteries the other day and my Dutch friend and fellow Borrovian, Peter, has responded by sending me a copy of a fascinating analysis he did a year or two on the historical backcloth to the Spanish mania for lotteries. And on the ramifications thereof. See below for this as I'm again having trouble publishing to my web page.

On a smaller scale, here’s a story which combines a couple of Galician elements – drug smuggling and bodging. Though the latter (hacer chapuzas) is regularly admitted to be a nation-wide element of life here.

Our resident Jeremiah – Ambrose Evans-Pritchard – is warning of increasing social unrest – possibly even anarchist terrorism – throughout “the Mediterranean triangle”. Which includes us, I believe. “The European Monetary System “ he says “has condemned Club Med to structural depression, with no way out . . . Across Southern Europe there is a mood of national powerlessness, a feeling that events have moved beyond their control – as indeed they have. . . . Eurosceptics argued from the start that EMU would prove unworkable over time without a debt-union; that the inevitable euro crisis would be used (consciously or not) to create an EU central government; that weak states on the edges would be reduced to colonies and that far from binding Europe together, EMU would lead to acrimony and perhaps reopen Europe's can of historical worms. Were the critics wrong?” I wonder what the answer is. But we should know by this time next year. Click here for the whole article.

Finally . . . “Emblematic” is one of those words which appears often in Spanish (emblematico) but rarely in English. I was reminded of this when reading of attempts by the EU fisheries folk to agree a press release on the need to stop the over-fishing of bluefin tuna. Searching for a word to describe this fish, they finally decided on ‘emblematic’. Though not before they’d considered other alternatives, including ‘beautiful’. But it was good to read that not only did some bored bureaucrat propose ‘delicious’ but that it nearly slipped through. Or so they say.

THE SPANISH LOTTERIES: by Peter Missler

For the poor, those who had to work, those who could not escape the necessity of labour and had no chance to take up arms against a wealthy enemy, the legacy of the Reconquista was no less disastrous. The medieval Spain that met the Moorish Kingdoms on the battlefield was no different from any other feudal nation of the age. But after the turn of the millennium, when the classes in the overpopulated northern nations began to clash and struggle among themselves, to the ultimate benefit of the bourgeoisie, Spaniards battled it out against another faith and culture, which siphoned off the superfluous energy and the surplus population. No middle class of city-dwellers sprang up to oppose the omnipotent warrior aristocracy. No bills of rights were forced down the throats of unwilling kings and weakened nobles. Here the haughty baron reigned supreme – his powers only checked by the tenets of his faith; his arrogance unbounded, his authority despotic and arbitrary on his own estates. It takes little imagination to picture how men like this, already addicted to taking rather than making wealth, would act towards the right-less serfs who worked their lands.

Until deep into the 19th century Spain was a society of royal droit divin, of noble privilege, of deeply rooted landed classes and an omnipresent church which exercised traditional claims on property and produce. This web of immoveable rights, where people deserved a share of the pie for what they were, not what they did, kept the great mass of men desperately poor and without a prospect of betterment. The country never knew a bourgeois revolution which did away with the old feudal sponger classes of aristocracy and clergy. Nor did it have a religious overhaul which might have implanted the civic virtues of thrift, accountability and equal justice for all(1). Instead, legality remained a matter of birthright and brute force. The hard-earned proceeds of the peasant’s labour could be stolen with impunity by the elite, by the great Lords and their overseer henchmen; and most of all by the notoriously corrupt scribes and legal officials. Against the rapine of the aristocrat there was no protection. Forever shielded from justice by royal favour, noble prerogative, and the solidarity of his peers, the sword-wielding warrior aristocrat could do as he pleased. The scribes, who possessed unchecked and arbitrary powers in the justice system, were forever for sale. Mad would be the poor man who brought a suit against noble abuse or official corruption! Far from getting impartial justice, he was certain to be imprisoned himself, at the price of a small purse thrown from Ducal hands into a scribal lap(2).

It will be obvious that such a combination of factors does nothing to stimulate the development of a work-ethic, or the belief in the sense of having one(3). If your nest egg can be pillaged with impunity by the first sword-swaying Junker to come around the corner, by any corrupt, self-serving tax-man or petty legal scribe who wields arbitrary power over your imprisonment, then why work hard and safe your earnings? To accumulate only minor, middle class wealth – the fortunes too small to buy you protection from powerful enemies and corruptible officials – is merely inviting trouble. What you want is either a vast fortune, in one swift stroke, or nothing at all.(4) And this understandable principle has had its due effect, which are still felt poignantly today. Spaniards, observes John Hooper in his book on modern Spain, have no tradition of saving at all, and although they work astonishing hours if they need to make immediate money or keep their jobs, they do not regard their labour as a source of pride, satisfaction or better prospects. There is no guaranteed connection between wealth and steady work, between enterprise and stable possession. So fortune comes to depend exclusively upon the one big Lucky Break: on the monopoly kicked your way by a political friend; on an opportunity for pillage in war or during civic unrest; on the collective dispossession of a socially out-group; or on that most celebrated one-chance-in-a-million: the Lottery. “Just as Spanish entrepreneurs have traditionally lived in the hope of the pelotazo (the ‘big kick’, a killing), that single stroke of luck or genius which will bring them a fortune overnight,” writes Hooper, “so the ordinary Spaniards can get by on the hope that one day me toca la loteria”, a colloquial phrase which means “let lottery land in my lap”.

The Spanish mania for lotteries is indeed phenomenal and borders on the neurotic. No other country in the world has so many lotteries which are drawn so often, pay such staggering prizes and command so much attention. Spain counts no less than 4 major national lotteries, which are drawn every day. One of these, the Cupon por ciegos, got started half a century ago as a modest tax-free charity to the benefit of the blind. Today it is one of the biggest Mammoth enterprises in the land, as prominent in Spain as General Motors is in America. Spain proudly sports the biggest single prize in the whole world, the so-called Gordo (“the Fat one”), which in the 1990s brought the lucky winner no less than 10,000 million pesetas (100 million dollars or 55 million pounds); a prize which is only slightly bigger than its cousin, El Niño (the Baby).

To award prices of this size, participation must be huge, and it is. Spaniards are by far the biggest gamblers in Europe, and world-wide only trail the Americans and the Filipinos. By one estimate, they spent some 3 trillion pesetas (28.5 billion dollars or 16.2 billion pounds) on gambling as a whole in 1991; 330,000 million pesetas on lottery tickets alone in 2001; and a vast 600 million euros merely on the 2003 Niño [on the Christmas Gordo of 22 December 2007 some 2,867.5 million euros was spent, or 63.5 euros per Spaniard!]. Such astronomical numbers inevitably remain a little vague and mute; but translate them to an individual scale, and they speak volumes. John Hooper calculated that, not counting the omnipresent fruit machines, Spaniards spent the equivalent of 311 pounds sterling (57,000 pesetas) per head on gambling in 1991; in Britain, where average income was 25 % higher, the sum was only 206. At the same time, the average Spaniard disbursed only six times as much on food throughout the year, three times as much on clothes, and twice as much on alcohol and tobacco. And most telling of all in a context of people’s perception of fate and fortune, they spent ten times less on insurance policies!

The national frenzy reaches its zenith around the Christmas season, when within a fortnight both the Gordo and the Niño get drawn. Participation in these two great lotteries is nationwide; and the very rare Spaniard who doesn’t hold at least a ticket to both is looked upon - with an apt mixture of pity and abhorrence - as a total idiot. All of society participates in this grand Operation Fata Morgana. Caring mothers give lottery tickets as Christmas presents to their children, their in-laws and even the friends of those children. Plumbers and electricians, when making house-calls in the last two months of the year, hand clients, together with their visiting card and a calendar, a complimentary participation in a lottery ticket. Bars, bakeries, grocery shops, and garages all acquire lottery tickets and sell shares in their stake to members and clients. One cannot enter a shop or a public place without spotting a home-made poster saying “In this establishment we play number so-and-so”. Charity organisations and sports clubs sell such shares, for which they print their own vouchers, to ensure extra income. Members buy, for instance a participation for 1,000 pesetas, which gives right to a “share” in the winnings corresponding to 800 pesetas. It is a neat scheme: if luck does not strike, the whole 1000 pesetas go to the charity; and if luck strikes, the charity gobbles up a fat fifth of whatever prize comes the way of that number! People share “numbers”, in families, in clusters of the work-floor and in groups of life-long friends. Inevitably, some of the more amusing court cases derive from such pooling operations, when the person charged with buying this year’s tickets for the bunch makes off with the entire winnings.

Another, notorious, court case, which would be amusing if it weren’t so sinister, occurred when one day in the year 2000 an elder gentleman in Galicia dropped dead from a heart-attack a few moments after buying a lottery ticket in his regular bar. It was Sunday so he was wearing his best suit; and in this suit he got buried. A week or so later, the ticket he had bought gained 5 million pesetas (30,000 euros), but it was nowhere to be found. The family soon accused the undertaker who had prepared him for burial of absconding the ticket. The judge was sympathetic; and to eliminate all doubt ordered that the corpse be disinterred to prove the undertaker’s guilt! No ticket was found; the undertaker was proven to have come into money, and he was sent to jail. Naturally, the triviality of respect for the dead could not stand in the way of something as sacred as a winning lottery ticket!

A vast system of superstition surrounds the lottery. People are convinced that Fortune distributes Luck in a geographical manner, so nationwide networks are in place to provide the true aficionados with lottery tickets from every nook and corner of the land, nieces in the north buying tickets for grand-uncles in the south and vice versa. A precise geographical score is kept by the news-agencies about the places where the main prize fell most often; lottery kiosks who have sold several winning tickets in the past are known by name and address. Eerily, one Catalan village called Sort – a name which means “Luck” - had the exceptional fortune of thrice receiving one of the main prizes(5). Consequently people will travel from hundred of miles away to score lottery tickets from the village, a vast half a million clients in 2003, [to the tune of 28.8 million euros in Christmas sales in the main kiosk which goes by the magical name of La Buija d’Oro, the Golden Witch]. When in November 2002 the Oil-tanker Prestige sank in front of the Galician coast and spilled its toxic contents over 300 miles of coastline and fishing grounds, all of Spain sought lottery tickets from Galicia (its share of tickets sold there went up 5 % on the national scale). Misery had struck there, so - people reasoned - divine luck would surely come its way to compensate (ironically, the Gordo fell once again in Madrid and Barcelona; a fact which was quickly and willingly forgotten).(6) [In 2004 the sales of the Christmas tickets begins in mid July! People on holiday buy the stuff]

Other superstitions concerned the numbers sought. Two particular ticket numbers were in avid demand in 2001: 166386, because the coming euro was valued at 166,386 pesetas and - almost perversely - 110901, for the date of the Twin Towers attack. Somewhat lighter in tone, the gamblers in 2003 went for number 22504, because the Crown Prince had announced next year’s May 22nd for his wedding (the number was only available in Seville, where a visionary lottery saleswoman had bought them all up), while in 2004 all of Madrid, somewhat irrationally, sought the number 002012, because in 2012 the city hoped to stage the Olympic games. When the popular singer Rocio Jurado died on the 10th of June 2006, the number 1066 was quickly sold out.

When, on the morning of December 22nd and January 6th El Gordo and El Niño get drawn respectively, the whole nation is shackled to the tube. Woe to the American president who gets assassinated on such a day! The news will never reach a single Spaniard. All of the news broadcasts, of all the channels, dedicate their entire news bulletin to the lucky winners of the prizes. They analyse the exact geographical distribution of Luck, comparing it with those of the last ten years. They give notice of the exact minute that the Big Prize fell in the long sequence of hundreds of drawings. And they show an interminable sequence of neighbourhood locals splashing bottles of fake champagne about and dancing up and down inside corner cafés and adjacent streets like frenzied Bakkhae. For all of a day, Dame Fortune rules the land. Otherwise earnest political commentators praise her wisdom or criticise her insensitivity for dropping the Big One in wealthy neighbourhoods or the most humble places. Anecdotes of poor sods who might have bought a share but didn’t, raise the nation’s pity. Opposite footage of louts who announce shamelessly that they’ll never work another day in their live, her envy. And throughout the land the air is rent by the sound of millions of lottery tickets being grimly torn to shreds…

When called upon to explain the extra-ordinary addiction of Renaissance Italians to Games of Hazard, Jacob Burckhardt, that great observer of human nature, concluded that it must be a result of their exceptionally vivid imagination. The Italian, he wrote, ‘becomes the earliest great player of games of chance of the modern era, because [his imagination] paints him pictures of future riches and their enjoyment with such realism, that he is willing to go to the very limit. Surely,’ Burckhardt adds, ‘the Mohammedan nations would have preceded him in this, had not the Koran established - as the necessary defense of Islamic morals - a total prohibition of games of chance, and redirected the imagination of its people towards the discovery of hidden treasures.’ Burckhardt was perhaps too spiritual, too aesthetic a man to grasp the veritable motives that drive common human beings. Rather than explaining such phenomena in terms of spiritual inclinations, one ought to understand them as the sour fruits of simple, down-to-earth economics. In early shark-societies such as Renaissance Italy and Reconquista Spain, acquired wealth is of extreme uncertainty. Necessarily there arises a disbelief in the usefulness of hard work and the insistence that whatever may Easy Go should also Easy Come.

Yet Burckhardt’s observation that Games of Chance and Treasure-hunting are essentially identical is indisputably correct. Both look to the Lucky Break for the one sole windfall. Both favour the Stroke of Fortune over the scanty, insecure proceeds of saving, thrift and industry. In Spain, which may be Arab at the root but shed its Koranic inhibitions when it changed its faith, giant sized games of chance could exist next to, and on an equal footing with, burning dreams of hidden treasures. The earth had to deliver what the system - that system petrified with aristocratic abuse and absent prospects - would not grant.

The earth… and other places. For the earth is miserly and never delivers enough. Spain is of course a rich land, whose fame in classic times was well-deserved. It has plenty of mines and minerals, its soil contains gold, silver and gems in abundance. In early Roman times, the silver mines of one single city, Carthago Nova (modern Cartagena) employed no less than 40,000 slaves in her shafts, and there were many lesser mining districts in the land at large. Like any other country of the old continent, she also had her share of hidden treasure in the earth, buried there by the countless former cultures that had over-run and then abandoned her, or were swallowed up by history: grave-gifts, statuary and little private hoards from Roman times or Greek, from the Phoenicians and the Moors themselves. Padre Feijoo, who wrote extensively on the subject, points out in his essay “Of the futile and harmful habit of searching for hidden treasures” that occasionally a small hoard was indeed discovered, by chance rather than design, and he mentions as an example a Roman purse with 30 silver coins found at a village near Leon in his own day. Washington Irving agreed with him. “It is certain,” he wrote, “that from time to time hoards of gold and silver coin have been accidentally digged up (sic), after a lapse of centuries, from among the ruins of Moorish fortresses and habitations.” But the frequency of such finds is no greater in Iberia than in any other European place, and the quantities so found are neglectible when compared with the vast discoveries made in the Fertile Crescent. A Spaniard cannot hope to find such heaps of gold, in every hillock and beneath each stone, as the Arabs of the East. While her population, high and low, was as frenzied in their lust for treasure as the fellaheen of Egypt or the Oriental poor, the treasures in her soil, compared with those of the Nile Valley or Iraq, were but a trifle.

The Spanish poor did dig. They have dug, demonstrably, from the 11th century to the present day. They have dug in the earth with the dedication of a veritable treasure-hunting hysteria. But they also went treasure hunting above the earth. In the same manner in which their nobility went looking for gold across the ocean, the poor went hunting for gold in the coffers, cellars and purses of their neighbours, through pillage by plebeian mobs, during moments of rebellions, civil wars, and times of anarchy. [It is this which makes perhaps the saddest consequence of all.]

(1). Feudalism was never really dissolved, abandoned, abolished; the church was never truly returned to the spiritual realm where she belongs.

(2) Pfandl 117: “La iligalidad reinante y la creciente carga de impuestos y tributos junto con la labor de la Mesta y de los mayorazgos, anularon casi totalmente el trabajo de labradores y campesinor, con inmensos perjuicios para la nacion”

(3) Ford, Handbook I, p .11 on the Oriental fear of the Spaniard to be seen wealthy, due to tax-collectors, scribes, mayors, etc who might come and rob him. Hence: Ford on Hidden Treasure.

(4) What you want is one big golpe (strike), that lifts you out of the Lumpenproletariat right into the class of rulers, plutocrats and powerful in one quantum-jump, where you will be able to buy your own security. A small fortune only brings big risks and trouble, but no security.

(5) And again in 2004: the first prize! In normal countries one would think of fraud; but since such a thing is unthinkable in Spain, it must indeed be magic. The Kiosk, called “La Bruija d’Oro” or “The Witch of Gold”, sold 28.8 million euros worth of lottery tickets in 2004 for the Christmas draw alone!

(6) Idem: when in 1996 the camping of Biesca was swept away by an inundation – caused by its illegal, unchecked and unsanctioned location – the following Christmas ten times more lottery tickets were sold there than other years. When in 2006 Galicia burned and then flooded tremendously, its sales of lottery tickets went up 40 %. Catastrophe is great business in Spain.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

It’s hard today to escape articles on the Copenhagen conference. Not to mention those on its significance. Or the lack thereof. One point struck me this evening – What does it mean for the EU that it was excluded from the group which actually brokered what little that came out of the event? This apparently comprised the USA, China, India, Brazil and South Africa. Which must be the new world order. How little it helped the EU to have a new, full-time President. Maybe this was the problem. No one recognised Mr Whatsisname from Belgium so he wasn’t invited to participate.

Talking of the new world order – here’s an article which takes to a new level my concerns about this being the Age of the Bureaucrat and about the EU being an intrinsically undemocratic – even anti-democratic – institution. As the writer puts it . . The infamous "democratic deficit" of the European Union [will be] elevated on to a planetary scale. And if the EU model is anything to go by, then the agencies of global authority will involve vast tracts of power being handed to unelected officials. Forget the relatively petty irritations of Euro bureaucracy: welcome to the era of Earth-bureaucracy, when there will be literally nowhere to run.

As for global warming and as to whether it’s a natural or man-made phenomenon, for those trying to keep an open mind and to weigh up the arguments from both sides, here’s another impressive broadside from the inveterate anti-AGW-er, Christopher Booker.

I forgot to say when mentioning yesterday El Mundo’s defence of bullfighting on grounds of liberty and pluralism that a letter in the same edition pointed out they were talking of the liberty to torture and kill. Both sides of the article in a nutshell. Neither of which impresses the other.

Finally . . . We have another Leaning Lamp-post of Poio.


This one is just next to the rear entrance of the School of Granite Carvers between my house and the forest. It wasn’t leaning last week but it is this week. Because the crane which took away the pines which had been cut down couldn’t manage to do this without hitting this piece of street furniture.

This will deprive the junkies of light by which to heat and snort (inject?) their coke but it’s an ill wind that blows no good. And the tree-cutting has left me with a bonanza of pine cones to burn on my fire at time when my central heating isn't coping well with the near-zero conditions even along this coast. Obviously, I’ll have to think of some way to compensate for my enlarged carbon footprint.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

As has been noted by others, you’d be forgiven for not knowing there’s a recession here and that unemployment is close to 20%. As in other countries, there are basically two groups of people now – those suffering on the dole and those in work who, because of low mortgage rates and deflation, have never been better off. At least for now. And the Spanish do tend to live in the here and now. As for the unemployed, I’m not aware of any real unrest and wonder whether this is because many (or even most) of these are young people (anyone under 35 in Spain) living with or at the expense of their parents. Will things change for the worse in 2010? My guess is yes. Except for those dumb enough to invest in the lottery and lucky enough to win.

Meanwhile, those ornery Catalans have taken another step away from Spanish-ness and begun the process of banning bullfighting in their bit of the dissolving Spanish state. The right-of-centre paper, El Mundo, sees this as an issue of liberty and pluralism and will be beefing up its coverage of bullfights in sympathy with this stance.

The company we all love to hate – Telefónica - has been in the news twice this week, showing exactly why we do. First, there was a review of internet prices around Europe, showing theirs to be 70% above the average. Secondly, the company was fined 11 million euros for “placing obstacles in the way of rival companies”. I suspect the two developments are not totally unconnected.

Spain can be a funny place sometimes. The chairman of the employers’ association has defaulted on a loan from the Caja Madrid for the trivial amount of 26 million euros. Yes, a personal loan of 26 million euros. What on earth did he want to do with it? Buy into the Cali drug cartel? Anyway, if I’ve got this right, the bank says he tricked them as the shares offered as security were already pledged to someone else. It will be interesting to see if he retains his position as chairman of the employers’ association, on the grounds that he’s got what it takes to succeed in business here. Failing that, there’s always politics.

I bought some new tyres yesterday. As ever, they were 20% over-inflated by the mechanic. Which reminded me this is a place which, if not exactly devil-take-the hindmost, is certainly one in which you do have to constantly look after your own interests as a consumer. Meaning you often have to think for others as well as for yourself. This can be tiresome and even tiring – especially when buying tyres/tires - but is not, I guess, the end of the world.

Finally . . . Here’s a splendid dig at the EU from Gerard Warner, who feels the Italians, of all people, have “overthrown the fatalistic notion of the irresistible march of Eurofederalism”. We will see.

Friday, December 18, 2009

We have several bridges across the river that flows around the city of Pontevedra and we’re going to have a new one quite soon. Though no one knows quite when. Work began on it a early this year and then promptly stopped, once driving had been made more difficult on one bank of the river. The reason, I read today, is that the local council didn’t get permission for this work from Costas (‘Coasts’) - the body responsible for implementing the 1988 law which hasn’t quite stopped all the building near to water of the last 20 years or so. You’d think a local council with responsibility for policing its own planning laws would know about regional/national processes but apparently not. But not to worry. Our local paper tells us that, despite the five-month delay so far, the bridge will be finished on time. Given that even un-delayed projects never finish on time in Spain, if you find this credible you must be the sort of person who invests big money on the Christmas lottery.

If so, you’ll be interested to hear that – for reasons which escape me – the most popular sequence of numbers this year is that of Michael Jackson’s deathdate. Or 250609. In ways to which I’m not privy, you can apparently choose the number of your ticket or some subdivision of it. Or at least you can try.

Talking of Spanish institutions . . . here’s a nice piece by Lenox of The Spanish Shilling on another of these – the ubiquitous household maid. As I’ve said a few times, no self-respecting middle-class family can be without one of these in this allegedly not-overly-wealthy country.

I mentioned the other day that I was nonplussed to read of a parliamentary debate around a proposal to ease the penalties for drivers caught using their mobile phone, in favour of compelling them to buy a hands-free set for their car. Well, it was defeated, so my thoughts about it being a bit of Spanish pragmatism were clearly misplaced. Which I probably would have concluded even if the measure had gone through. For “Parliamentary sources said that behind the attempt to change the law was a company which sells such devices in Spain”. The CEO of which was quoted as saying she was proud to have been associated with the initiative. Doesn’t take much, obviously.

The Financial Times has some more harsh words for our economy. And today we’ve heard of a “hammer blow” being inflicted on Spanish banks by agencies worried about the amount of home-grown toxic debt held by them. Ironically, this comes the day after full page ads in the papers telling us that Santander had been voted the best bank in the world, along with several smaller accolades. Perhaps they don’t have many of the suspect cédulas. I guess it will all come out in the wash. And perhaps this paragraph on what is happening in Greece gives us a taste of what’s to come here:- Greece faces mounting pressure from markets and its European partners to follow Ireland and adopt stronger fiscal measures such as a public sector pay freeze, a ban on civil service hiring and hikes in indirect taxes, to restore competitiveness as well as bring the deficit under control. Among ideas being currently touted are steadily raising the retirement age to 65 for women, opening up a range of “closed” services (from notaries to taxi drivers) to improve competitiveness and introducing five-year rolling budgets for ministries (to curb pre-election spending). If this is to happen here, I suspect it will be over President Zapatero’s dead (or departed) body. Nobody’s yet rioting in our streets. Though the Madrid taxi drivers are pretty narked about their closed profession being opened up and have gone on strike to prove it.

Finally . . . Welcome to the two new Followers (awful word) to this blog. I say ‘new’ but one of them might be the joker who ‘resigned’ just after I’d begged for someone to take the number up from 39 to 40. Or is this just wishful thinking? Probably.

Postscript: I just thought I’d slip this in . . . . “502 pedestrians were run over in Spain in 2008, making it one of the main causes of accidental death in the country”. Guess where.

Postscript to the Postcript: I was nearly run down on the way into town to post this, when I was walking across the entrance to a side road. A driver turning simply ignored me and missed me by a whisker. I hope she didn't miss my curse. Need I say she was on her mobile phone?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

It didn’t snow in Pontevedra yesterday. It rained. All day. I mention this only because all our schools – like those throughout Galicia – were summarily closed yesterday for fear of snow. As you’d imagine, working parents were none too pleased to have to make pointless emergency arrangements for their kids. But, fortunately for many, Spanish society is famously ‘cohesive’. Which in this case – as in many others – means roping in willing or unwilling grandparents to look after your offspring. As it snows about once every hundred years along our coast - even less frequently in the future? - I’m probably not the only one asking why the decision to close the schools was taken at regional level and not at local council level. But I guess that, when you have 17 regional Education Ministers as well as a national Education Minister, jobs have to be justified.

Talking of education in Galicia . . . Regular readers will know that – to indulge in a little British understatement - there’s something of a controversy here about how much teaching should be done in Spanish (Castellano) and how much in Galician. Under the previous Xunta, things moved in the direction of Galician but they’re now moving back in the opposite direction. Rumour has it that the difficult 50/50 issue will be cleverly eliminated by introducing a system of trilingual education, under which a third of the subjects would be taught in Spanish, a third in Galician and a third in English. I suspect anyone who thinks this will calm things down, is living in cloud cuckoo land. For a start, no one has any idea where all the teachers competent in English would come from. Certainly not Galicia. I would offer to come out of retirement and spread myself thinly around Pontevedra province but, of course, I wouldn’t be allowed to teach anyone until I’d studied for and passed the government exams (las oposiciones), under which I'd have to prove to someone who hardly speaks English that I know my own language. Or at least the intricacies of its grammar and syntax.

God knows how they arrive at these numbers but here’s what will be spent this Christmas in respect of each and everyone one of us here in Galicia, with the figures for Spain as a whole in brackets. And all in euros, of course. The last item is the most revealing. And astonishing:-
Gifts 209 (224)
Food 183 (210)
Entertainment 148 (165)
Lottery tickets 129 (112)
Total 669 (711)
Yes, folks, in the poor region of Galicia, even more money will be spent per capita on the big Christmas lotteries than in wealthy Madrid. Perhaps it’s all those questionable folk along our snow-less coast with multi-engined speedboats. Though why they’d need to win the lottery, I can’t begin to guess. Except that, if you’re going to justify your wealth as legitimately gained gambling success, it possibly helps to be seen buying the odd ticket or two.

At last, a snippet of good news from the GW war front . .

Finally . . . and nothing to do with Galicia . . . I was intrigued to read a claim that Cadiz is the city of Tarsis associated with Jonah in the Bible. This led on to Wiki searches on Tarsus, Tarshish and Tartessus. One of the more interesting paragraphs I encountered along the way was this one, the accuracy of which I certainly can’t vouch for:- What bonnection did the "Iberians" have with Tarshish?: Answer: "Iberi" means Hebrew. Israelite exiles were taken to the Tarshish area. They moved northwards through Spain and eventually emigrated to Gaul and the British Isles. Due to their presence all early inhabitants of Spain came to be mistakenly referred to as "Iberians" by foreigners.

Anyway, here are bits of the Wiki entry on Tartessos. You can read it all here.

Tartessos (also Tartessus) was a harbour city and its surrounding culture on the south coast of the Iberian peninsula, at the mouth of the Guadalquivir river. It was mentioned by Herodotus, Strabo, in Pliny's Natural History, and in the fourth-century Avienus's literary travel itinerary Ora Maritima.

The Tartessian language is an extinct pre-Roman language once spoken in southern Iberia. It is seemingly unrelated to any other languages. The oldest known indigenous texts of Iberia, dated from the 7th to 6th centuries BC, are written in Tartessian. The inscriptions are written in a semi-syllabic writing system and were found in the general area in which Tartessos is supposed to have been located, also in surrounding areas of influence. Tartessian language texts have been found in parts of south-western Spain and southern Portugal.

In Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick, Father Mapple gives a sermon on the story of Jonah. He identifies the Tarshish to which Jonah flees with the port of Cádiz in Spain, "as far by water, from Joppa, as Jonah could possibly have sailed in those ancient days, when the Atlantic was an almost unknown sea"

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

For the Spanish, the British say ‘please’ and ‘thank-you to excess. And not only for the Spanish, of course. Anyway, the Spanish for “Please” is por favor, literally “as a favour”. And sometimes when I use it the response is “No. It’s not a favour”. I suspect this is because the word is almost another false friend, in that it has heavier connotations in Spain than in the UK. Here, where people tend to stay in their birthplace and so know a lot of people locally, favours operate as a form of currency. Those done for others are effectively banked and a return on them is expected at some future date. So it’s important to ensure some small deeds are not seen as favours. Well, that’s my theory anyway. It'll do until another comes along.

Spanish TV is not, it has to be said, a beacon of excellence but it’s pleasing to see things are heading in the right direction. A headline in one of yesterday’s papers ran “TVE will have less gossip and more films”. If true, this will destroy the careers of many women famous merely for once having dated bullfighters. Or even for having dated one bullfighter once.

Talking of gossiping . . . I read this week that the Spanish parliament is considering easing the penalty for driving while talking on a mobile phone. Instead of a large fine and the loss of several points off your licence, the proposal is you’d be compelled to buy a hands-free set for your car. This, of course, would not be the case if you’d distracted yourself to death, possibly taking a few others with you along the way. As of now, I can’t make up my mind whether this is madness or an excellent example of Spanish pragmatism. The latter being based on the assumption there’s actually nothing you can do to deter drivers here from chatting on their phones. So you might as well try to reform the survivors. And sympathise with the victims of those you didn't get to.

But the really good news of this week is that ‘sometime next year’ the government will press ahead with banning smoking in all public places. The Ministress of Health claims that 70% of Spaniards support this measure but I smiled at the comment of a Pontevedra bar owner that she can only have talked to antisocial bastards who never went into bars and cafés. Despite being a non-smoker, I do feel a twinge of sympathy for those bar owners now complaining that only a couple of years ago they had to invest significantly in separate, well-ventilated facilities for smokers. Not that it’s easy to find many of these places. Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the law is both obeyed and policed.

Finally . . . Reader Ferrolano has kindly sent me this photo of the delegates at the GW conference this week in cold Copenhagen.


But seriously, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with their ironic plight. Many African delegates, it’s reported, brought insufficient layers even for a normal Danish winter. Well-briefed, obviously. Winter draws on. Not.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

I guess if each British county council had a president and each of these belonged to either one of the three national political parties or to one of the nationalist parties in Scotland or Wales and you brought them together to agree a concerted plan to get the UK out of recession, they might just struggle. So why anyone thought a day of (probably simultaneous) discussion between 20 Spanish presidents would end in anything other than abject failure is quite beyond me. Especially as some of these barons have difficulty in following the party line from Madrid. But, anyway, our leading local paper – the Voz de Galicia – added to the hilarity with this comment:- “The conference of Presidents has never been outstanding for its organisation. But yesterday it exceeded itself. Such was the chaos reigning in the Senate, you couldn’t find anyone to confirm any data, any order of the day, any timetable, any schedule or any press conference.” Sometimes you can’t avoid the conclusion the Spanish really can’t be bothered to be efficient. An impression that was horribly confirmed by a letter in the same paper which complained that a hospital had lost the results of a one-off cancer test that the patient had waited months for so would now proceed treatment ‘on the basis of probabilities.’

Oops. After a few months of the Spanish property market showing signs of thinking of coming back to life, things have again taken a turn for the worse.

The expression “false friend” is used to denote a word in one language which is the same or similar to one in another language but means something rather different. As with ‘sensible’ in English and French and ‘gamba’ in Spanish and Italian. But I thought of the expression yesterday when I read that a hunter had killed one of his companions with a stray shot. Not because he was, clearly, a lousy friend but because the Spanish report described the shot as ‘fortuito’.

Talking of luck – You need it when travelling on our north-south AP9 autopista these days. In addition to the occasional ‘kamikaze’ driver going down the wrong side of the highway, there’s also the odd horse. And, this week, three stray cows. These, too, were heading down the wrong side of the barrier but I suspect they knew nothing of this.

Is there no one you can trust here? A 73 year old priest in Jaen has been jailed for defrauding a fellow curate of 14,000 euros. What can you say? Incidentally, apart from the spell in jail, the offender has been fined 360 euros. Which should leave him with a nice profit. But will God be so lenient?

The fact that one of my sisters had gone down with swine flu has prompted the question – Wasn’t there going to be a second wave of this come the autumn/winter? Did I miss it?

I see that the number of delegates freezing in Copenhagen at the GW conference has risen this week from 16,000 to over 30,000. If they huddle together, they should be able to keep each other warm.

Which reminds me . . . Finding my lunchtime glass of Rioja to be too cold today, I cupped it between my hands and held it on top of the stool, essentially in what I think the Spanish call my ‘entrepiernas’ (and the Italians might just call the ‘entregambas’). Whereupon one of the bar ladies asked me where the wine she’d just poured me had gone. Unfortunately, she's the one with a tendency to blush at the slightest provocation. But all ended well as I was able to warm my wine on her face.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Well, I’ve been advising of its imminence for what seems like years but here it is at last. The new online journal – Galicia 21. I can’t say I was much surprised to read this sentence in a Bangor University commentary on the development:- “In Galicia, the journal's first issue has been the subject of some controversy, as it includes an article on Galician language policies authored by the present secretary general of the Galician Language Board, Anxo Lorenzo.” Talk about asking for trouble.

Less controversial, here’s a travel agent splurge on our region/country/nationality/nation. By the way, the advice for pronunciation of Xacobeo is wrong whether you say it in Gallego or use the Spanish version.

If you're attracted by the thought of buying something here, an LSE professor who’s an expert on this subject has this to say about the property market here. Though I'm not sure he's right as regards semi-ruins being sold by Galician peasants who are in no rush to get rid of their inheritance.

I see that academics from around the world have now completed their 11 year-long task of producing a new grammar of the Castellano language, including its Latin American and regional variations. This has been published by the Spanish Royal Academy and, at more 3,000 pages in two volumes, it should be enough to satisfy the Spanish obsession with grammar. At least in their own language. I fear they’ll have to wait a while for an English equivalent. Which reminds me . . . One of the said academics was reported to have cliamed this work will serve to “defend Spanish against English and information technology”. Well, maybe.

In a survey done by one of our local papers, 70% of readers said they didn’t believe Sr Zapatero’s assurances that the recession was just about to end and that things would be better soon. How this ranks as news, I really don’t know.

Spain’s population grew by 1.3% last year, to 46.8m. This compares, I believe, with about 40 million at the start of this decade and reflects very significant immigration. Galicia’s growth, at 0.4%, was only higher than that of Castilla y León at 0.2. I guess that, without incoming foreigners, both would have declined.

A couple of years back, I mentioned the Leaning Lamposts of Poio, where I live. Well, as you can see, they're still leaning. I’m wondering what it will take to stimulate adjustment. Perhaps the second one falling on some unfortunate soul putting stuff in one of the bins below it.


Finally . . . Having praised Ryan Giggs a number of times over the years, I was pleased to see this 35 year old was given BBC’s Sports Person of the Year award this weekend. Even if he does play for the wrong team.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A series of referendums is going to held in Catalunia on the issue of independence. If I were the president of Spain, I'd let the buggers go if the majority wanted to. Just as I would for Scotland, if I were Gordon Brown or, more likely, David Cameron. It's not that simple for poor Sr. Zapatero, though. In for a penny, in for a pound in his case. The Spanish state would unravel in front of his eyes if a precedent were established. Why, he even has to object to Kosovan independence to maintain the line. Thank God there's no independence movement in Ceuta or Melilla.

Fellow blogger Lenox Napier (The Spanish Shilling) has sent me this fabulous foto of the solution to the car-parked-on-a-crossing problem in his neck of the woods. You may need to look at it for a second or three to determine the full genius of this. As I often say, the Spanish are an eminently pragmatic people. I would say 'race' but American readers associate this with colour, rather then ethnicity. And I don't like to upset anyone.


Which reminds me . . . I'm conducting an experiment to determine what percentage of drivers stop for me at the crossing near where I park my car every day before walking into town. I had planned to wait until I'd had a hundred experiences but, since the subject is topical, I thought I'd give you the interim report of two out of seven Or 29%. What was really disturbing is that at one stage it was two out of three! But, undaunted, we press on towards confirmation of our preconceptions.

Meanwhile, onto another type of vehicle . . . I am basically an admirer of the Spanish custom of either dumping your kids on the grandparents or taking them with you, whatever the venue and whatever the time of night. But I'm getting increasing amazed - and irritated - by the size of the baby buggies (American: 'strollers'?) that are now coming into this wi-fi café. Some of them have eight wheels, for God's sake, and are getting close to the size of the pram my mother used to push her kids round in. But not into a crowded café, needless to say. Pretty soon, one will need mountaineering skills to get past the bloody things.

Given the weather forecast made here, the really pertinent question is whether these monsters will soon be sporting snow chains.

Which is a nice link into this article by the indefatigable Christopher Booker on the weird and wonderful workings of the carbon credits market.

Finally . . . Ambrose thinks things are getting dirtier in Greece, as the country "tries to break out of its death loop." Given the parallels, we watch with interest. Pulling his punches, Ambrose ends with the comment that "The deeper truth that few in Euroland are willing to discuss is that EMU is inherently dysfunctional – for Greece, for Germany, for everybody." OK, but near-term, who comes after Greece? is what we all want to know.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Up in Santiago, there’s a young American chap of Galician parentage who’s studying at the university there. His comments on his experiences give a nice insight into the student culture here in Galicia. And possibly in the rest of Spain as well. His last two posts have been responses to a reader who’s convinced that, in the lingo, Spain sucks. Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I can understand the criticisms. On the other hand, it should also be obvious I have no problem with Xuán-Wahn‘s responses. Which – to be a bit patronising - I find very mature.

Spanish TV does a version of the Britain’s Got Talent show. Whether it’s as far from the original as the local version of the BBC’s Celebrity Come Dancing I can’t say, never having seen it. But a friend tells me it’s more of a freak show than a talent showcase. So I guess it’s no surprise the latest series was won by a 75 year old Englishwoman performing salsa. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of seeing this, click here.

Slightly more seriously, here’s my friend Daniel Hannan on the EU bureaucrats’ strike I mentioned yesterday.

Finally . . . Here’s an article on the state of British education which is worth reading in its own right. But for a comment of genius, scroll down to the message from smacmebatam at 09:49 today. Or, if you can’t be arsed, carry on reading to the end of this post.


1. Teaching Maths in 1970
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100.. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?

2. Teaching Maths In 1980
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100. His cost of production is 80% of the price. What is his profit?

3. Teaching Maths In 1990
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100. His cost of production is £80. How much was his profit?

4. Teaching Maths In 2000
A logger sells a truckload of timber for £100. His cost of production is £80 and his profit is £20.. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

5. Teaching Maths In 2005
A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands. Your assignment: Discuss how the birds and squirrels might feel as the logger cut down their homes just for a measly profit of £20.

6. Teaching Maths In 2009
A logger is arrested for trying to cut down a tree in case it may be offensive to Muslims or other religious groups not consulted in the felling license. He is also fined a £100 as his chainsaw is in breach of Health and Safety legislation as it deemed too dangerous and could cut something. He has used the chainsaw for over 20 years without incident however he does not have the correct certificate of competence and is therefore considered to be a recidivist and habitual criminal. His DNA is sampled and his details circulated throughout all government agencies. He protests and is taken to court and fined another £100 because he is such an easy target. When he is released he returns to find Gypsies have cut down half his wood to build a camp on his land. He tries to throw them off but is arrested, prosecuted for harassing an ethnic minority, imprisoned and fined a further £100. While he is in jail the Gypsies cut down the rest of his wood and sell it on the black market for £100 cash. They also have a leaving BBQ of squirrel and pheasant and depart leaving behind several tonnes of rubbish and asbestos sheeting. The forester on release is warned that failure to clear the fly tipped rubbish immediately at his own cost is an offence. He complains and is arrested for environmental pollution, breach of the peace and invoiced £12,000 plus VAT for safe disposal costs by a regulated government contractor.

Your assignment: How many times is the logger going to have to be arrested and fined before he realises that he is never going to make £20 profit by hard work, give up, sign on to the dole and live off the state for the rest of his life?

7. Teaching Maths In 2010
A logger doesn’t sell a lorry load of timber because he can’t get a loan to buy a new lorry because his bank has spent all his and their money on a derivative of securitised debt related to sub- prime mortgages in Iceland and lost the lot with only some government money left to pay a few million pound bonuses to their senior directors and the traders who made the biggest losses. The logger struggles to pay the £1200 road tax on his old lorry however, as it was built in the 1970s it no longer meets the emissions regulations and he is forced to scrap it. Some Bulgarian loggers buy the lorry from the scrap merchant and put it back on the road. They undercut everyone on price for haulage and send their cash back home, while claiming unemployment for themselves and their relatives. If questioned they speak no English and it is easier to deport them at the government's expense. Following their holiday back home they return to the UK with different names and fresh girls and start again. The logger protests, is accused of being a bigoted racist and as his name is on the side of his old lorry he is forced to pay £1,500 registration fees as a gang master. The Government borrows more money to pay more to the bankers as bonuses are not cheap. The parliamentarians feel they are missing out and claim the difference on expenses and allowances.

You do the maths.

8. Teaching Maths 2017
أ المسجل تبيع حموله شاحنة من الخشب من اجل 100 دولار. صاحب تكلفة الانت=D 8ج من
الثمن. ما هو الربح له؟

Friday, December 11, 2009

If you have the heart – and the economics brain – here is Edward Hugh on the Greek bond developments, with the added bonus of a codicil on Spain. As Edward points out, the response of the Spanish president, Señor Zapatero has been to assure us, for the nth time, that there’s nothing to worry about, Spain’s economy is basically very sound and the recovery will be with us in a day or two. To which Edward raises the not-unreasonable questions – “How much more in denial is it possible to be, and how much longer must the future of all Europeans continue to be put at risk by head-in-the-sand statements like this?” I’m guessing quite a while. The Spanish know how to play the EU game better than anyone.

Meanwhile, reports are emerging of a huge European fraud around the carbon trading scheme. Who would have thought it? Bureaucrats put in place a complex scheme and then it’s promptly abused on a massive scale. Perhaps they modelled it on the Common Agricultural Policy. But you have to laugh. One wag has said the perpetrators must have been caught green-handed.

But back to presidents . . . Appearing at some EU meeting yesterday, the Greek head honcho insisted the country’s economy was basically strong but that the government knew it had to tackle problems of corruption, clientelism and public sector reform. His comments could have come one hundred percent from the mouth of president Zapatero, it struck me. Except for the bit about his government tackling corruption, clientelism and public sector reform.

And talking of bureaucrats . . . It seems those working for the EU are the highest paid in the world. Which should surprise no one, of course. Nonetheless, they’re on strike for more. I think it’s becoming clear what your kids have to do these days when you give them the succinct career advice “Go where the money is”. Head for Brussels, in one form or another. Where your power and your ability to play with someone else’s money increase by the day. And you can do it in one of around fifty languages.

Back here in Spain, the government has got the New Year round of price increases off to a good start by announcing a 7% increase in electricity prices. I thought of this today when reading a cri-de-coeur from a letter-writer in today’s El Mundo, who felt she must be living in a different universe from the one where there was the price deflation everyone was worried about.

Finally . . . I didn’t think it right to bore you with a picture of the mushrooms in my lawn but here are the shoots sprouting – after three weeks of persistent rain – from the seed holder at the bottom of my garden . . .

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Well, I see that both Greece and Spain have suffered a knock to their credit ratings. So, were the Jeremiahs (Edward and Ambrose) right? Will Greece default? Will Spain? Will the ECB help out and impose IMF disciplines as the price for doing so? I dunno but here’s one view.

Talking (almost) of the banks . . . Here’s one answer to the simple question I’ve been asking for months – What’s the fundamental problem and how do we solve it? Cut them down to size, essentially. And eliminate the “pointless bigness” which serves only to maximise both salaries and moral hazard. I recommend you scroll down to A Bluffer’s Guide to Banking first. Actually, I've just seen it's Buffer's. Not sure of the difference.

Does anyone know who Francisco Villamil might be and why he has sent me this blog citation and this video, relating to some movement called The Middle Classes? A new party or a PP front? Given how flattering the photo of La Esperanza is, I’m guessing the latter. Graeme over at South of Watford will be apoplectic, if so.

The chap at the table next to me as I write this is eating a huge plate of eggs and chips. Nothing wrong with this, of course. One of my own favourites. But it’s reminded me of the comment of my friend Alfred B Mittington the other day, to the effect that Galicians go out to restaurants to eat exactly the same things they eat at home but can’t be bothered to cook. He can be quite caustic at times, can Alfred.

Alfred’s name sprang to mind earlier today when I saw that the very-right-of-centre ABC paper had devoted a whole page to the issue of Gibraltar. I didn’t read it, of course, as I suspected it contained the same tired case demolished by Alfred here. The main reaction I had was to wonder whether slightly more important issues in Spain had ever been honoured with a full page editorial in ABC. Take your choice. There are quite a few. Though I wouldn't number the abortion issue among them.

Finally . . . Pontevedra now has a new web page with 200 plus videos and 2,000 plus photos. Click here for your tour. A propos . . . I see that the ‘Spanish’ for click used on this page is clip, instead of, say, pulse. An error or a neologism?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Gibraltar issue has been in the Spanish media quite a lot recently and yesterday brought another incident. Spanish coastguards chasing a speedboat followed it into British waters and were promptly arrested. However things were dealt with sensibly and quickly – which, strangely, seemed to upset the right-of-centre El Mundo – and the men were released within a couple of hours. Today, the boat and the two smugglers in it were handed over to Spain. To be honest, I was less than astonished to see they were both Galician. If only they had an Olympic sport in this activity, we’d sweep the board.

Following hard on the heels of the FT article on the ‘Costa del Soul’ (see yesterday’s post), comes the news there are at least 600 entire villages for sale in the Galician province of Lugo alone. All of them empty of residents. Anyone interested in more details should click here.

While I have – on balance - been enjoying myself greatly at a micro level over the last nine years, what has been happening here at a macro level? Well, here’s one summary from an article in today’s El País:- “The rape of public funds, savage urban development, environmental damage, infiltration of the mafia, citizen apathy and the rise of political populism.” These, the writer says, are “some of the consequences of an evil which demands urgent action.” Yes, another long-overdue article on the corruption I mention from time to time. Will anything be done? Your guess is as good as mine.

Inflation here is now around 0.5%. Which contrasts rather sharply with the 21% increase in the cost of bus passes in Madrid. The first of many such shocks, I imagine.

Finally . . To briefly return to the challenge of staying within the speed limit on Spanish N roads . . . The most revealing feature of my drive yesterday was the absence of 70 signs that would have made sense of all the ‘End of 70’ signs at the side of the road. Hard to avoid the conclusion all of the former have been removed so as to artificially extend the 50 zone beyond the confines of a village and into the open countryside. Which reminds me of a reader comment of a while back, viz. that, in the absence of signs, the law states you’re expected to know that the limit is. Which is a tad difficult when things have not only been arbitrarily changed but also skilfully disguised. The state machine at its desperate, criminal best. As I’ve said – Stay at 50!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

One of our national papers – most probably the anti-government El Mundo – reported yesterday that 84% of Spaniards want some changes in the Constitution in respect of regions/‘nationalities’ and around the several co-official languages. Talking to my friend Alfred Mittington this morning, he pointed out this was one area in which the Spanish could not be said to lack expertise. There’s been hundreds of new Constitutions over the last two centuries or so, he says. One for each new government, more or less.

Another area of undoubted Spanish expertise has been in negotiating transfers of cash from Brussels to Madrid. But this is only to be expected of a country where one national saying runs “Live off your parents until you’re old enough to live off your children” and where it’s no shame to be heavily subsidised. I’m reminded of this by the report that Madrid is to seek an extension of the Common Agricultural Policy subsidies which have totalled 7.4bn euros to-date but which are due to end in 2013. This is critical, we’re told, for the rural environment. And, needless to say, for ‘climate control’.

Driving up to Lugo today and watching the speed limits like a hawk, I soon learnt what the latest ruse for institutionalised theft is. As you approach a village, there’s an 80 sign, followed 50 metres or so later by a 50 sign. Although it’d be difficult to get down to 50 in such a distance without braking drastically and dangerously, the radar machine is placed less than one metre after the 50 sign. As I said months ago, the only way to be safe in Spain now is to drive everywhere at 49. Which would guarantee you infuriating just about everyone else on the road. Even decrepit farmers in their unlicensed micro-cars.

Talking of roads . . . If you take the advice I posted a few weeks ago and click on Google’s virtual tour of the Camino de Santiago, you’re taken to the centre of the AP9 autopista. And even through its tunnels. It seems that the facility hadn’t been checked by any of the politicians who lauded its arrival on the scene. The hype was premature, it seems.

Finally . . . Thanks to duties connected with the arrival of an unexpected houseguest, I never got to go to the Entoturismo festival – or wine fiesta - in Pontevedra this holiday ‘bridge’. I did plan to go this evening but, of course, they’d knocked off at midday. So I didn’t get to have a body massage with some concoction made from our Albariño wine grape. Time, then, for some DIY. Starting with an internal massage.

Monday, December 07, 2009

For those interested in British politics, here’s a pretty balanced article written by a left-of-centre journalist about the intentions of the next (right-of-centre) government. It’s interesting – and encouraging – that David Cameron is promising a post-bureaucratic government. If they will allow him, I assume.

Which reminds me . . . Here’s a jaundiced view of recent EU developments from our friend, Ambrose Evans Pritchard. It did rather leave me with the question of whether the EU superstate could ever be labelled of the people, for the people and by the people. I rather think not. Perhaps one out of three. Possibly.

For those who like their politics even more international, here’s a fascinating take on the issue of sovereignty. It’s by a close friend of mine – Alfred B Mittington - who’s an expert on the ancient world. This article takes a contemporary view of an age-old issue and, along the way, addresses the Gibraltar-Ceuta-Melilla dilemma recently touched on here. Alfred assures me he’s interested in all comments, even from the ineffable Mr Cade. So, for this subject only, I will lift my embargo on the latter and allow him free rein. I would ask him to at least be civil but it’s become crystally clear this is a concept around which he can’t get his angry head.

Can anyone tell me why it takes more than 16,000 people to fly to Copenhagen for a conference on global warming?

I see the Daily Telegraph's Madrid correspondent has finally caught up with the Great Galician Corpse Snatch story I reported on a while back. The quick and the dead.

Finally . . . I wasn’t too surprised to read reports of floods in today’s local papers. But I was a bit more taken aback to see – for the first time in nine years – that I had mushrooms sprouting from my lawn. Eloquent testament to our recent weather, I suppose. But, hey, the FT has just discovered Galicia (Would you believe the "Costa del Soul"?). So perhaps I won’t have to wait for the arrival of northern-bound, pugnaciously parched Andalucians to sell my house in the hills. Apply here

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The headline in today’s local paper is that the planned high-speed train from Galicia to Madrid (the AVE) will deprive the three local airports of business. Given that the work has been in planning and execution for well over a decade now, what’s astonishing about this news is that anyone should be surprised by it. And perhaps the Xunta should have thought of this before announcing recently they're beefing up each of these small facilities instead of creating one decent international airport. But the good news is that, since no one expects the (already much-delayed) AVE train to be operating for at least another 5 years, they’ve got plenty of time for a re-think.

Another headline screamed that global warming will diminish rainfall in Spain by 20%. After the fornight we’ve just had, there’d be few here in Galicia who wouldn’t count this as a true blessing. I think I’ll keep my house in the hills on the market until the Andalucians are killing each other to buy something up here.

As for UK news this morning, how depressing to hear that the Labour government, in its desperation to cling to power, plans to fight next year’s general election on the basis of a class war. And that a contestant on a reality TV program is being threatened with prosecution for killing a rat. And if he’d fried a few hundred flies? Are we all Buddhists now? Or just idiots.

El Pais has a survey today suggesting only 38% of voters would support the PSOE socialist party for another term of office. More surprising was the news that 44% think President Zapatero is making a good fist of handling the recession. In other words, more than his natural supporters. No wonder they say the man’s true genius lies in marketing. Not that he needs much in the face of opposition from Pontevedra local boy, Mariano Rajoy. Who clearly had a charisma bypass when he was big in our regional politics.

El Pais also carried today one of its more gnomic ‘cartoons’ – “I saw a man floating in space and I thought it was a miracle. Then I saw the rope.” Perhaps the artist had broken his drawing hand.

Gypsies are not popular in Spain. In fact, I’d go so far as to say most Spaniards freely own to detesting them. Which is a little ironic if you accept my view that, in some respects at least, they are merely Spaniards writ very large. In my favourite area of lack of consideration for those not currently on their radar screen, for example. So it was that I wasn’t surprised today to see a gypsy van parked in a bay down the centre of the street in such a way as to prevent anything but a truly micro-car from parking in the parallel bay behind it. It was almost impossible to escape the thought they must have done it deliberately.

More interesting thoughts and questions here from the AGW sceptics. I do hope we can get answers that everyone agrees on. And quickly. After all “What has become arguably the most influential set of evidence used to support the case that the world faces unprecedented global warming . . . has now been as definitively kicked into touch as was Mann's "hockey stick" before it. Yet it is on a blind acceptance of this kind of evidence that 16,500 politicians, officials, scientists and environmental activists will be gathering in Copenhagen to discuss measures which, if adopted, would require us all in the West to cut back on our carbon dioxide emissions by anything up to 80 per cent, utterly transforming the world economy”.

Finally . . . I’d like to express a welcome to Follower number 39 and express the hope she is in the fine tradition of the lovely ladies who used to sign up before my not-terribly-lovely friend Dwight broke the spell. But, anyway, I hope it’s not too long before some kind soul puts me out of my misery and takes the total up to a nice round 40.

Search This Blog