Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nothing of interest happened to me today. And I read nothing of interest either. So it’s a good job my friend Alfie B. Mittington has sent me another of his polemical pieces. Incidentally, Alfie tells me he’s half French but I have my doubts. Anyway, here it is:-

The Birthright of the Beggars and a free Turkish Delight

By Alfred B. Mittington

Je ne veux point de ses secours, ils sont trop chers...
[I want none of his relief; it's too expensive…]
Diderot: 'Jacques le Fataliste'

Some 20 years ago, while touring the Greek island of Lesbos, I was staying in a charming no-star boarding-house in Mytilini town.

Here I befriended a Greek fellow guest. He was perfectly pleasant. A medical student, he spoke fluent English and respectable German. He’d read and travelled widely, understood the human psyche, was outgoing and hospitable. In short: the kind of native person you simply love to meet on any of your travels. But then one afternoon, as we were drinking beer on the hotel terrace, I peeped into the newspaper he was reading and my eye caught a cartoon in which a huge crocodile emerging from Western Turkey was opening its fangs to devour a chunk of Greece. I don’t remember what I said exactly, but it was along the lines of: ‘Ay, those newspaper boys really do all they can to keep the enmity alive, don’t they?’

You never saw a chameleon change skin-colour so quickly. In a matter of moments, friendly Dr. Jakalios had turned into Mr Hidios. The Eye of the Basilisk was upon me… The voice chilled, the brow knitted, and he asked in a tone of unconcealed hostile reproach: had I not heard of the hundreds of years of abuse and oppression which the Turks had visited upon the poor Greek people? Of the ongoing torture and massacres in Cyprus? Did I not know Turkey had an army eight times as large as the Greek one on the Ionian coast alone? And that they divided their quality time equally between preparing for invasion and performing provocations?

It was frankly a little scary. And it was only then that I grasped how deep the hatred between Greece and Turkey really goes.

Had I not seen the metamorphosis of my Mytilini friend, I wouldn’t have understood another scene I witnessed a few years later. At the time I’d been hired to sit in and say wise things at a European Union congress of cultural youth discount cards (Yes, dear reader, the shameless whoring a fellow does to keep body and soul together!) It all went splendidly well: the cocktails, the lavish dinners, the luxury shopping and expense accounts, the interminable discussion about design and common colour of the various national cards, the extramarital hanky-panky in corridors and bedrooms after hours… There was only one little incident… When the mammoth team got to speak of possible extensions of membership (a favourite theme among Beurocrats as we know), the Greek representative jumped up to demand that the Youth Discount Card of the Turkish Cypriots be excluded from membership of the forum (even before they had ever applied for it), because of the ongoing torture and massacres, the hundreds of years of abuse and oppression, the outsized Turkish army, the preparations and the provocations, in short: because Turkey had broken Human Rights. It didn’t occur to anyone present to point out that if torture and past sins against Human Rights were really a measure for membership, the next meeting of this fine forum would consist of Luxemburg alone. For the fact was that England had an ugly slate in Belfast, France in Algeria, Holland in New Guinea, Spain in the Basque Country, Italy in Ethiopia, Belgium in the Congo and Germany… Oh well, Germany… (Note Bene: the wisest man on the horse-shoe table wisely held his mouth shut, because he liked those expense accounts and had been promised special favours from a particularly striking young Dutch cultural manager at the next meeting in Helsinki, when her present side-kick would not attend… )

Instead the request was granted out of hand and without discussion, full of understanding for the legitimate Greek position. The Turkish-Cypriot Youth Culture Discount Card was barred from joining a priori and in perpetuity. Never mind the fact that these idealistic, cultural forums might well function as ping-pong diplomacy in the quest to built bridges and understanding between the nations etc, etc, etc…

This was the late 1980s. And the question is whether a similar thing would happen again today. Well, I doubt it not a little. As I predicted some weeks ago: the Germans and Dutch and a few more soft-spoken European partners recently baulked at the prospect of bailing out fraudulent, overspending, inefficient Greece, and Mrs Merkel has unexpectedly emerged from the chrysalis of Angelic Europhilia as a bumble bee version of the Iron Lady. Good show Mrs Merkel! Pity it comes 10 years too late, but still, it counts!

Naturally, the Greeks, and the Spaniards, and the Italians, and the Portuguese President of the Commission, in short: all of the Club Med Bigwigs banking on the Brussels’ Manger are shouting scandal now. They are furious and indignant that no further alms are forthcoming without strings attached. How can such a cruel, mean and senseless thing be?

Quote: ‘Many forces forget the political importance of the euro and overlook the essence of the political vision of the European project, which is a joint effort to develop our economy with a calm and stable climate. This could end up destabilizing the EU and leading us in the opposite direction to that of those who inspired and created a united Europe and its common currency.’ So Mr Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece in recent weeks.

Oh, but what tremendous sense of responsibility all of a sudden! What statesmanship! What vision! What probity! What conscientious Europeans we suddenly turn out to be…! Of course, we heard nothing of such idealism, sacrifice for the common dream, and unshakeable responsibility when it came to cooking the books, lying to your partners, wasting golden opportunities and overspending to your heart’s delight; that Greek misbehaviour which took us into the financial danger zone in the first place. That, the northern taxpayer must understand, is the Birthright of the Beggars. This outbreak of indignation is really no different from a burglar complaining that a child has put a padlock on his piggy-bank! How dare you deprive an honest thief of his daily bread! Don’t you know that I have children to feed, you little brat?

Compared with this, Italian PM Berlusconi, always good for a sturdy dose of truth-telling, was at least more straightforward. He told reporters that if ‘within the European Union there is no willingness to help a country which has the euro currency and is in the middle of a crisis, then the European Union has no reason to exist.’ As I predicted some weeks ago: the southern mendicants regard the sharing of northern wealth as a natural right within the continental family.

Of course, reality being what it is, the Club Med need not worry unduly. Greece will be bailed out, one way or another, before it goes bust or after the markets declare it bankrupt. Europe simply cannot afford such a debacle. It would bleed itself white if it did. That is the good news for Greece and the other pining Mediterraneans.

But there is bad news too. Mrs Merkel’s tough, uncompromising stand has shown that northern patience is over; and that Greece has lost clout. Not just a little, but a towering heap of it. Where Protestant nations might still have forgiven the Greeks their innate inefficiency, they will never forgive inefficiency combined with deliberate fraud. For many, many, many years to come, the Greek will get cold shoulders. They will be held in contempt. Their demands, their wishes, their opinion will be gleefully ignored. As good old Jacques remarked: charity always comes at a very high price…

And that is where we get back to Turkey, and its bid for entry into the European Union. As the above Cultural Anecdote shows: Greek repugnance of Turkey previously found many a willing ear in the European community. If it didn’t amount to an outright veto, Greece’s opposition to anything Turkish got pretty close to it. But it won’t any more. Ever. Which opens a sweet little window of opportunities for Mr Erdogan, wilful, cunning, and extremely able Prime Minister of Turkey. In the past, Mr Erdogan had to battle on various fronts to secure the entry of his country into the EU. There were financial worries over the cost of Solidarity Funds to such a vast and underdeveloped land as Turkey. There were frowns about Turkey’s military traditions and about extending the EU borders deep into the hotbed of the Middle East. There were the growing worries over Islamisation within Europe, voiced particularly by President Sarkozy. And there was the ever-present hostility of Greece to any such entry.

Today, two of those battles have been quietly fought and won. The Greek fury no longer sails the European skies, dropping its bile onto Turkish pates. Mr Sarkozy himself has just suffered quite a defeat over a possible EMF, biting the dust in the battle of wills with Die Eiserne Angela… And that bit about Turkey’s trigger-happy military traditions? Ow, look how smart Mr Erdogan is! Only yesterday, March 28, a restless and still rustless Iron Angela went on a state visit to Ankara. And what does she hear first thing on arrival?

She hears Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU, saying that Germany and France should stop pressing the Greek government to buy weaponry from them, because Greece cannot afford it, and because that would not be in the interest of peace. ‘Mr. Bagis said that to help Greece escape its “economic disaster” and reduce regional tensions, Ankara would reciprocate if the Greeks froze or cut defence procurement.’ He added: ‘Greece doesn’t need new tanks or missiles or submarines or fighter planes. Neither does Turkey. It’s time to cut military expenditure throughout the world, but especially between Turkey and Greece.’ [Stephen Castle, Turkey faults France and Germany on arms sales to Greece, NYT and digital IHT, 29 March 2010]

Oh, ain’t she a beauty!!! With Greece against the ropes, if not breathless on the mat, ready to be kicked senseless, Ankara expresses, not triumphant glee, but… its profound desire for Peace! Who can resist this? Who can say no to such an exemplary nation!? Certainly not Mrs Merkel, who for all her misgivings over Turkish-language schools on German soil, still has to keep in mind that huge Turkish electorate back home. Nor Mr Zapatero of course, who – labouring under the infallible certitude that Muslims love him as much as he loves Muslims - is a staunch friend of the Turks and the Alliance of Civilisations. The Dutch perhaps? Why, shit, them muddymen don’t matter! The English then? The English know the Middle East too well to overlook that sturdy Turkey, land of immense weight and potential, poised on the very fault line of three cultural blocks, if kept out of the EU, will have no choice but throw its weight in with Russia or with the Arab world. Both of which are extremely unappetising alternatives in today’s geo-politics. And yes, even fight-the-headscarves Mr Sarkozy will surely remember what the Emperor Napoleon said when the Russian Tsar hinted he might occupy the Dardanelles: ‘Give you Constantinople? Never! It is the Key to the World!’

The Turkish Crocodile, in short, may soon be turned into soft, patent leather slippers in which the European Union strolls confidently into the rosy future…

We are living in Interesting Times, dear reader… Bring out, I say, the Waterpipe of Peace, for it will soon grow Brussels Sprouts!

Alfred B Mittington

Author of ‘The Gall of Gallipoli’ (Norwich, 1953)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I wouldn’t normally quote from Britain’s execrable right-of-centre tabloid, the Daily Mail. Indeed, I wouldn’t even normally read it. But my mother takes the rag; and reading any newspaper lying around is a habit I’ve never been able to shrug off. Anyway, yesterday’s edition contained an article by their top polemicist, Richard Littlejohn, on the theme of waste in British town halls, on which I’d penned my own little rant on Sunday. You can read it all here but here’s one comment that sums it all up – “In Tower Hamlets, the poorest borough in London and arguably the most deprived in Britain, 58 employees have job titles which contain the words 'climate change' or 'global warming'”. Oy vey! When will the British rise up against this pillaging of their pockets?

Finally . . . I took my elder daughter and her partner to Liverpool today. On the ferry, of course. As we approached the city's glorious riverfront, I pointed out the Liver Birds on the top of one of the fine buildings there. The Three Graces, as they’re called. Whereupon my daughter asked if there were many liver birds left in the world. Seven years private secondary education and three years at Oxford. Something of a waste, apparently. Though I could be kind and say she realised that these days they’re commonly represented as cormorants. For example on the badge of the other football team in Liverpool.

Not a bad effort tonight – I’ve managed to insult two close family members in a couple of paragraphs. And I wonder why I don’t get a card on Fathers’ Day.

Monday, March 29, 2010

You know the world is going to the dogs when the first sentence on the descriptive label on a bottle of wine contains the phrases “committed to our environmental responsibilities”; “commitment to carbon reduction”: and “ultra efficient glass”. It’s enough to drive one to drink.

Well, one would have to be insane to essay a firm prediction of where the EU project is going from here. But there can be little doubt we’ve just witnessed not just a traditional Brussels fudge but also a major hike in German power at the expense of that of France. Nor do you have to be Einstein to appreciate that one of the more worried national governments right now must be that in Madrid. As the writer of this article says:- “The Greek deal sends a terrible message to other euro countries that might run into financing problems.”

For another commentator, “Europe has a new leader: ‘Merkel the Mean’. While our Ambrose feels that Greece has been left to swing in the wind. And that the obvious question is “Who’s next?” Who knows? But one thing’s for sure – the days of the EU being run primarily in the interests of France are well and truly over.

As for Spain, this is an interesting Opinion piece from the editor of Typically Spanish, echoing my recent comment to the effect that the Spanish seem rather unaware of what’s about to hit them. But that was last week and there’s evidence this week that both the penny and the government's ratings are finally beginning to drop. And El País reports today that there’s serious concern – and even signs of incipient ‘disloyalty’ – in the Zapatero administration. Two years ahead of the next general elections, the times are about to get rather more interesting. Palace coup, anyone?

Finally . . . BankInter is no longer, I’m told, a subsidiary of Banco Santander and has been an independent company for some years. But it’s still Spanish. Which may or may not explain why the UK subsidiary of its Direct Line insurance company no longer appears in price comparison web pages. As for Santander phone numbers in the UK . . . There seem to be a range of these, including some of the more expensive ones. Perhaps they’re phasing these in.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

When I first started paying UK municipal taxes exactly forty years ago, the explanatory document which accompanied the bill was a single page. Since then, these taxes have risen every year at a rate well above inflation and the document that comes with the bill is now a twenty-eight A5 page glossy brochure. In contrast, I get not a single word from my council in Spain. But, then, the tax there is about one tenth of what’s levied in the UK.

Looking at my mother’s copy of said brochure, I see the inside front cover has a message printed in ten languages. In alphabetic order, these are – Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Gaelic, Hindi, Polish, Punjabi, Somali and Urdu. This, of course, is only nine. This is because the tenth is English. And it starts:- “If you need to contact Wirral Council but don’t speak English, you can phone 606 2020 to tell us which language you speak . . .” And next to each version of the message, the language is identified in English. For those who can’t read their own language but are fluent in English, I guess.

I can’t help wondering whether this isn’t customer orientation taken too far. And whether it’s a good indication of why public sector expenditure in the UK has risen from 36 to 52% of GNP in the last 13 years. And why Britain’s public sector deficit is greater than that of Greece.

Which reminds me . . . Perhaps a better example of the lack of customer orientation in Spain than yesterday’s would be the failure of my insurance company to answer two letters about the write-off value of my car. This neglect would be unimaginable in the UK. Which is a little ironic as the company is the subsidiary of Direct Line. Which is British. Or at least it was. I see the company was recently sold by the Royal Bank of Scotland to BankInter. Which I thought was Dutch but have just discovered is . . . Spanish. So all is now clear. Especially why the number you call is no longer a cheap one but the premium rate option used by all Spanish companies to fleece both potential and existing clients. And why ‘Juan Carlos’ who answers the phone has an Indian accent. As BankInter is a subsidiary of Banco Santander, it’ll be interesting to see whether the latter will introduce this in the UK with the banks it recently bought there. Perhaps it already has.

But backing out of the detail and redressing the balance a little . . . As with every visit to the UK, this one has quickly endorsed my view that, while life in Spain is not quite as sane as it was ten years ago, life in Britain just gets madder and madder. Trying to get some simple anti-seasickness pills in Boots yesterday, I had to first undergo a grilling from the woman behind the counter as to which pills I’d used in the past and how I’d reacted to them. Presumably the company is afraid some enterprising lawyer will take out a major law suit against them if they let a customer take his or her own decisions. And I guess that next year I’ll have to sign a ten-page Claim Waiver form just to get some aspirins. But there was more . . . When I took the plastic wrapping off a product I’d just paid for and asked the checkout girl whether I could chuck it in her bin, she adopted a look of incipient panic and said she’d have to fill in a form about it. And don’t get me started on the surveillance cameras and the signs at the side of the road giving accident statistics for the last five years. Truly is Britain now a prime example of what happens when you allow all decisions to be taken by accountants and lawyers. Which may actually be worse that the EU example of leaving things to self-serving bureaucrats. Who are probably all accountants and lawyers anyway. End of rant.

Finally . . . Yesterday’s hits to this blog included searches for dangerous nicknames and funny names for geese. I do hope these came from the same person. Who owns a vicious goose.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Prior to the not-very-spiritual pilgrimage I’m making with old friends in June, I’ve been reading up on the holy city of Santiago. Specifically, I’ve been enjoying Richard Ford’s somewhat sceptical take on the origin of the story of the 1st century arrival here in Galicia of the body of St James (Santo Iago/Santiago). “The legend of St. James the Elder” he says, “when not purely Pagan, is Mahomedan.” And, spoilsport and stickler for detail that he is, Ford points out there’s no evidence of the existence of the legend until it became a rallying cry for the wars against said Muslims in the 10th century. When the body of St James was miraculously rediscovered, having been carelessly lost several centuries before. And the saint himself appeared on the battlefield, slaughtering the infidels in their thousands. I’ll be posting the chapter on Galicia from Ford’s Handbook for Travellers in Spain to my Galicia page any day now.

There’s a lot of talk these days of Spain having to up its export game in order to get out of her current financial bind. This, however, would call for a good understanding of international customer service requirements and I sometimes wonder whether this might be a bit beyond most companies only used to the domestic market. Where the customer is rarely king. As my recent experience with the two estate agents handling my house in the hills attests. Always pleasant but rarely efficient would be my description of the service provided. Which may cut the mustard here but not elsewhere.

Talking of economies in trouble, here’s a good article on the problems facing the UK, both now and in the years to come. I suspect many of the points would be relevant for Spain as well. And more than a few other countries as well. As the writer says:- Politicians never prick bubbles. Politicians across the Western world knew that we were building up too much debt. . . . Gordon Brown knew that his lauded economic miracle was built on sand.” Which holds good for Presidents Aznar and Zapatero too, I suspect. Looking to the future, the columnist stresses that “we are lying to ourselves that tinkering with the pension age and small changes in savings regimes will make a difference. If today’s state-subsidised pensioners feel poor, tomorrow’s will feel destitute — unless they work for the public sector.” Which is certainly true for Spain as well.

Finally, I’ve been sent this advice for young Spanish women, allegedly issued by the fascist Falange party in 1958 and forming part of the Domestic Science curriculum. Possibly because it’s so outrageous by today’s standards, I’m a little suspicious it’s a spoof. But, if it is a true bill, my overview is that it owes as much to Islam as to Catholicism. Which takes us back to Richard Ford, I guess. Anyway, apologies it’s only in Spanish. But even a Google translation should give you an accurate flavour of its (hilarious) contents. Perhaps some kind reader would care to oblige us with a translation:-

-Ten preparada una comida deliciosa para cuando el regrese del trabajo, especialmente su plato favorito. Ofrécete a quitarle los zapatos, habla en tono bajo, relajado y placentero.

-Prepárate, retoca tu maquillaje, coloca una cinta en tu cabello, hazte un poco más interesante para él. Su duro día de trabajo quizá necesite un poco de animo, y uno de tus deberes es proporcionárselo.

-Durante los días más fríos, deberías preparar y encender el fuego en la chimenea para que él se relaje frente a el. Después de todo preocuparse por su comodidad te proporcionará una satisfacción inmensa.

-Minimiza cualquier ruido, en el momento de su llegada elimina zumbidos de lavadora o aspirador. Salúdale con una calida sonrisa y demuéstrale tu deseo de complacerle. Escúchale, déjale hablar primero, recuerda que sus temas de conversación son más importantes que los suyos. Nunca te quejes si llega tarde o si sale a cenar o a otros lugares de diversión sin ti. Intenta en cambio comprender su mundo de tensión y estrés y sus necesidades reales. Haz que se sienta a gusto, que repose en un sillón cómodo o que se acueste en la recamara. Ten preparada una bebida fría o caliente para él. No le pidas explicaciones acerca de sus acciones o cuestiones, su juicio o integridad. Recuerda que es el amo de la casa.

-Anima a tu marido a poner en práctica sus aficiones e intereses y sírvele de apoyo sin ser excesivamente insistente. Si tu tienes alguna afición, intenta no aburrirle hablándole de esta, ya que los intereses de las mujeres son triviales comparados con los del hombre. Al final de la tarde, limpia la casa para que este limpia de nuevo en la mañana. Prevé las necesidades que tendrá a la hora del desayuno. El desayuno es vital para tu marido si debe enfrentarse al mundo interior con talante positivo.

-Una vez que ambos os hayáis retirado a la habitación, prepárate para la cama lo antes posible, teniendo en cuenta que, aunque la higiene femenina es de máxima importancia, tu marido no quiere esperar para ir al baño. Recuerda que debes tener un aspecto inmejorable a la hora de ir a la cama... si debes aplicarte crema facial o rulos para el cabello, espera hasta que él esté dormido, ya que eso podría resultar chocante para un hombre a última hora de la noche.

-En cuanto respecta a la posibilidad de relaciones íntimas con tu marido, es importante recordar tus obligaciones matrimoniales: si él siente la necesidad de dormir, que sea así, no le presiones o estimules la intimidad.

Si tu marido sugiere la unión, entonces accede humildemente, teniendo siempre en cuenta que su satisfacción es más importante que la de una mujer. Cuando alcance el momento culminante, un pequeño gemido por tu parte es suficiente para indicar cualquier goce que hayas podido experimentar.

Si tu marido te pidiera prácticas sexuales inusuales, sé obediente y no te quejes.

Es probable que tu marido caiga entonces en un sueño profundo, así que acomódate la ropa, refréscate y aplícate crema facial para la noche y tus productos para el cabello.

Puedes entonces ajustar el despertador para levantarte un poco antes que él por la mañana. Esto te permitirá tener lista una taza de té para cuando despierte.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Interestingly different perspectives on the UK’s pre-election budget:-
- The right-of-centre Daily Telegraph – Gordon Brown hammers the middle classes with new taxes
- The left-of-centre El País – Gordon Brown courts middle class voters with new benefits

Well, anyway, here I am back on Merseyside. Our trip from Pontevedra to Santander was largely uneventful, helped by the fact the weather was perfect and not the rain-sodden experience we’d feared. Company always shortens journeys, of course, but in this case I had the added pleasure of Mike’s sat-nav. A couple of hours into the trip - and for reasons we could only guess at - this went haywire, issuing regular instructions for us to turn off the N634 and into adjacent fields. And then – once we were on a new autovía stretch – it got it into its head we were driving across pastureland and so repeatedly told us to turn onto minor roads the motorway was crossing. But, in truth, this wasn’t the fault of the gadget, as Mike had failed to make the last software update and it had no knowledge of the new road. I say ‘it’ but - because we’d opted for the female voice - we kept referring to the machine as ‘her’. Which is a little odd, if you think about it. Actually, Mike calls it Grace, because it’s amazing. Most of the time. But, anyway, I think I’ll get one of the things, if only because I will surely enjoy disagreeing with and shouting at it from time to time. Now that my daughters live in homes of their own, I miss this little pleasure in life.

I have long thought the perfect cohabitation would involve the partners living in adjacent cottages (or flats) with a connecting door that could be bolted on either side. I mention this because, from a BBC podcast I listened to on the boat last night, I learned that 10% of the British adult population are now LATs. Which are people Living Apart Together. Most of these do so because they either can’t afford to rent or buy a place. Or because they’re working in different towns.Bbut a third of them are said to live apart by choice, as each needs his/her own space. At 3% of the adult population this means, I think, around 900,000 people or 450,000 couples. I wonder what the Spanish numbers are.

In a recent post from Notes from Spain, Ben Curtis delved into the mystery of the comunidad to which you perforce belong if you live in a block of flats in Spain. Or, like, me in a housing development. Apart from paying a monthly bill, my only real experience of my ‘community’ has been attending a three-hour meeting nine years ago which agreed only one thing - that there’d be another meeting in a month’s time. Which there wasn’t. My community of thirty-plus houses stretches, in fact, over three phases of development and, during the years, I’ve noticed a certain correlation between the improvements we’re all expected to finance – new ground tiles, a new security gate, etc. – with the location of the then-current president of the community. Feeling that we were being neglected in our phase, I recently wrote to this year’s president congratulating him on the improvements down near his house and asking whether we poor relations in our phase could have the rotten boards on our gangway to the pool replaced before one of the kids fell through them. As I’d done with the previous boards a couple of years ago. I got an immediate call from the company which we pay to manage things, to the effect that the president was not really to be bothered with these matters and that the work was in hand and would be done very soon. Well, that was three weeks ago and it will be interesting to see whether my neighbours’ kids are any better protected when I get back from the UK in 3 weeks time. Meanwhile, I spoke to my close neighbour about this, as he has two young daughters. His response was that he was, in fact, vice-president and would be taking over the head honcho role quite soon. After which boards of gold would be installed. So, that’s how it’s done. Which might come in handy if you ever get to live in a comunidad.

Finally . . . The Spanish police have uncovered a massive fraud around the buying and selling of carbon dioxide credits in the EU. Well, who’s going to be surprised at that?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Whenever I go away for a week or more, I leave my cleaner instructions as to what she must attend to in my absence. And then I ponder the implications. For example, of her cleaning bookshelves which contain a number of fragile artefacts from around the world And so I end up moving things to a place of safe keeping. And wondering whether all cleaners around the world are as clumsy as the ones I’ve had. Or whether I’m just unlucky.

Be that as it may, I have tonight again enjoyed an excellent rabbit stew in the lovely old quarter of Villaviciosa in Asturias. Not to mention some of the town’s renowned cider. Perhaps rather too much, as the charming proprietress of the Charles I hotel seems to grow more appealing by the hour.

But, anyway, I must now sleep off the evening. And this certainly looks like being possible in this hotel, as there’s complete silence from outside and the door of my room boasts a long list of things – including bullicioso (boisterousness) – in which guests should not indulge. So, a hotel to recommend, if only for its admirable attitude towards noise levels. But whether all Spanish guests will abide by the rules is anyone’s guess, of course. Happily for me and my old friend Mike, we seem to be the only occupants tonight.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

There’s at least one industry in Spain which normally benefits from an economic downturn. This is business of training people for the civil service exams – the so-called oposiciones. Of which there appear to be rather a lot. A flier I picked up today, for example, offers various courses in respect of exams for a career in the judiciary. Or at least in the administrative hinterland thereof. But I guess the business will be hard hit by the announcements this week that local councils will at least be freezing recruitment, if not actually laying off staff

I’ve suggested once or twice in the last year or so that it wouldn’t be long before criticisms of the EU began to appear in the Spanish media. So it wasn’t a huge surprise to read today that a previous President, Sr Gonzalez, had attributed Spain’s current financial predicament to the EU. Shame he’s better at ex post facto rationalisation than at pre facto guidance on economic management.

The current President – Sr Zapatero – insisted a couple of years ago that his response to the imminent recession would be a ‘socialist’ one. This boast was always likely to prove vainglorious but things were brought into stark relief today, when it was reported that social spending at both the national and regional level will be cut in order to reduce budgetary deficits. Needs must, I guess. And circumstances change principles.

Finally . . . There may be some disruption to service over the next few days. I am UK-bound, via the ferry from Santander to Plymouth. Where I will meet up with my very first girlfriend, after a break of a mere 45 years. Thanks to the internet, of course.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Well, the EU project is not working out quite the way it was planned to. Which was that each crisis would allow the Brussels bureaucrats to take another step towards a problem-solving superstate. In fact, our Ambrose is now wondering whether this week won’t effectively see the end of the project. Which, I have to admit, is a lot sooner than I thought its lack of democratic validity and the weight of its internal inconsistencies would bring it to this point. Interestingly, Ambrose doesn’t point the finger at any of the national governments - “I blame the EU elites that charged ahead with this project for the wrong reasons – some cynically, mostly out of Hegelian absolutism – ignoring the economic anthropology of Europe and the rules of basic common sense.” Quite. But chickens have a habit of coming home to roost.

As for Germany . . Well here’s a nice article from El País which makes the point that – after 50 years of guilt-ridden subordination of her interests to those of others (especially France) - Germany has finally, in effect, come of age and decided to follow her own national course. This must be a terrifying prospect, not only for Spain (though a devaluation could come in handy) but also (especially?) for France’s President Sarkozy, who’s just suffered a devastating defeat in the regional elections So, not a good week for him, then. Good job he’s got a faithful wife to console him. Possibly.

On a more micro scale – the loss of the massive income from property transfer taxes has reportedly brought many Spanish municipalities to the edge financial collapse. It’s said they can’t technically go bankrupt so one wonders what happens when they actually fall into the abyss. Meanwhile, some are sacking staff, reducing services and planning tax increases additional to those introduced by Madrid. Happy times.

Finally . . . My visitor today had difficulty understanding a sign in a shop window. This was partly because his Spanish is not what it used to be 40 years ago but mainly because it was upside down.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I have to own up to occasionally wondering whether the Spanish lived in a dream-world during the years of the phoney boom. And whether some of them are still doing so. Some evidence in support of this might have come from a recent survey, in which it was found that 50% of the public believe there’s no need to cut services in order to reduce the national deficit. Even more remarkably, 75% believe that "efficiencies" alone can deliver all the required savings. As a columnist has said . .  "This reveals a level of sophistication and understanding barely more advanced than the get-rich-quick dreams of South Pacific cargo cults”. And the survey report itself concluded - "The public are either not facing up to, or are not aware of, the hard choices facing the country.” The problem in using this to endorse my thesis about the Spanish is that the survey was made in the UK. Though this alone doesn’t mean I’m wrong, of course.

Over in Brussels, things continue to heat up around the issue of funds for the Greeks. The German government – seen by some as overly-conscious of its democratic obligations to those who put it in power – is now being painted as the villain of the piece. For their part, the Germans are getting increasingly irritated by the pressure on them to act out of character. So they must have been delighted to read today that the President of the Commission – who is not the President of the EU – has dismissed as ‘absurd’ Mrs Merkel’s comment that delinquent countries might have to leave the eurozone. Surely Mrs Merkel understands that promises, obligations, commitments and even democracy itself count for nothing when it comes to advancing the political dream of a European superstate. Especially when it keeps in power the grey bureaucrats who are the Presidents of the EU and the Commission.

Truth to tell, one gets rather inured to reading reports of financial skullduggery in Spain but this one is less than run-of-the-mill. Once wonders whether the victims who’ve been told the Bank has no record of their accounts ever wondered why they never got any statements. Or perhaps they did – written in hand on a page torn from a notebook.

Finally . . . In garden terms, it’s been spring for some time. Surprisingly, though, the Spanish like to treat these things rather formally. So, only from today can we talk about the weather of the winter which officially ended yesterday. And it’s no great surprise to read that, here in Galicia, it was the most instable of the last ten years. Though I still think it rained more in 2000-2001, my first winter here. When I lost five umbrellas in the storms. Against only a measly two since December 21st this time round. The second one only today, in fact.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Some time late last summer, I posted a foto of the Casa da Luz in the old quarter of Pontevedra, in anticipation of its scheduled opening in September as the new HQ of the municipal tourism office. And then, some time in January, I showed it in the allegedly final stages of renovation. Well, it finally opened its doors this week, some six months later than originally announced. Or at least that’s the rumour. I’ll be checking it out next week.

I would, in fact, have done this today but Pontevedra had assumed the death-like stillness and silence associated with public holidays. This time in honour of St José (Joseph). And, of course, of all fathers in Spain. Some of whom might have received a card from one their daughters.

Anyway, as with all public holidays, this has been an excuse for a party next door in Toni’s house. As ever, this appears to have been a question of getting a lot of his relatives together so they can all then shout at each other. It could be worse, I guess; they could all play a musical instrument. Cacophonously, of course.

Finally . . . When I called my car insurance company yesterday, I was dealt with my someone with a strong Indian accent calling himself Juan Carlos. Needless to say, he had some difficulty pronouncing the name of both my street and barrio. But, woeful as his attempts were, they paled besides those of the woman on my friend Mike’s sat-nav as we drove up from Madrid on Wednesday evening. The words Plaza de España, for example, were utterly unrecognisable and appeared to be composed of a set of discrete southern English syllables put together by a dumb computer. Which presumably they were. However, things reached rock bottom when we got onto the Autovia de las Rias Baixas. Which I leave to your aural imagination.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I mentioned the other day that the Spanish government had insisted – in the context of a documentary on the despoliation of the coast – that everything associated with the administration should be accurate and non-tendentious. I thought of this again today when reading this article on the official housing data recently issued. As Mark Stricklin says, it’s so questionable as to invite ridicule.

It’s fascinating to watch the unfolding drama of the rescue of the Greek economy, with the Germans refusing to be steamrollered into largesse by the French and the Greeks countering by making threats to throw themselves into the arms of the IMF that may well turn out to be counterproductive. As of today, Mrs Merkel is reported to be suggesting that delinquent countries be suspended from the eurozone. Which is probably more worrying to the Spanish government than its Greek counterpart. Especially on the day the European Commission has again takes issue with its forecasts.

Talking of countries with economic woes, it seems things are now so bad over in Argentina the government there is exhorting everyone to eat more fish in place of increasingly expensive beef. Specifically the fish which is highly prized by the Spanish but dismissed as bland by the French – the merluza, or hake. This is usually known as merlu in French but occasionally, would you believe, as colin.

Finally . . . A couple of months ago, I happily responded to a request from the owner of my Sunday tapas bar that I translate his menu into English. When I handed it in, they offered me payment but I insisted it'd been done as a favour. Today, I was surprised and delighted to receive a gift-wrapped token of appreciation from him. A book, in fact. However, I’d have been even more pleased if it’d been in English and not German. With luck, it will be one of the several languages my friend Alfie B. Mittington speaks.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Spanish labour market: Demented Germans; and Eco friendly timepieces

Another excellent article in El País today, this time on the Spanish labour market and the need for substantive reform. As the paper is the mouthpiece of the government, I’m beginning to suspect these articles are no coincidence. Possibly part of a softening-up process ahead of some long-overdue initiatives. Or is this too optimistic as regards Mr Zapatero’s administration?

Our friend Ambrose meanwhile takes issue with the Germans both for ensuring that nothing but confusion came out of this week’s meeting of EU finance ministers and for ploughing/plowing a hard-line furrow which he thinks is both “demented” and “destructive” for Europe as a whole.

I see there's an an ad in the papers today for a watch which will “release us from the tyranny of batteries”. Needless to say, it’s marketed as Eco-Drive. As it happens, I have on my wrist an Omega chronometer which I bought forty four years ago and which - being self-winding - has never subjected me to the “slavery of the battery”. Though this was not regarded as eco-friendly back then. Just sensible. It seems that some people are condemned, through ignorance, not merely to re-live history but also to re-invent it..

Finally . . . I see that the Spanish for fait accompli is hechos consumados. Which reads a little strangely when you translate it into English. But, then, as least Spanish has the equivalent phrase and doesn’t have to fall back on the French.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Demonstrating the Spanish government’s failure to understand how things work these days, you can already find the censored two minute section from the documentary I mentioned yesterday on the internet. Courtesy of El País.

Talking of El País, the paper has three excellent pieces today.

The first addresses the reasons given by the Spanish government for its act of censorship as follows:- The official reason looks puerile – “The ruination of the coast must be due to poor urban development planning and an excess of building approvals”. Aren’t these symptoms of corruption? If your answer is No, you need to show where bad planning has led to a reduction in building approvals.Quite.

The second article is on immigration and in it the writer avers that the Spanish have always liked to think of themselves as less racist than they actually are. He quotes Jaume Perich Escala as saying “Spanish gypsies would love to be black so as to enjoy the advantages of living in a non-racist country.” However, the writer is optimistic that a xenophobic far-right party won’t emerge in Spain. Though for different reasons to those which explain why this hasn’t happened in Britain. Let’s hope he’s right.

The third article is an impressively realistic piece on the Spanish economy, in which the writer insists that Spain – if you will forgive this – must grab the bull by the horns (poner el cascabel al gato) and act to substantiate claims of a serious intention to deal with her economic problems. Absent other actions by third parties, the writer envisages a painful period of ‘draconian’ adjustment, during which there would be reductions in civil servants salaries, a freezing of pensions and, among other things, a tighter accord on salary increases generally. This, he recognises, will mean heightened social and political tensions. But, without it, the question won’t be of reducing or freezing the salaries and pensions of civil servants but suspending their payment altogether And even of leaving the eurozone. Needless to say, this calls for a greater degree of unity and statesmanship between the two main political parties than is currently observable. So the jury must remain out for a while yet.

Finally . . . Did you know there are 700 varieties of cheese made in Britain? Which is 100 more than in France. Not being a cheese-eater, I can’t say how many of the former are edible. Or the latter even. Which some will see as an even bigger shame.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Censorship; Corruption; and Travelling Poets

Spain’s television company, TVE, has produced a documentary on the despoliation of the coast over the last ten or twenty years. Possibly because they part financed it – but possibly for other reasons – the government has demanded that a two-minute section dealing with corruption be cut out. Their rationale is that this played no part in the rape of the coastline and that anything they finance must be free of errors or tendentious assertions. Just like government announcements and predictions, I guess. Anyway, the director disagrees and had refused to make the cut, meaning the program won’t be aired. He sees it as censorship of the worst kind and it’s hard to disagree with him.

Which reminds me . . . It seems the Spanish courts are now getting very close to disallowing the wire-tapping evidence which would be fatal to members of the PP right-of-centre party accused of financial skulduggery on a massive scale. It all seems very surreal to an Anglo observer. Especially when the results of some of the taps are printed in the papers, as they were in El País today.

I’ll bet it’s not often you’re travelling on the London tube and a chap gets on and recites a poem in, first, English, and then Welsh. But this, more or less, is what happened tonight when someone entered my carriage on the Madrid metro and treated us to a short poem by Rosalia de Castro in, first, Castellano and then Gallego. He didn’t actually get round to asking me for a donation. Which is just as well as I was going to tell him his Gallego accent was crap. Probably not true, of course, but it would surely have impressed my fellow travellers.

Finally . . . A word of advice about driving in Spain. Don’t do it between, say, 3am and 10am on Friday, Saturday or Sunday mornings. For this is when young men here feel most compelled – “for reasons yet to be determined” – to crash into cars coming in the opposite direction. Failing any of these, into walls, trees and house-fronts.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Utilities: Savings banks; Celts; and Spanish cultural institutions.

It was reported a week or so ago that liberalisation of the Spanish electric industry had done nothing for the consumer. Which was no great surprise. And today we read that prices here are now only matched by those in Ireland. All of which reminded me that the unit cost in my latest gas bill was 38% up on this time last year. As ever, I must have missed the notice explaining this. Whatever happened to cheap Spain?

The owner of the Voz de Galicia had a front-page cri-de-coeur today, asking the politicians to stop their infighting and to quickly effect the fusion of our two caixas (savings banks) before they’re gobbled up by ‘foreign’ operators, to the detriment of the Galician economy. Interestingly, The Economist has recently touched on the ability of Spanish caixas to make a lot of noise about rationalisation, without actually doing anything. But the day of reckoning - the magazine says - is drawing closer. We will see.

I went to see a stand-up comedian in Madrid tonight. He was Scottish and most of the audience seemed to be Irish. Which is a little ironic, as one of the main reasons I come down to the capital is to get away from all the Celts up in the north west 

Finally . . . Following the claim from the Presidenta of the Madrid government that bullfighting should be declared an Object of Cultural Interest, someone has suggested that the same logic applies equally well to the siesta. Though he may not have been totally serious, as he's demanded that the Madrid government recognises the validity of his claim by installing beds in the streets. However, it does give me the opportunity to quote an Anglo-Galician author – José Cela – who described the siesta as ‘Iberian Yoga’

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Perils of Translating; Sovereign Debt and a Looming Crisis, maybe; The EU; and the Galician Caixas

I mentioned the other day that my friend Alfie B Mittington had assured me it was extremely difficult to get the right ‘tone’ when translating from one language to another. I was reminded of this again when I read that the ex President of the Galician Xunta had given his reasons for quitting politics and returning to academia as “Coherencia”. No dictionary definition of this word (coherence, consistency) gave me much of an insight into things. But my Galician friends at dinner last night explained it meant he was at odds with the current leadership of the PSOE socialist party and was going because he wanted to remain true to his principles. I rest Alfie’s case!

Over the last few weeks, we’ve all gained a little bit of knowledge about sovereign debt. Which is always a bad thing, of course. A little knowledge that is, not sovereign debt. According to our resident Jeremiah, Ambrose, this is taking us into uncharted waters, where the going could get very rough indeed. We have been warned.

Meanwhile, have you wondered why President Sarkozy has been strong-arming Mrs Merkel into promising something for Greece and, beyond that, to a commitment to a European Monetary Fund? Well, seasoned observers say the main reason is that M Sarkozy is desperate to keep out the International Monetary Fund as this is headed by his biggest rival for the next elections, whom Sarkozy thought he’d exiled to a place where he'd never be prominent on the public stage. Nice to know the future of Europe is being driven by the personal ambitions of a man who can’t even keep his marriage together, never mind the EU.

Back in Britain, it seems that the public is increasingly willing both to put Gordon Brown back in power and to keep on buying property in Spain despite the publicity about duplicity, chicanery and outrageous demolitions. In the latter case I mean. Perhaps the Spanish are not so short-sighted after all. And who can blame them for believing it’s an obligation to cheat someone suffering from ineradicable stupidity?

The good news this week is that – in a country already favoured by low crime rates – they are now even lower here in Spain than ten years ago. Unless, of course, someone has just been playing around with definitions.

Finally . . . The Voz de Galicia has suggested the battle over our Caixas has little to do with either efficiency or maintaining their Galician-ness. It’s nothing more, the paper asserts, than a fight between the two major political parties, each desperate to score a knock-out blow against the other, regardless of the local consequences. So perhaps it’s not too surprising to see that Politics has risen to number three in the list of things the Spanish worry most about - after Unemployment and The Economic Situation. In February, “Politics” was down at number six. A curse on both houses, it seems.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Just More Mad Parking

OK, these are the final fotos of illegally parked cars, taken this morning. They either add permutations or provide examples of instances cited yesterday.

Here's a variation of the yellow line offence - parking at an angle so the traffic is forced to drive round you.



And here's an example of a car being blocked in, in a car park.



And here are a couple of examples of the blocked-garage example. In the first case, the driver has had the decency to stay in the car. But not in the second.



Truth to tell, I don't really care - and am rarely angered by - illegal parking. I even quite enjoy the fact that every road in Spain is reduced to a single lane slalom challenge by it. What does annoy me, though, are the drivers who park so inconsiderately that they deprive others of a spot in a city in which it's always hard to find one. As here:-



And here:-




And here:-



 

But what really gets my goat are the inconsiderate bastards (appropriately "goats" in Spanish) who occupy the entire pavement while they wait for the school bus every day, forcing me to walk into the road. They could, like me, legally park a couple of hundred meters up the road. But this is clearly too much to ask.



But, hey, live and let live. There but for the grace of God go I. Life's but a chequerboard of nights and days. Etc.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The EU advances; Public Works; and the Daily Parking Free-for-all.

I guess no one should be surprised that the EU is using the Greek farce/tragedy to justify the next step in the creation of a true political union – a European Monetary Fund. Even less surprising is that the lead is being taken by France, even though the rather-less-keen Germans will probably end up as the paymaster. If not exactly the tune-master. Of course, the various peoples of Europe might not be keen on this but, then, they’re never going to be asked, are they? Not smart enough to understand the issues. And too emotional. But back to the plans . . . The Financial Times tells us that “According to German thinking, the plan could include tough penalties for eurozone members that fail to curb deficit spending or run up excessive government debt. Ideas include cutting off countries that fail to curb deficit spending from EU cohesion funds, temporarily removing their right to vote in EU ministerial meetings and suspension from the eurozone.” But then the paper adds:- “These may prove very difficult for France to swallow, given its own record of greater fiscal laxity than Germany”. So, there’s a way to go yet.

The Spanish government’s investment in recession-fighting public works has been done under the banner of Plan E. The cost of the ubiquitous signs reminding us of the money being spent must alone have run to millions of euros even before a centimo was spent on any work itself. Anyway, I suspect most towns in Spain have their equivalent of the pavement and walls around our Alameda, which were (very slowly) taken up/down and (equally slowly) replaced. I was reminded of this today when I saw that a perfectly good flight of stone steps up to the bridge I use were being replaced by some new ones in aluminium (or aluminum for our American friends). This seems to have been a bigger event than I would have thought, as the cameras of the regional TV station were there. Which shows just how desperate they are for news. Anyway, here’s my foto of the work in progress:-


Which leads me naturally into the fotos of the illegally parked cars around town yesterday morning. The question arising around these is not why the ever-un-ruley Spanish do this sort of thing but why they’re allowed to get away with it. Surely, in these straitened times, there’s an easy source of town-hall revenue here that’s going begging. Can it be that – in contrast to the morally, if not legally, dubious speed traps on the open roads – it’d be considered a step too far for the authorities? If so, is it because there’s some un-stated social contract under which the people refrain from giving their consent to hassle of this order? And which the council respects in fear of the consequences at the next election? If so, how is it that some cities have introduced parking meters and traffic wardens, whereas others haven’t?

Anyway, here’s a list of the sort of offences committed a thousand times a day here, starting with the simplest and least inconvenience-causing and going on from there:-
Parking on yellow lines or chevrons
Parking in unloading bays
Parking in front of bus-stops
Parking partly on the pavement
Parking on the pavement so as to prevent pedestrians using it
Parking on the yellow lines at a box junction
Parking so as to block in legally parked cars
Parking so as to obstruct garage entrances/exits
Parking so as to prevent buses turning corners or navigating roundabouts (circles)
Parking on zebra crossings

Or any combination of these. And doubtless others I’ve missed.

And here are the fotos:-



Thank-you and Goodnight.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Modern marriages; The Art of Translation: Spanish Tribalism: Spanish Localism; and Spanish Un-ruleyism

I see that President Sarkozy and his lovely wife, Carla Bruni, are each reported to have taken a lover, not terribly long after they got hitched. Which brings, I suspect, a whole new meaning to the phrase Pre-Nup Agreement.

I failed to post a blog last night because – after lunch with my friend Alfie B Mittington – I foolishly acceded to his suggestion of “Just one more copa before you go.” Well, one thing led to another and I never actually got to go. Anyway, one of the things we discussed over the meal was Alfie’s contention that, however fluent one is in two languages, it’s well nigh impossible to get the exact tone when translating between them. I thought of this today when reading this bit from the Introduction to some offerings from modern Galician writers – “Organising a selection of texts implies adopting quite a commercial perspective which sits uneasily with the essentialist and immamentatist feelings that sometimes bind the work of critics and literary histories. . . . Delved into the Galician narrative production of the last few years allowed me to affirm once more the variety and quality of proposals offered, the rigour, the originality and the will to transgress in many of them, and the dynamism that, as a discourse, gives it impulse, and that is its best guarantee for the future, welcome to all of you who wish to share it with us.”. Well, yes. This must read a lot better in the original Gallego and I suspect the translator – as is usually the case here – was not a native speaker of English.

Another fine article from Qorreo. This one expanding on the theme of political tribalism that I occasionally touch on here. And also on the subject of the left-of-centre judge currently under attack from the Far-Right. Incidentally, members of the latter seem to think it’s OK for the leader of the Opposition to criticise the judge in question but not for the President to praise him. Which says a lot about their neutrality and their conception of freedom of speech.

Another theme I occasionally address is that of Spanish localism. Which people have been doing for at least two hundred years, of course. I mention it now in the context of the possible merger of our two Caixas, or savings banks. This has been the centre of a long struggle between our regional government and the central administration plus the Bank of Spain. The former wants the Caixas to be merged, so as to keep them Galician, while the latter don't. No one knows what the outcome will be but at the moment they seem to have battered each other into a stand-off. Be that as it may, here's how the local parties stand:
For the merger – The right-of-centre PP government of Galicia and the very left-of-centre BNG Galician nationalist party. Normally, members of these parties wouldn’t urinate on those of the other if they were on fire but each of them is now vying to prove how ‘Galicianist’ it is.
Against the merger – The local PSOE socialist party, which is towing the central party line, in the face of accusations of betraying Galicia. And the mayor of Vigo, who (regardless of his party affiliation) opposes the merger because it would mean La Coruña winning out against his city.
Standing on the sidelines: Everyone in Pontevedra, who would love to see the upstart city of Vigo lose out, even if it meant La Coruña becoming more important. On the principle that My enemy's enemy is my friend.

Finally . . . Inspired by a car I saw yesterday that was illegally parked in four different ways at once – partly on a zebra crossing, partly on the pavement, partly on some chevrons at the side of the road and partly on the yellow lines of a box junction – I set out today to take fotos of illegally parked cars as I walked into town. This was not, I must admit, a challenging task and I gave up after only ten minutes and twenty fotos. I will now categorise them and post some of them in a gallery tomorrow. Just a sampler for now – a Post Office van parked entirely on the pavement just outside the town’s main medical centre. Possibly delivering urgent medical supplies. And possibly not.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Needless to say, no sooner do I say that national TV News channels don’t report on other country’s colonies when France 24 gives us a special on Pakistan.

At last, a comprehensive article on Spain’s much-criticised labour market. I finally feel I understand a bit about it. But am even less confident than ever that Sr Zapatero’s government will be able to effect much reform of it.

Which reminds me . . . Spain’s cosseted civil servants (cited in the above article as having received a salary increase last year way above the inflation rate) have been told they’ll all be getting a 500 euro payment in spring 2012, just a couple of months before the next general election. They must constitute the deserving rich.

Here’s some endorsement of my comment the other day about property abuses damaging Spain’s image abroad. Not to mention its domestic finances. By the way, one of the more (less?) amusing aspects of this situation is the way the British buyers are often represented in the Spanish media as people who deserve what they’re getting because they surely knew what they were doing when took advantage of Spain’s notoriously confusing and lax approval processes to buy or build an illegal property. Which must stick in the craw of both those who paid for independent legal advice and those who were gulled into believing they were.
                                                          
Everyone knows, of course, that the 6th or 7th century Welsh saint called Malo was the founder of the St Malo in Brittany. But did you know that the Malvinas Islands were also named after him by some of his followers who sailed west? Or at least that’s what I recently heard on the BBC. I suspect the truth lies closer to the claim on a Spanish site that they were named Les Malouines by 18th century French colonists who’d sailed from St Malo.

Finally . . . Don’t you just love it when you spend a fruitless hour and a half trying to make a flight booking on line? Three different cards and at least ten form re-iterations. All to no bloody avail. Portuguese Airlines TAP, just in case you’re wondering. But the good news is that there’s the alternative of paying through an ATM machine. Or, rather, there would be if I lived in Portugal and had a Portuguese card.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Judicial unrest: EU politics; Nascent xenophobia; The English football team; and Spanish film titles

The left-of-centre El País today picked up on the subject of the orchestrated campaign against judge Báltasar Garzón, describing him as the victim of persecution by right wing elements. Some of which, of course, are heavily implicated in the corruption he’s investigating. No wonder 1400 judges and magistrates have signed a petition calling for the depoliticisation of the judicial system. Though they have even bigger complaints than that of Garzón’s treatment.

Talking of witch-hunts . . . El País also picked up today on reports there’s widespread dismay both in Brussels and in national capitals at what’s regarded as the disastrously woeful performance of Ms Ashton since she was plucked out of obscurity three months ago to become the EU’s Foreign Affairs Representative. Amongst other things, she’s blamed (scapegoated?) for the failure of Europe to find any role at the December Global Warming conference in Copenhagen. Of course, it was known at the outset there’d be a monumental three-way struggle for power (and sinecures) in this area but I haven’t yet seen any suggestion the situation is really the fault of the horse-trading, expediency-loving politicians who appointed Ms Ashton to a job for which she couldn’t possibly have been much further from whatever the Perfect Bride Specification was. If, indeed, there ever was one. She was, after all, Gordon Brown’s fifth choice. Poor woman. I wonder if she will be able to avoid a nervous breakdown now that the French government, in particular, has decided to go for her jugular. And how she will be eased out of the job. Is there, I wonder, an Upstairs to kick her into, so saving everyone’s face?

Here’s a surprise – 83% of Spaniards don’t want to see a rise in the IVA sales tax. And 61% think civil servants’ salaries – as in several other countries – should be frozen. Fat chance, I suspect, now the government has assured them they won’t even be suffering a reduction in the rates of increase agreed a while back.

I touched on immigration the other day, emphasising the relatively low number of disturbances being reported in Spain, despite a high percentage of immigrants in the total population and a very high unemployment rate, particularly among the young. So it was sad today to read of xenophobia in the town of Salt near Girona, in Cataluña, where immigrants form 56% of the population. I fear the reality is we’ll be seeing more of this sort of stuff, as things get even worse and Spain suffers years of low growth. The question is - Will we see the rise of the sort of far-right parties now experiencing success in other European countries or will the PP party find it less than problematical to slip further to the right?

On a lighter note . . There was a scathing article on the English football team in the Sports Section of El País today. Accurate as it was, I suspect I'd have felt a little miffed if it’d been written by a Spaniard, rather than the excellent John Carlin, a fellow-Brit. Ah, well. At least Everton won 5-1 today, brilliantly orchestrated by a Spaniard (the magnificent Arteta) who can’t even make the Spanish squad. Which says it all really.

Finally . . . The film “The Hurt Locker” which is in line for various Oscars tonight is rendered “En Tierra Hostil” (In Hostile Country) in Spanish. Your guess is as good as mine. I suppose it keeps someone in a job.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

A new political party; News slants; Bull goading; and Tax avoidance.

This week Spain has seen the launch of its first Muslim political party - the Partido Renacimiento y Unión España. This, of course, results in the unfortunate acronym PRUNE, though this has no meaning in Spanish. Anyway, its intention is to contest municipal elections next year in Málaga, Madrid, Barcelona, Murcia, Valencia, Oviedo and Toledo on a manifesto of ‘justice, equality and solidarity’. For Muslims, presumably.

From time to time, I reflect on the fact that the UK is lucky to have a judicial system which is not visibly politicised. This is not to say that most British judges are not conservative with a small ‘c’ but this is almost inevitable, I suspect, as they're appointed by themselves. I’m aware that a great deal of politics surrounds appointments to the Supreme Court in the USA but I wonder whether things anywhere else in the world approach the level they do here. Today, for example, the leading right-of-centre paper, El Mundo, weighs into Spain’s famous judge Baltasar Garzón - in its lead editorial - on the grounds he’s moved from megalomania to paranoia, attacking the paper and some of his fellow judges along the way. All in all, not a very edifying sight.

If you watch French TV news, there’s an awful lot of stuff about obscure ex-colonies in Africa. British news, of course, gives you a lot more information on, say, Pakistan, than you’d get in the Spanish press. And the latter naturally goes in for South America. All of which raises the question – If these places aren’t terribly interesting to the rest of the world, why are they still important to the ex-colonial rulers? Habit, I guess.

Bullfighting in Cataluña – My blogger mate Trevor is on excellent, less-gnomic-than-usual form on La Espe over at Kalebeul. I’ll let you know when Graeme of South of Watford goes on the attack. Bloody 'ell, he was even quicker off the mark than I expected. Click here.

Incidentally, a couple more of Spain’s regional governments – right-of-centre, of course – have joined the chorus demanding that bullfighting be made part of Spain’s national heritage. Plus bull-running and, I suspect, the barbaric bull-sticking fiestas as well. What next? Church towers plus donkeys, goats and assorted fowl species? I suspect nothing could be more effective in further damaging Spain’s battered image than all this playing of the nationalist card. But worrying about this sort of thing – witness the property abuse scandals – is not something to which much priority is given here in Spain. Which is rather ironic, as the Spanish seem rather obsessed with what other nations think about them. And then in disagreeing forcibly and volubly with any criticisms.

Finally . . . Now that times are tough, the Spanish government has decided to try to do something about the massive avoidance of taxes in a ‘submerged economy’ now said to represent 25% of the official one. Rather belatedly, the Taxation and Social Security Ministries have decided to talk to each other and to compare notes. If they can find them.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Bullfighting; Prostitution; The Pope in Galicia; Galcian wolves; and the AVE.

Never one to miss a chance to display her right-wing credentials, the Presidenta of the Madrid Regional government, Esperanza Aguirre, has responded to the debate in the Catalan parliament about a ban on bullfighting by suggesting UNESCO declare it part of the world heritage. Rather like Mrs Thatcher sticking out of a tank around the time of the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, she felt it necessary to drape herself in a matador’s cloak before providing us with comments some see as designed to further her chances of taking over the leadership of the PP party from Sr Rajoy in due course. For what it’s worth, I think she’ll do it.

In Graham Greene’s charming 1984 novel, Monsignor Quixote, the final chapter takes place up in the Galician mountains. Specifically in an unnamed village dominated by wealthy “Mexicans” who’ve corrupted an only-too-willing priest with their ready money. And then, finally, in the monastery in Osera/Oseira - to give it its short name. Anyway, there can be little doubt the village is Avión, which is dominated by large houses of little class or style financed by the proceeds of prostitution in Mexico. Which Greene, for some reason, neglects to point out. As you’d expect, the village has its own little airfield, for the doyens of the place who can afford to fly back and forwards from Mexico in their own jets. Probably from one ugly house to another.

Talking of Galicia - I think it’s now widely known that the Pope will be giving a boost to our Xacobeo year by visiting Santiago in November. Which means the king will have to haul himself up here as well. But the good news is the Curia has advised me El Papa is boning up on the place by reading my web page and this blog. Honest. Now, if I could just get him to rent my lovely place in the hills.

And still on Galicia . . . The number 12 is a good one to bear in mind when considering the progress of the AVE high speed train here. 2012 was when we were supposed to be connected with Madrid; 12 years is now the best guess for how many years of delay we’ll suffer; and some folk feel the 12th of Never would be the most accurate forecast for completion of the works. But we will see. At least we should be able to get from Vigo to La Coruña on it within 3 years.

And finally on Galicia . . . There was a report in the papers today of an 80 year old shepherd being attacked by a 15 year old wolf up in our mountains. It seems the struggle would have been more titanic if the wolf hadn’t had only three legs and if either of them had had any teeth. I doubt they’ll be making a film of it.

A new bit of Spanglish, possibly only invented this week. From an ad in today’s papers:- Descubre los Must de la temporada. Conveniently, Los Must are defined as “What you can’t go without. What you must have.”

Finally . . . I have one or two quibbles about Google’s Gmail but, by and large, I’m impressed by what they do. No more so than tonight when the computer asked me “You’ve mentioned an attachment in your message but there isn’t one. Have you forgotten to add it?” Or something like that. Impressive. But a tad frightening. Which is true of Google as a whole, I guess.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Noise; Driving; Capitalists; And the mysterious workings of the law.

Something rather strange has just happened in this wi-fi café. A group of four or five young men came in rather raucously, en route to the pool room at the back of the bar. Whereupon the lady of advanced years at the next table told them to quieten down. And they, being Spanish teenagers with a respect for age, responded accordingly. Which rather lifted my spirits, after a depressing ten minutes at 8.15 this morning listening to Toni next door bawling at his nine-year old boy for being a puta coño, burro, tonto, etc. Isn’t life funny sometimes? Unless you’re nine years old and have Toni as a father.

There was a report in one of the Spanish papers today about the British traffic police fining drivers for being too close to the car in front. The tone was one of incredulity but I guess it’ll happen here one day too. Hard as this might be to believe right now, as tailgating is the second favourite national sport to bullfighting. Actually, that’s not true; it’s far more popular.

I occasionally allude to aspects of Spanish society which I fear I will never understand, no matter how much longer I live here. One of these is the law around the use of land and building approvals. As a case in point, there are 52 houses in O Grove, just along the coast from me, which were built in 1991. Very close to the sea, they were put up in flagrant disregard of a coastal law passed in the late 80’s forbidding such construction. Nineteen years later – and with incontrovertible logic – Galicia’s Supreme Court has finally declared them illegal. Though without making a demolition order. This, of course, is just one of many, many such examples throughout Spain. And I have no idea whether the root cause is a (convenient) greyness in the law arising arise from the overlap of competing regional and national jurisdictions or whether it's unscrupulousness made possible by a slow and inefficient legal system. Or both. But it all adds to the, at times, surreal nature of this society.

It seems that the government’s habit of flying kites and then hauling them down quickly is catching on. As this week’s contribution to the debate on a new social contract, the representatives of the business community proposed that people under 30 could be offered contracts that paid them little and allowed them to be fired on a whim, without any sort of compensation. Being charitable, they may have seen this as a useful jobs stimulus at a time when unemployment continues to soar here. But, to say the least, it was not well received by the government or the unions and was promptly withdrawn. Having first served to confirm the view that Spanish businessmen are red-in-tooth-and-clay capitalists who would have been eschewed by 19th century US robber barons.

Finally . . . Back to property mysteries and the law – The building in Pontevedra’s main square I featured a couple of days ago has now had a fence erected all around it, to stop bits of masonry falling on us. This is because the owners have failed to comply with a court order of three months ago ordering them to make urgent repairs to the place. I guess things would be different if anyone stood a chance of living long enough to make millions from a lawsuit in respect of an injury arising from such culpable neglect.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

A stack of good news and a bit of bad news; Mallorcan business opportunties; and a new kid on the journalistic block.

When I first started coming to Spain in the early 70s, some folk considered it tantamount to suicide to venture onto the roads here. And, if you read about the amount of drinking and driving done by the protagonists in Graham Greene’s 1984 novel Monsignor Quixote, you can readily see why. So, you can understand how good today’s news is that deaths on the road again reduced significantly last year and were, for the first time, below the number of suicides.

The other good news today is that on June 22 the government will tell all the regional health authorities of its plans for a full public-space smoking ban. It’ll still be necessary to get approval of the Bill from Congress but, at the moment at least, there’s all-party support for the measure. In truth, we’re blessed now with at least three smoke-free wi-fi cafés here in Pontevedra but it will be wonderful to go into any bar or restaurant and be free of fumes. Speaking on behalf of non-smokers, of course.

And still more good news . . . When I asked at the library today whether I could join more than one book club, I was told I could sign up for as many as I liked. Except the Portuguese one, as it was already fully subscribed. Which, I have to admit, was not a huge disappointment. Anyway, we clearly have a better class of bureaucrat here in Pontevedra than in Vigo. Or I have more charm than my friend Anthea . . . Not.

And yet more good news . . . The Opposition has put forward economy-related proposals than could perhaps form the basis for discussion of the ‘State pact’ which most people feel would be a good thing but fear will fall victim to Spain’s rather-more-tribal-than-elsewhere politics. We will see.

And now for the bad news . . . As I was walking into town this morning, it struck me it was impressive that the end of the boom and the resultant recession had not led to any serious anti-immigrant developments in Spain. Only then to see the headline in El País about the very increased percentage of Spaniards(77) who now think there are too many immigrants here. Oh, dear.

I wrote a week or two back that I was confused consumer confidence was rising in Spain, whereas it was falling in France. Well, sanity (or honesty) has been restored and it’s now reported to have fallen again, on fears that the recession here is worse than people thought. Or deeper than their government regularly assured them it was. 

El Mundo today reported that the leader of the ruling party in Mallorca – who recently resigned amidst a raft of corruption allegations – used a network of 30 ghost companies to siphon millions of euros into her commodious pockets. I seem to recall the lady was quoted as saying last week that you had to be in business to make money. Or several in her case. Virtually. No wonder she was smiling broadly as she left office. But nice to see town hall corruption is a gender-neutral profession in Spain.

Finally . . . There’s a new link on the right hand side of this page, to Qorreo. This is a new English-language journal covering affairs in the Spanish world. God knows how it will make money and survive but please do your bit by reading it.

Stop-press:  Best news of the day:- France 0: Spain 2

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Cronyism in Brussels; Tourism in Galicia; Dangerous nicknames; Book clubs; And Galician Feismo again.

Intriguing to see a Spanish newspaper – El Mundo – today criticising the new EU Foreign Relations Representative (the not-very-well-known Mrs Ashton) for cronyism in respect of her first appointment. And demanding that she sharpen up her act. Which they’re entitled to do, of course. But it still seems odd. Especially on a day when I read that the new head of one of our urban councils gained office on the back of the votes of 200+ people he’d put on the payroll. Mostly relatives, of course. But, then, Galicia isn’t Spain. And El Mundo’s establishment probably doesn’t contain any members of the directors’ families. And pigs could probably fly, if they wanted to.

So the British pound has fallen back again, now that the spotlight has shifted not only to the UK’s “worse-than-Greece’s” economic fundamentals but also to the political uncertainty ushered in – however briefly – by a poll setback to the Conservatives. This is just what Spain didn’t need, given the importance of British tourists and residents to her economy. Of course, I couldn’t say this if Spain were not in the EU, as her currency would probably have fallen at least as far as the pound. But there’s always the Germans. If they have any small change left over after they’ve bankrolled the Greeks.

Here in Galicia, the (very) bad tourism news is that this Xacobeo/Jacobeo year has kicked off with 5% lower visitors than a normal year. Which is far from what was hoped for. The recession, it seems, is forcing people to opt for economies in this life, in preference to investing in double indulgences for Purgatory sins en route to the next. How very short-sighted.

Talking of Galicia – Our President, Mr Feijoo, was pictured with the Pope in today’s press, alongside his girlfriend. That’s Mr Feijoo’s girlfriend, of course. Not the Pope’s. Her name, by the way, is Chinny. I don’t know what this is short for. But I do know it’s unfortunate in an Anglo-Saxon context. Likely to get you a dual orchidectomy if you bestow it on your better half. However ironically.

I reported the other day there were only Castellano and Gallego Book Clubs in the Pontevedra library. This appears to have spurred them into action. For, as off today, I can sign up for an English club and a Portuguese club as well. I say “as well” but the language of the flier suggests I’ll have the same trouble as my friend Anthea has had in Vigo if I want to join more than one. The stance taken by the dragon Anthea struggles with is that the rule is you can only join one club even if one or more of the others is/are under-subscribed. The sound initial logic seems to be that the multi-lingual over-keen mustn’t muscle out the monoglots. Which is fine, unless the rule is then applied to a nonsensical extent. But bureaucrats here are an exception to the general rule that the Spanish are an admirably pragmatic people. I will see what reaction I get tomorrow when I apply to join two of the clubs.

Finally . . . Here’s the picture of the ugly building I cited the other day, when talking of feismo (ugliness) in Galicia. Remarkably, this is located in the busiest corner of Pontevedra’s main square. And so is a perfect spot for a café-bar. Which, indeed, it was it was until about five years ago. Rumour has it that it’s now falling down because sale is being prevented by one of the family feuds around property which are such a feature of Galician life. What’s also remarkable is that local authorities – who appear to be able to change the designation of land at will, creating fortunes in the process – seem to be powerless to do anything about this awful blot on the city’s heritage. Perhaps the family has connections. Only joking.

Incidentally, you can see how close this place is to one of the city's main attractions, the Chapel of the Virxen Peregrina.



For details of a much nicer place in rural Galicia, click here.

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