Saturday, July 31, 2010

Our annual fiesta in Pontevedra may be due to formally start this weekend but we’ve already had weeks of fun in the street. Including, of course, the wonderful Jazz & Blues Festival of last week. Last night there were three itinerant groups in the city centre, once again showing just how proficient the Spanish are at having fun. One of them was a troupe of grotesques (Calaveras y Diabalitos) who could have come straight out of The Lord of the Rings. All were horrifically be-masked and dressed in rags, with some on stilts and some waving flares which surely wouldn’t have been allowed in overly safety-conscious countries. Then there was a terrific group of musicians down in Vegetables Square, playing stuff which reminded me of Hungarian gypsy dancing. So I guess these were Folk Balcánico. Finally, there was a Mexican mariachi group on a float, accompanied by dancers on stilts. One of them a gorgeous young lady whom one could not help but notice. Or at least not this one.

Topically, we have our first corrida or bullfight tonight and the peñas were already out in force at lunchtime today. I’ve read this is the only one in Galicia – and it’s true we have a permanent ring in the centre of town - but I fancy I’ve heard of a temporary ring along the coast in Noia. One of the articles I’ve read this week quoted Hemingway as saying the Catalans were too commercial to be interested in the issue of death upon which the bullfight centred. As for the Galicians, I believe his reason for their lack of interest was that they had enough dealings with death from the sea and famine on the land to regard it as something to be celebrated. Truth to tell, there are probably very few knowledgeable aficionados here. The whole thing seems to be mainly an excuse to have fun and spray wine around. Even if senior Gallegos from the government and the opposition will be in town for the four corridas of the next week.

Still on this theme . . . Here’s a reference which should give you access to The Times article first cited a couple of days ago. Rupert Murdoch – of whom I am not a fan – will probably not be too happy to know you are reading this without paying. So please don’t tell him. I could have my subscription cut off.

Finally . . . My friend Alfie Mittington is someone no one but a fool could consider a supporter of bullfighting. In fact, he’s antipathetic to animal abuse of any kind and has today sent me an article about a New Zealand rabbit-hurling custom which he was influential (he claims) in bringing to an end. Click here to read this.

Friday, July 30, 2010

If you’re coming to Pontevedra for this year’s extensive fiesta celebrations, you’ll be delighted to know that some at least of the ugly metal fences that have marred Plaza España in front of the town hall for more than two years have just been removed. The rest should go over the next year. Better late than never, I guess. I should warn you, though, that the surface of the plaza is now white concrete and that, under a glaring sun, you feel like the chap in Korda's The Four Feathers who went blind while hiding from the Fuzzy Wuzzies. Which they probably weren’t called in the recent re-make. As if this weren’t bad enough, the surface is rather uneven. So you have the added risk of twisting an ankle, as I did yesterday. If you do, don’t even think of suing anyone for negligence.

Talking of which . . . I was interested to see an article this week in a local paper in which the council and parents were taken to task for allowing young kids to climb up an almost-vertical face of jagged rocks. It coincided with reports that a mother down south had been arrested for, I think, homicidal negligence, after her child had died of heat-stroke. I took to wondering in what other circumstances here parents would be accused of negligence. Given the general attitude to risk, probably very few. Certainly not, I imagine, for letting their kids run along a high passageway (say the one behind my house) when there’s a big gap in the fence through which they could fall.

Well, several kind readers have written to confirm they can’t access The Times article I cited last night and for which I added a new link earlier today. I’ll have to think of something else. Meanwhile, though, here’s another Brit (the EU MP, Daniel Hannan) being kind about bullfighting

Sill on this subject, I can confirm that, as I predicted, El Mundo picked up the elusive Times article and quoted the comment that foreigners simply don’t understand what’s really going on in the bullring. Or words to that effect. As far as El Mundo is concerned, there was no doubt at all around the world that the issue had little to do with animal rights and everything to do with Catalan nationalist sentiment. Hmm.

I was amused by a letter in El Pais today. “No wonder our banks are strong” the writer said, “They take our money for free and then lend it back to us at a profit. And they charge us even for saying Good Morning to the manager. How can they not be profitable?”. It reminded me of how shocked I was at the rapaciousness of Spanish banks when I arrived here almost a decade ago and of my suggestion back then that they’d eventually charge people for breathing the air inside their branches. Well, things have actually gone the other way, though not that much. At least they no longer charge you for receiving your money. And possibly not for moving it to another bank.

Finally . . . The Law of Unintended Consequences. The Galician courts are said to be more log-jammed than ever because of the revenue-oriented surge in cases involving motoring offences. Maybe, though, things will start to ease soon, as the Traffic Police have recently been dragging their feet in protest against the reduction in civil servant salaries. This sort of action is called a “Dropped Pen” strike here in Spain. Meaning they stop drivers but don’t complete the paperwork, I believe. Needless to say, I endorse their public-spirited action.
This is a quick follow-up to last night's post, giving this link for the bullfighting article I cited from The Times newspaper. Click on number 8.

This link works for me but I have a subscription to The Times and I don't know whether it'll work for those who don't. Perhaps someone could let me know.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

In his South of Watford blog, Graeme yesterday issued a timely Bullshit Warning about how Spain’s right-wing papers would treat the Catalan developments. And he wasn’t wrong in predicting they’d see this a simple issue of Catalan nationalists versus Spain. Which El Mundo duly did this morning at length, devoting eight of its first twelve pages to the subject and characterising it as an infringement of personal liberty. Something, incidentally, which I don’t recall them saying about the past and future bans on smoking.

As long-time readers will know, unlike Alfie I’m rather ambiguous about bullfighting - the humanist in me fighting with the libertarian. You certainly can’t deny it’s cruel and you’d be a fool to argue that, if someone came up with the idea of it today, it would get much support. But, then, neither cars nor aspirin would be permitted on today’s markets. All that said, I have no trouble with bans being introduced, whether in The Canaries (previously) or in Cataluña (imminently). Not so the right-of-centre PP party, which says it will respond the way it does these days to everything it doesn’t like – by taking the issue to the Constitutional Court. An even dafter idea being promoted from the Right is that bullfighting should be classified and protected as a national cultural treasure. Which I imagine would do nothing to improve the image of Spain in the world at large. After all, there's a reason why there's been so much international interest in this subject.

Anyway, for those who’d like to read a Brit arguing the case for not banning bullfighting, there’s an article in today´s Times by Roger Lewis, who sees it as the mark of a healthy culture. I imagine he’ll be at least beatified in Spain when this is picked up and quoted by El Mundo, ABC, etc. I'd like to have given you a link here but it seems that the new paywall prevents this. Logically enough. Perhaps tomorrow, after it's been picked up, copied and published elsewhere.

And now a positive statement on the EU which reader Moscow may be surprised to hear I agree with – “Like it or loathe it, the EU has proved that binding enemies together with economic chains, free trade and shared prosperity is an incredibly effective way of keeping the peace.” This, of course, is what most Brits thought they were signing up to in 1976 when surveyed on a common market, not a supranational European state.

I occasionally see ‘crocodiles’ of three-year-olds being guided through the streets of town by their teachers. They’re all dressed in the same tunic and each of them is holding onto a rope. The kids, of course. Not the teachers. I was reminded of this today when reading this comment on one of the UK’s many modern insanities – “At the weekend, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said it does children good to experience risk. I don't mean to sound like a Health and Safety bore, but when the country's leading promoter of Health and Safety says Health and Safety has gone too far, you do wonder. Twice in the past month, in different towns, I've seen parties of schoolchildren being led by their teacher through the streets, all of them clad in yellow high-visibility jackets. On both occasions, it was dazzlingly sunny.”

I mentioned Galician tapas dishes the other day. If you’d like to know a bit more about these, click here. It translates lacón con grelos as “shoulder of pork with parsnip tops”. Which is odd, as grelos are actually turnip tops.

Finally . . . As expected, Cade’s spectre now haunts me from the grave. Well, not exactly. What he doesn’t seem to realise is that, with Comment Moderation on, I get only the first few words of his contributions. Which I then immediately delete without reading the rest. So, in practice, the only person in the entire world reading Cade’s comments is Cade himself. Spectral brick to spectral brick. Funny thing is, I predict that – addicted to his own bile - he’ll continue to comment, despite knowing this. Which is pretty sad. So here’s his email address for anyone who wants to ask him for a daily bulletin of onanistic bilge. It’s the least I can do for him. It may keep him from exploding all over the walls in his parents' house in Middleton, Manchester.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

If you’re not yet sufficiently confused about the implications of the bank stress tests recently announced, here’s Charles Butler to explain why Spain has emerged smelling of roses. And here’s another article saying the whole exercise is rather dubious anyway. If you don’t have a good grasp of economics, statistics and physics, you might be well advised just to jump to the conclusion of the latter article.

Spain – as we know – is a noisy country. But right now I’m spoiled for choice as to what to complain about. The construction site near my house is now in its fifth, if not sixth, year and today they’re smashing granite so as to build the approach road up the slope directly opposite me. And, just a bit further along the road, they’re (re)smashing granite paving slabs so as to lay the drains. As if that weren’t enough, my new neighbours next door are having their house gutted before they move in and this naturally involves a good deal of banging. A peaceful summer haven is not what I have right now. At least not here in Poio. Incidentally, the Catalans seem to have sold their house “As is”, which I think is quite common here. Basically, you buy the place with everything in it. And this can be a lot. The evidence from the skip in front of my house is that, in this case, it includes all the toys and dolls collected in her youth by the now adult daughter of the family. Not to mention an awful lot of fitted furniture.

The other thing it’s not today is sunny and warm. For the third or fourth day in a row, Southern Galicia is the hottest place in Spain and it’s stiflingly hot. Temperatures reached 38 to 40 here in Pontevedra yesterday and it doesn’t bear thinking what they were up in the heat bowl that is Ourense. Not comfortable.

I wrote yesterday of myopic Galician nationalists. Which was, perhaps, a bit unfair as Galician nationalism is a broad church and there are those in it who promote Galician culture and language without the idiocies of the extremists. The latter regard an independent nation (‘Galiza’) as the only possible goal and construct all their arguments on the base of this premise. Almost as if it already were the case. Their defining characteristic is an inability to grasp the fact that, whether they like it or not, Galicia is a part of Spain and Spain is not a part of Galicia. So, in the context of yesterday’s theme of educational qualifications, their answer is likely to be “When you make Gallego co-equal with Spanish elsewhere in Spain, we will make Spanish co-equal with Gallego here”. In this, they ignore not only constitutional reality but also the existing law making the two languages co-equal in Galicia. It is, of course, impossible to have a reasoned dialogue with such zealots. You might as well try to have a discussion with a brick. You’d certainly get more intelligence and fewer insults.

Another postscript I need to make . . . I said everything went well in the insurance company offices yesterday but this wasn’t strictly true. Sitting in front of the screen containing the details of the policy and the name and (ex)address of my ex partner, the guy chose to write down my details (including my ID) on a scrap of paper. As the next letter isn’t due until June 2011, it’ll be a while before I know if he remembered to later transfer these to the computer.

Finally from me . . . I was delighted yesterday to read an article in which the author had written “Will this prolong the war in Afghanistan or shorten it? Will more people die or fewer?” Not, you will immediately have appreciated “less people”.

And now, here’s Alfie with a few, quiet, reflective thoughts on today’s momentous news from Cataluña:-

Bravo, Catalonia! Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!!! I humbly bow my head to you and your separatist flag! It takes courage to tell cowards they no longer call the shots. It’s not easy to draw that breath, admit the time has come, and say that all the hollow chitchat in defence of barbarity has no place any more in A.D. 2010. With a snug majority of 68 against 55, and against the howls of every gross and sweaty lamebrain in the land, the Barcelona Parlament has forbidden the bullfight in their autonomous region from this day on. A step’s been taken. A lofty thing done.

Oh, but it’s all Hypocrisy, smirk the Grand Defenders of Art, Tradition, Liberty and National Pride (i.e. those who enjoy chopping up live animals for the fun of callous plebeians). ‘They’re only prohibiting it out of separatist spite against Spain…!’

What can one say against such a truly valid argument? Well, allow me to say that it is, of course, a cheap trick of schoolboys to try to besmudge a Good Thing by calling into question the Motive Behind It. A thing is good or bad in itself. And the motive, frankly, has no bearing on its ethical status. When I hear such fallacies pronounced with a straight face, I always remember the time when judge Garzón tried to get his hands on General Pinochet for mass murder. My friend Igor, who has been a die-hard reactionary since he grew up in Soviet Russia, told me at the time: ‘Well, that Garzón is only doing it because he’s burning with ambition!’ And So What? I asked. I don’t know if personal ambition was behind each of Garzón’s initiatives (Frankly, I’d be surprised, seeing what his taking on everybody Left and Right brought him in the end...) But, even if he was fuelled by dreams of power, I don’t mind that somebody does something good for a bad motive. Just as I don’t believe that something bad becomes less evil if caused by a man with fine motives. See, for instance, the marvellously charitable intentions of good old Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who came up with the idea of saving the Indians by getting African Blacks to do the slave labour on the American plantations… We all know where that led, don’t we? The Road to Hell . . . Need I finish that sentence?

No: for better or for worse. For lofty or despicable reasons. From ethics or from spite. By a road paved with gold or one covered in muck . . . Something Good has been done today. Something long overdue. One more thin coat of civilisation has been painted over the old barbaric woodwork. And Catalonia, Spain, Europe . . . all of them are today slightly better places than they were a few hours ago. Bravo Catalonia! Today you surely rose not a little in the estimation of one fellow who doesn’t much believe in the virtues of separatism! And he is not alone, I assure you. So keep up the good work and who knows where you’ll go?

Right, and now for battling blood sports in the rest of Spain; for taking on the even sicker village feasts; for kicking it out of France, Portugal and Latin America; and for forbidding barbarities elsewhere as well, such as the idiotic, needless, puerile and most scandalous slaughter of Calderon Dolphins by Danish fuckfaces on the Faroe Islands! (Go google it, dear children, but only if you have a strong stomach!) Another ‘Ancient Cultural Tradition’ that makes decent men puke. There’s still something rotten in the State of Denmark! So let us be no Hamlets and ride unhesitatingly into battle…!

 Alfred B Mittington

Editor’s Note: Having recently seen the film “The Cove”, I suspect there might be something even worse that Alfie’s Danish citation.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Shopping in Spain. 

A couple of experiences today. And I stress at the outset they were both very pleasant. That said . . .

(1). I went to the offices of the insurance company which issues the policy which I and my (ex)partner took out two years ago on our house in the hills. They take the premium from my account but send their letters to her and, as she now lives in France, I wanted them sent to me. All went well until the chap asked me for my national identity number. I felt like asking why on earth this was necessary as they were already taking money from my account but I knew he’d just look at me with total incomprehension. And, as we’d already been through this with my two forenames and only one surname, I didn’t bother.

(2). I went to my local Carrefour to order a new washing machine for the house. I stressed the most important thing was that it arrived this week or next week ahead of people arriving 7th August and we agreed on delivery next Tuesday. Then came the following conversation, which may only be possible in Spain:-
Are you a permanent resident in Galicia?
Yes, why?
Well, as of next Monday we have a New-for-Old scheme and you could save up to 50 euros.
That’d be good but the most important thing is delivery next week.
Hmm. There are conditions.
Like what?
Well, the house it’s going to is in Cotobade [Less than 20km away]
So?
Well, you live in Poio?
So?
Well, are you registered at Cotobade town hall as a resident of Cotobade?
No, here in Poio, where I live. I can’t reside in two places. But I can have two houses.
Well, that could be a problem. We’d need a certificate of your registration and then there’d be a few additional procedures. Which might take longer than a couple of days and delay delivery.
Forget it. Just charge me extra and deliver it on Tuesday.

Try as I might, I can’t think of a reason for my location being relevant to a purchase. Perhaps if I lived in, say, France. Or even in another part of Spain. But 20km away?? Perhaps someone Spanish could explain it.

Back in the real world . . . At the macro level, the EU is pursuing – through the Bologna Process - the admirable aim of making one’s educational qualifications equally valid in each of the member states. Here in Galicia, the educational establishment – in the grip of myopic nationalists – is heading in the opposite direction. A letter-writer in one of the local papers advised recently that her son had had his qualifications rejected as being in Spanish. This was, of course, because he’d gained them at a university elsewhere in Spain which wasn’t in the habit of giving out qualifications in Gallego. To the Galician nationalists it’s all very simple in their Manichean world. Spain/Spanish bad. Galicia/Gallego good. Thank-God the vast majority of the population have enough sense not to subscribe to this short-sighted nonsense. Shame about the universities.

Talking of bilge . . . It was Galicia’s “National Day” on Sunday and there was a grand Mass at the cathedral in Santiago, attended by the great and the good from throughout Galicia. Looking at the fotos, I couldn’t help wondering just how many of the liars, crooks and fornicators among the politicians there really subscribed to the belief that the body of St James found its way to Galicia in an unmanned boat and that his body was lost and then serendipitously found on at least a couple of occasions. Very few, I imagine. But politics is politics and sincerity has to be faked.

Finally . . . You’ll all be thrilled to know I’m developing another list. This time of all the things that one can do here in anything-goes Spain without eliciting the sort of adverse reaction you’d get in other parts of the world. More anon, I’m afraid.

Monday, July 26, 2010

I attended a horse-racing event yesterday evening, on my side of the river from Pontevedra in Campañó. The setting was magnificent and the course impressive for a small village. Additionally, most of the races I saw involved “pure bred English horses”. Of, course, I realised it wasn’t Ascot – especially after a half-hour fight took place in the parade ring – but it was, nonetheless, very enjoyable. Both the races and the fight. Which started up in a desultory way after three horses had collided on a tight bend and unseated their hyped-up riders. But then descended into a free-for-all which seemed to involve several families. Or possibly clans. Perhaps the funniest sight was of two overweight local policemen making their slow way to the scene of the altercation, hampered by the fact there was no direct way down from the refreshments tent. Meaning they had to tortuously ziz-zag their way down the clay banks operating as terraces. At the top of which we sat with a great view of both the fight and the organisers’ attempts to get the show back on the road. But the absence of instant replays took some of the shine off for me.

Later that evening, I attended the final event of our Jazz & Blues week. This one starred three ladies who formed, with their backing musicians, The Chicago Blues Tour of 2010. Great singers they certainly were. But skinny they most decidedly weren’t. I felt for the beds in the local Parador. And for whoever the first of them was shaking her booty so impressively and suggestively for. Quite a sight. And quite a night.

So, another tremendous week for Spanish sportsmen – in cycling, motorbike racing and Formula One. Though some might regard Fernando Alonso’s victory in Germany as rather hollow. Later this week, the English Under-Something team play Spain in the semi-final of some competition or other. This must be a foregone conclusion you’d be safe to bet on. Unless Ferrari are organising the event, of course.

Finally . . . My apologies to those who couldn’t get one or both of the links I cited yesterday. Short of time between the events described above, I didn’t link them in the text and couldn’t check whether the links at the side were both good. But all should be OK now.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

We have an annual Jazz and Blues concert here in Pontevedra during the third week of July. And excellent it is too. I’ve attended on each of the last three nights and will so again for the last performance tonight. Two of the three so far have been a little too “jazzy” for my tastes – if you know what I mean – but on Friday we had a stellar performance by an American lady, Madeleine Peyroux. Who’s rather like a cross between Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. Terrific. Anyway, these are free shows and they attract a wide cross section of the local population plus, I suspect, a pretty large number of aficionados from around the country. It’s always interesting to see how long it is before a member of former group gets up to go and for the “jazzy” shows this was less than a minute. Truth to tell, they usually look like people whom you’d never perceive as jazz fans. So it’s rather more a question of why they’re there in the first place, not why they’re leaving after thirty five seconds.

Since they’re outdoor and free events, there’s never any request that people switch off their mobile phones. So, of course, you have to tolerate people near you chatting loudly to their friends, even during the quiet numbers. But I was impressed to see a new use for this modern necessity this year. If you can’t find the friend you want to sit next to, you just stand in the aisle and call them, regardless of how much this might disturb anyone. Impressively efficient, you might say.

Which reminds me . . . Is the fact that we’re blessed with several wi-fi cafés in Pontevedra an indication of local efficiency or evidence of inefficiency on the part of national broadband providers?

I mentioned our Club Nautico in yesterday’s post. When checking for errors this morning, two things occurred to me. Firstly, the word ‘club’ normally means brothel here in Spain and, secondly, it’s pronounced cloob in Spanish. Nothing strange about that, you might say. And I’d agree. So why is ‘pub’ pronounced paff and not poob? Perhaps a Spanish reader could let us into the secret.

There are two new links on this blog. The first is to a page (Our Very Own Compost Heap) of two young folk whom I know and who are making a go of life in rural Asturias. And the second is to a site called Tapas Bonitas or Nice Tapas. Looking at this today, I couldn’t help bemoaning the fact there are few of this type of tapa on offer here in Galicia. We have others, of course, and fine they are too in their own right. But some of us would really like to see more of the innovation that takes place in Bilbao, for example.

Finally . . . I was hoping to post today a foto of two metal vuvuzelas I’d seen in Pontevedra’s flea-market the last two Sundays. But, of course, I couldn’t find them today and, after ten minutes of trawling the market in 35 or more degrees of humid heat, I gave up and made my way back home. As luck would have it, though, I noticed this alternative picture in the hallway of some flats off the main square. Enjoy . . .

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Spanish government plans to crack down on dangerous drivers. Specifically, they’re going to make it a serious offence to do the sort of tailgating which is a national sport here. As this would create the risk of a significant proportion of the male population ending up in gaol, the intention is to punish the offence with confiscation of the car used. Which makes great sense. But I don’t know why they don’t just seize every Audi and BMW with an engine capacity of more than two litres. This would solve the problem overnight.

There’s naturally been a lot of attention given here to the apparent unifying effect of Spain’s World Cup win. Here’s a good article from Qorreo on the issue of regional versus national identity. Congratulations to all those who read it before moving on and realised ‘less flags’ should have been ‘fewer flags’, a lost battle I continue to fight on behalf of Anglo pedants everywhere.

Talking of flags . . . By pure coincidence, I noticed today that our Club Nautico was showing three on its roof today – the Galician, the Spanish and the EU-ian. This got me wondering about whether young Gallegos convinced of their inviolability would put their lives on the line (other than by going out onto the roads) for the respective entities. Galicia? Probably. Spain? Possibly. Europe? Hmm.

On a lighter note . . . I asked my friend Alfie Mittington whether he was going to contribute to the dialogue on efficiencies and inefficiencies in Spain. His initial reaction was along the lines that he couldn’t see this being much more than a series of personal anecdotes. So he said not. But today he changed his mind and sent me this contribution. Which I leave you with . . .

I subscribe to your opinion, my dear Colin, that where systems or institutions are often callously inefficient – for the customer, that is – personal sympathy of individual employees then frequently compensates for the mess.

Allow me to illustrate the phenomenon with what must be the most brazen example I remember, from a towering heap collected over the decades. I think it happened in the spring of 2002. Being an unhurried traveller, who appreciates the advantages of a train-ride, I made the grave mistake of wanting to take a train from Santiago to Lisbon. You ought to have know better, Al, I hear many folks now sigh. And they are right. In Spain, one takes long-distance buses, which work well. Once does not get closer to RENFE than one absolutely needs to.

But Alfie is an idealist, so off he went at the ungodly hour of 6.30 a.m. and presented himself at the ticket-window of Santiago Central. He was received by an attendant who looked most like an old retirement-desiring postman whose flat feet hurt him even on his barstool, and who deeply hated the world and humanity for Being There and having written so many love-letters which needed delivery. There was no smile. There was no good morning. There was just a cold stare.

So I took out my VISA card and asked the good fellow to sell me a ticket to Lisbon. Note that I had done this before, without any trouble. But the system had changed. And what system there was, was out to lunch.

‘I cannot do that,’ my grumpy clerk told me, leaving the plastic money untouched in the tray. ‘The machine is not turned on. You cannot pay by credit card.’ This was something of an aggravation, because at the time, paying your fare by Visa automatically activated some sort of travel insurance which I did not mind having. There were, however, impatient people waiting behind me, so I did not try the obvious ‘How About Turning Your Machine On?’ but merely raised my eyebrows, pulled my wallet out and told him: ‘Well, in that case, give me a ticket to Lisbon for cash.’
‘I cannot do that,’ he told me as he pushed the VISA card back through the tray. ‘I can only give you a ticket to Vigo. There you must change trains. And you can buy a ticket to Lisbon. You have seven minutes for that.’
‘Oh for God’s sake!’ I exclaimed, remembering the time I bought a one way ticket from Alès to Vladivostok at the train station of Auxèrre-sur-Bloise (which a assure you, readers, is a fifth the size of RENFE Santiago and gets only 167 passengers a year).
But working folks were waiting… And getting impatient. WITH ME!
‘So give me a bloody ticket to Vigo!? I said tersely, as I pushed a 50 Euro bill towards the fellow over the tray.
He looked at me with a blank stare. And I knew what that stare meant. A ticket to Vigo cost 3 or 4 Euros. He did not want to break my 50 Euro banknote.

It was then that I growled, and tried to remember the exact motions of the kick I had learned during Paratrooper training, and which our sergeant-mayor assured us would take bullet-proof glass out of its frame, so that I might pull him over his counter, and do to him what his mother should never have done to his daddy. At 80, however, one no longer does such things lightly. So I merely looked at him like Nessy on a bad day, and vinaigred into his face: ‘Now don’t you give me MORE trouble still…’

And that is where he started giving me lip. He told a paying customer whom he was mistreating that I had no right to abuse him. That he would like to give me a ticket to Lisbon and let me pay by VISA card, but that he was only a worker and following orders and that the Estatut del Trabajador entitled him to…

The train was to leave in 4 minutes. I still had to schlep my suitcase up and down staircases. The crowd behind me was getting restless. It was either take care of this UGT Apparatchnik or get to Lisbon for my date…

So I simply gave him the Mittington Stare. That, and the fact that he had thrown the full Union Manisfesto at me in the verbal way, and the fact that I did not make to evaporate and let him attend Good Customers, finally decided him to accept the 50 Euro bill, and to sell me a ticket to Vigo.

Bad luck, you say? Aaaaahh, we have the same in Britain? Perhaps. But it was Bad Luck with Bad Manners. It was Below Freezing Customer Service with Great Pride at our Asinine Behaviour. In my near 80 years I never had to deal with that in any other country – except, take care now!, in SOVIET republics! – without knowing that I could appeal. Which I knew was futile in a place where the customer is fair game. And that in a place which prides itself on receiving half a million foreign pilgrims a year!

But now for the Good News!

Clutching my one way ticket to Vigo between my lips, I rushed to the platform over staircases and strategically placed brick thresholds (Escalators? Who needs escalators? Old folks and invalids should not travel anyway!). I arrived panting. The train did not. Arrive, I mean. Of a sudden, there was an announcement over the loudspeakers, most politely put – for the benefit of half a million money-spending foreign pilgrims that visit Santiago each summer - in profound AND mechanized Gallego. Forgive me for not getting the drift, ye Galleguistas of the world! I asked for a translation from a student girl standing next to me who explained in remarkably correct English that the Vigo train would leave from platform 7 today. I rushed to platform 7 over staircases and strategically placed brick thresholds. I arrived panting. So did the train. Arrive, I mean. We all boarded. We found seats. We settled in. And then… nothing happened. The minutes passed. More minutes passed. TWENTY minutes passed. The train, as they say, was a little late. Normally that is quite okay for me. But I distinctly remembered my Oblomov Sovietovich Apparatchnik telling me that I had just 7 minutes at Vigo to change trains AFTER buying a ticket! No way I was going to do that, and my octogenarian pace. I was just considering hauling myself out of the train again, and raise All Hell in this City of God, when the train moved. Now what was I to do? I did not want to spend the night in Vigo, but it looked as if I would. And I was just considering getting out at Padron and call one of my co-padrinos who lives nearby to pick me up, when the ticket-checker appeared. She was a sturdy Wagnerian style lady, who probably owed her job to some sort of Ministry of Equality program to get women to work in RENFE. But Bless La Bibiana and her predecesors for that! I explained to her my dilemma. She frowned deeply. She looked at her watch. And she told me she’d call (somehow) to Vigo station, and tell them there were passengers for Oporto on this train who’d arrive late and needed time to secure their tickets.

In Britain, I’d have laughed in her face at the mere idea. Fool around with the train schedule to accommodate half a dozen customers? Getoutahere!

We got to Vigo. We got out. A train was waiting on the opposite platform. Incredulously, I went to the ticket-window. Me and six others were dispatched, faster than I had ever seen, being given pre-printed tickets to Oporto. That train, that steaming, impatient train on platform 2, it was still there as I paid. It was still there as I rushed out the building. It was still there when I put my old foot on the steps and hauled my old frame to the safety of travel… I turned around. There, across the other platform, was my Brunhilde who owed her job to the Equality Program. She waved. I waved back. I even blew her a kiss. And I seriously considered stepping down again, and asking her to marry me.

But then, I figured that there must be a clause in the Estatut de los Trabajadores which categorically forbids Employees to marry Customers (those mud stains on the gene-pool). So I went to Lisbon instead, to sing Fados with an old girlfriend from my days in the Revoluciaoao das Claveles (or however the Lusitanians spell their history).

Efficiency? There you have Spanish efficiency, my dear Colin. And – of course – Portuguese, Italian, Southern French, and more such countries who take their cues from Ancient Rome. It works because of personal sympathy of some. Which compensates for the below-zero planning, foresight and uppity attitudes towards customers of others.

Daily it surprises me that the place keeps afloat!

ABM 

Editor’s note: I must say my own experiences with RENFE are rather happier. Perhaps I have a nicer face than Alfie's.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Spain, like Russia, had a keen interest in knowing whether the International Court of Justice was going to pronounce the independence of Kosovo legal or illegal. As it was the former, there will be concern here that, especially ahead of an election year, this will put more wind in the already-billowing sails of those in Cataluña demanding secession from Spain. As things stand, neither Spain nor Russia have recognised Kosovo, even though 22 of the 27 EU states have. And even though Brussels is calling for unanimous acceptance. Later maybe. After the elections.

I’ve received a glossy communication from Citibank, telling me how important I am to them and giving me a number to call should I ever have one of a wide range of problems. Nice but I’d be more convinced they had my interests at heart if the number weren’t premium rate.

Here’s a brief follow-up to yesterday’s dissertation on Efficiencies and Inefficiencies in Spain:-  
There was one general consideration I forgot to mention. The Spanish love to talk. Those who know me will retort, I’m sure, that this is rich coming from me. But, then, I know that there’s a time and a place for everything. So do the Spanish, of course, but we draw the line in different places. This is illustrated nicely by the following comparison:- If you stop your car in the middle of the road because you’ve seen a friend with whom you’d like a five minute chat, the drivers behind you will wait patiently until you’ve finished. If you delay five seconds at a green light, the sky will fall on you.

If you combine the personal approach with the love of chatting, you get the sort of experience where you have to re-start your conversation numerous times because the person you’re talking to responds to and chats to everyone who phones or comes in to interrupt you. Very civil (to them, if not you) but not very efficient. Even less efficient, of course, is allowing yourself to be knocked out of your stride by every conceivable verbal interruption when you're, say, writing a report.

Anyway, courtesy of several readers, here are more things to go with yesterday’s:-

USUALLY INEFFICIENT

Cafés:I forgot to include them yesterday.
Mail delivery of letters from abroad:Two to three days is the norm.
Banks. Excellent on-line: Can make payments anywhere in Eurozone free and instantaneous, with confirmation e-mail sent to payee. Accounts updated in real-time

USUALLY INEFFICIENT

Mail delivery of magazines from abroad: Several weeks or never.
Paradors: Because they’re government owned and the staff are civil servants
Couriers: Useless. Seem to go into "nobody at home" mode if your house isn't conveniently situated.
Telefónica. As it used to be known. Now Movistar.
TV industry: Inability to find programmes scheduled until day of broadcast, showing same event on two channels; ignoring other sports (motor cycling last weekend)

Finally, to reward those who got this far, here's a foto of my sun-worshipping neighbour, at 7.30 this morning . . .

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Well, I promised a short dissertation on Efficiencies and Inefficiencies in Spain and here it is. Or at least a first stab at it. But first a preamble . . .

For clarity, this exercise has been prompted by reader Moscow’s complaint that (in my words) I and other Brits are both too critical of Spain and too rosy-eyed about life in Britain. Well, I personally don’t view Spain against the backcloth of a perfect Britain. Very far from it, in fact. So I leave comparisons to others. I try below to look at Spain in isolation.

That said, I can hardly avoid forming views based on attitudes developed elsewhere.

Nor can I avoid the fact that I am a pretty impatient person with high standards, though arguably less so than I was when younger.

The first problem you come up against when addressing this issue is that, wherever you live, much of life is a trade-off. To be specific, in the Spanish culture there can be more important things than efficiency. Putting this another way, the absence of efficiency is not always a negative. For example, you may have to wait to get your car’s tank filled with petrol (gas) by an attendant but this is arguably less unpleasant than having to do it yourself.

In similar vein, you quickly realise that, as one of the defining aspects of Spanish culture is the more relaxed attitude to time, it’s hardly surprising that life here moves at a slower pace and generally seems less efficient than elsewhere. Especially if most people you deal with are so relaxed about time they’re invariably late. Few people here seem to think that “Time is money”. And life is often less stressful as a result. Another big positive.

Then there’s the Spanish emphasis on the personal and the very strong preference for doing things face-to-face. This again can be much more pleasant than the phone, letters or emails but it absorbs more of your time and, if this is a precious commodity to you, you will find it irritatingly inefficient.

Then there are the frequently-cited factors of cronyism and the absence of a belief in meritocracy. Taken together, they can (and do) mean that the best person doesn’t always get a job that’s going here. Which is unlikely to be a positive influence when it comes to efficiency of performance.

Finally, there’s the corruption that has become such a feature of local, regional and national Spanish politics over the past decade of economic boom. As with cronyism, this is not a factor than be expected to militate in favour of optimisation and efficiency. Except for those doing the bribing, of course.

The net result of my analysis is an overall conclusion that remains what it has been for a long time – viz. that things can be pretty inefficient at times here but that often this doesn’t matter because other considerations take precedence, even for me. As I’ve frequently said, this is because as a retiree I can adopt the Spanish attitude to time. And because I’ve learned to manage my expectations. And to carry reading matter with me wherever I go.

To get specific, here’s a complete mish-mash of macro and micro considerations, reflecting my personal experiences, perceptions, attitudes and prejudices:-

USUALLY EFFICIENT

Bars
Restaurants. Especially menús del día.
Hotels
Utility companies. Especially in taking money from my account before I’ve got the bill!
Bank cash machines. Lots of these, though it’s important to use the right chain.
Private medicine. I’m not allowed to use the Spanish health service.
Pharmacies. Though very slow at times.
Trains – Local and national
Fiestas. Anything connected with fun is usually well done in Spain.
Concerts. Ditto.
The international wine, olive oil and fish industries (and doubtless several more)
The road construction industry
The prostitution industry, if the numbers involved are anything to go on.
The TV industry. Ruthlessly efficient at showing ads.
The ad industry. Highly regarded internationally, I believe.
The newspaper industry. Not sure there’s any day of the year when there’s no edition.
Street cleaning. Exemplary.
Long distance road travel. Magnificent roads, many of them new.
The traffic police. At least when it comes to speeding fines.
The national and major city football teams

NOT USUALLY EFFICIENT

Spanish bureaucrats: Whether at the local, regional or national level. Paper mad. Deliberately slow so as to preserve jobs and expand empires. Same as everywhere in the world, only worse than most.
Turismo offices: Sometimes seem to operate more for the benefit of the employees than tourists
Banks. Also wallow in paper. Dealing with a branch of your bank other than where you live can be a calvario.
Shops. Attitudes are almost invariably pleasant but efficiency can be something else.
Notaries. Still in the 19th century. Where, in fact, they belong.
Companies which don’t reply to your letters or emails. Possibly the majority.
Estate agents (Realtors). Take a huge fee for doing very little other than maintaining loose-leaf binders or, if you’re lucky, a disorganised computer database which you can take a look at if you go to their office. No brochures. No real initiatives based on the listing of your criteria.
The judicial system: I have no personal experience but it’s reputed to be very slow and inefficient.
The property sales statistics industry. No one believes their numbers.
Driving. At least when it comes to the use of indicators.
The education system. If the international ratings are to be believed.
The property construction industry. Seems to take ages to complete projects and, judging by the piles of materials that lie around for a long time, there must be project coordination problems
Public works projects. Ditto.
The post office. Mail doesn’t arrive until around noon and parcels from the UK rarely arrive at all. Though they could go missing in Britain, of course.
The local police. At least when it comes to enforcing parking and noise laws.

By pure coincidence, I’ve just read an article on Oberg’s phases of ‘culture shock’. These are:-
1. Honeymoon
2. Rejection.
3. Regression. You forget about problems you had in your own culture and heavily criticise your new
    one
4. Recovery. More comfortable. You may even prefer some of the new things about your life
5. Reverse culture shock. No longer comfortable in your home culture.

For what it’s worth, I regard myself as being firmly in Phase 5.

That’s it. Comments and contributions welcome. I will collate them tomorrow, along with those I already have.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My mobile phone company, Orange, tells me they’d like to reward my fidelity. Not the fidelity of the last few years, you understand, but my fidelity of the next twelve months. To benefit from this largesse, all I have to do is contractually commit to them for this period. So, not so much a reward as a bribe. Or at least an inducement. But that’s marketing for you.

It must be summer. Both the French and the Spanish air-traffic controllers are on strike. Or bunking off sick in large numbers. Which amounts to the same thing. You’d never guess there’s a recession on in both countries and that security of employment is a widespread concern. Unless you’re hard to get rid of, of course.

I mentioned last night that local councils around Spain are running very short of cash. In this article Mark Stucklin reports on a new scheme some of them have lighted on. Which will surely catch on, given the identity of the victims.

If you haven’t already seen it, you might like to scroll down to a post I made earlier today, inviting contributions to a survey of both efficient and inefficient aspects of life in Spain. My thanks to those who’ve written already.

Finally . . . Because I think of nothing else to write, here’s a bit of doggerel I like:-
Before your mind just drifts away,
Reflect a while upon your day.
And ask yourself if you can say
“I brightened up two lives today”.

Well, did you?
This is another extra post. The real one will be along tonight.

If you follow the comments to this blog, you’ll know that reader Moscow and I have recently exchanged views on efficiency in Spain and the UK.

This got me thinking about trying to open this up to something more scientific. After all, a market research sample of one is, as they say, useless. And doubling this ain’t much better.

So . . . How about we all try to concentrate on Spain and produce two lists. One of everything which anyone thinks operates efficiently here and one of everything which anyone thinks operates inefficiently. It won’t really be very much more scientific, of course, but at least it’ll be interesting. And maybe the collating of subjective views will produce something at least half objective.

The last thing I want this to end up as is a list of moans about Spain. I really would like people to balance negatives with positives. If you live here, it stands to reason that you have some of the latter.

I will post my lists tomorrow.

If you want to widen this to Positives and Negatives, then feel free to do so but the primary interest is in the issue of efficiency.

You can write either as a comment to this blog or to this email address. Click or C&P.

colindavies@terra.es

Some indication of where you live would allow us to take a stab at concluding how things differ around the country.

If you’re reading this, Ben, it would be interesting to know how Asturias compares with what you are used to in Madrid.

I emphasise that this is an exercise – open to all – about Spain per se. Not about how Spain compares with the UK nor how the UK compares with Spain.

Over to you. Though admittedly not with any great optimism.

Prove me wrong.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Local councils around Spain are reported to be finding it difficult to pay their bills. Especially the smaller ones. Councils, I mean. Not the bills. This problem is particularly acute here in Galicia, where there’s the highest density of tiny councils in the country. So, as with the troubled cajas/caixas (local savings banks) there's talk of amalgamation in the air.

Speaking of councils . . . I guess it all depends on where you are on the safety-obession v. pragmatism spectrum how you will respond to the news that few of these in Galicia seek any evidence of the safety of the fairground attractions which move around from town to town during the fiesta months. This, of course, has become a hot issue after the recent death of a child on one of these. Personally, I’m such a coward that I’ve never gone on any of them – even as a child. So it’s all academic to me. But I’ll be trying to keep my daughters off them in the future. And my grandchildren. Should I ever get any.

An article in El Pais yesterday was headlined “Why are we so bad at learning English?”. The usual suspects were arraigned and, thank God, the ridiculous theory that Spaniards are genetically disadvantaged was rejected out of hand. The writer stressed that the huge Franco-inspired dubbing industry has done Spanish kids no favours at all, in contrast with their peers in neighbouring Portugal. True, but does anyone see anything changing in the foreseeable future? Just a few tears now and another bout of soul-searching in a few years time.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times over the years that Spanish cartoonists always portray capitalists in 19th century US garb, complete with stovepipe hat. I was reminded of this today by this comment in a British newspaper . . “Just as in cartoons burglars still wear striped jerseys, so only in our imaginations do ironmongers wear brown warehouse coats and milkmen white coats and peaked caps.”

I doubt there’s a greengrocer's shop in Spain these days which doesn’t ask you to use plastic gloves when handling the produce. I have to confess I never have. But this is because I select by sight, not feel, and thus always buy the item I pick up. Until today, that is. When I used a glove to break off a piece of ginger from a large hand of the stuff. Only to have the checkout girl take it from me with coin-besmirched fingers and put it on the bare weighing machine. Perhaps she realised that ginger has a protective skin. And perhaps she didn’t.

Finally . . . From a notice on the gates of the town cemetery I learned today that even the dead in Spain have summer hours for visits. Presumably to allow them a clear run through to a night on the slabs.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Understandably, the Spanish have had a long affair with the EU. Quite apart from the material aspect of all the bunce received, there’s been the emotional aspect of a the link with the post-Franco nascent democracy. So there was never going to be an abrupt volte-face once things began to go economically sour here. But there has been a marked increase in the number of articles critical of Germany generally and of its less-than-fraternal attitudes to her southern EU partners in particular. Most recently there was an analysis of Germany’s growing relationship with Russia and the negative implications of this for an EU common energy policy. One’s used to seeing this sort of stuff in the British press, of course, and maybe it appears in the French press as well. But it’s an interesting new development here. Evidence of maturity, one could say. As well as irritation.

A couple of interesting Galician statistics recently reported:-
1. Last year the number of civil marriages exceeded that of church marriages for the first time, and
2. More land here has be re-categorised in the last ten years than in all of Galicia’s previous history. I’m guessing this has gone primarily – if not exclusively – from ‘rural’ to ‘urban’. Meaning, of course, that it can now be built on. One wonders why. And how. But one has one's suspicions.

On a road out of Pontevedra they recently built a roundabout to force cars to slow down on a dangerous stretch. It certainly worked at 2.30 on Sunday morning, when a BMW M3 hit it and then bounced off a nearby wall. The police say they suspect the 29 year-old driver was driving somewhat above the 40kph limit. One person was killed and two seriously injured. All that was left of the car was the rear end, from the foto of which I could see its six highly polished exhaust-pipe ends. Which look pretty but are not very useful when you hit a brick wall. Not for the first time, I wondered how a young man gets to own such a car in this ‘poor’ region of Spain.

Which remind me . . . It’s been a regular complaint of hoteliers and restaurant owners over the years here in Galicia that young Spanish people are simply not interested in taking on temporary summer jobs. Hence the number of South Americans working along our coast. It’ll be interesting to see whether tougher times force parents to tell their kids to get out and work, as they routinely do in Anglo-Saxon countries. But I wouldn’t bet on it. I guess it’s more likely unemployed adults will take on the jobs.

I spoke too soon, of course, about the electricity company. This month’s estimate is 50% more than it should be and bears no relation at all to my consumption over the last ten years. If I thought I’d get a decent answer - or any answer at all - I’d ask them how they arrived at it.

Finally . . . My friend Alfie Mittington has dropped me this line on the Spanish economy. I feel he’s a tad extreme with his views and wonder how Moscow, for one, will react. But I must admit to a certain pessimism myself on the prospects for good, sustainable growth here over the next ten years. Possibly the famous 10-20% of the population who work at least as hard and as well as anyone in the world will pull us through. Or perhaps the enormous - and arguably more efficient - black economy will do the trick. Vamos a ver.

Meanwhile . . Heeeere’s Alfie!


Dear Colin,

Only this morning I got around to reading the El Pais article you recommended the other day. I’ll leave aside the question of whether international image, self-image and the ‘feel’ of things is really so important to a country’s prospects. What I winced at, however, is the notion, voiced by most of the spokespeople quoted, that ‘we didn’t do all that badly during the last 30 years’.

This self-congratulatory pep-talk surely goes down well with the ‘collectively depressed’, and up to a point it is, of course, deserved. But the dark sides of this Spanish Wirdshaftswunder do not get mentioned and, since they spell trouble for the decades ahead, it’s not redundant to mention a few of them. Such as:

1. The Spanish Wirdshaftswunder was fuelled, not only by hard work, hard decisions and good investment, but also by billions of annual subsidies out of the pockets of Northern taxpayers, by way of Brussels. As Kanzler Schröder once quipped in response to some grinning self-praise by Mr Zapatero: Give me so much free money every year and I can also build a booming economy out of zilch. Or words to that effect.

2. For all the booming GDP, the tripling average income, the conquering Spanish multinationals and the ever-lasting applause, 20% of Spanish adults AND 25% OF SPANISH CHILDREN live below the poverty threshold. I did not make this up. Neither did the opposition. These are numbers from the UN and other international monitoring bodies. This after 35 years of democracy, 20 years of Socialist rule, and 15 under the True Believers in Trickle-Down Economics! Shameful!

3. In Spain efficiency is below zero; corruption, nepotism and favouritism omnipresent; impunity near total. This one I did make up myself, but I invite anybody to deny it. A country which has no justice, no honesty and no efficiency will never truly thrive.

4. Spanish education is the worst in Europe except for Northern Moldavia or some such operetta republic. It is forever the plaything of ideologues; run by the lazy and the untalented (Ooops! They might throw me in jail for this insult to teachers!); while the simple acquisition of skills and knowledge is treated as a secondary priority. This inspires great hope for Spain’s future in the world of the Knowledge Economy.

5. The Spanish Miracle over the last 30 years was made possible by a blatant slash-and-burn attitude towards the environment. As Greenpeace calculated: on the Spanish coast alone, the equivalent of some 7 soccer-fields are being ploughed under concrete every day. In places like Andalucia and Valencia, the greater part of the coast-line is already ‘developed’. This is not merely appalling; it also means that, once the economy tries to pick up again, you’ll have trouble finding new areas to slash and burn!

So does it make sense to hold your breath until the crisis blows over, and then to go back to business as usual? Personally I feel that a nation not only gets the government it deserves, but also the economy. Spain is ‘living in interesting times’. 

Alfred ‘the Great Provoker’ Mittington

Author of ‘Adam Smith and the Stealth of Nations’

Sunday, July 18, 2010

During Spain’s economic boom, some of us felt things were not as good as they seemed. Now there’s a recession, I wonder whether things (eg 20% unemployment) are quite as bad as they seem. It’s certainly easy to think not in a city like Pontevedra, where most people have safe jobs as civil servants. But I’m prompted to pose this question by the news that, whereas car sales in June were down everywhere else in Europe, they rose by 7% here in Spain. This surely can’t be all down to dug dealers and crooked politicians.

One area where things are biting is the Spanish leading football league, La Primera Liga. In which several clubs (including Galicia’s Deportivo) are under threat of relegation if they don’t settle their debts by early August.

Talking of August . . . This is, of course, the big fiesta month here in Pontevedra. But, recession or not, there’s never a good reason for not starting the fun in early-mid July. And so it is this year. Some of my local friends have looked at the program for daily events and suggested the council is skimping this year but, if so, I certainly can’t see it. Perhaps the acts are cheaper. All I can say is that they started to close off roads and impose parking restrictions yesterday. Roll on September. Oh, no we have the Medieval Fair (Feira Franca) early that month. And someone may well have invented a couple of “traditional” activities for the rest of the month by the time it arrives. 

El País today published the results of their own poll on the big State of the Nation debate in parliament this week. They claim the leader of the opposition, Sr Rajoy, didn’t in fact win the tussle with incumbent, under-performing President Zapatero but, for the fifth year in a row, lost it. Though more narrowly than previously. The paper adds that the popularity ratings of both men are very low and that 37% of the people think neither of them beat the other. So, if it’s true that nations get the politicians they deserve, the Spanish public surely has a lot to answer for. A very high tolerance of corruption being one of them, I believe.

Finally . . . Walking my dog to the end of the cul-de-sac in which I live this morning, I surprised an amorous couple who’d decided to park up there. Amongst other things. But, hey, this is Spain and anything goes. Live and let live. Even if the horses get frightened.

Finally, finally . . . . This is actually the second post of the day. I published some Pontevedra fotos earlier on. So, if interested, scroll down. Unless your Sr Cade. In which case you can troll down. Or not. Who cares?
This is a three-part Foto Special. The regular post will follow tonight.

PONTEVEDRA’S BEGGARS

Here are a few of the characters I’ve mentioned in recent months:-

One of the well-dressed men who sit on a doorstep all day, with a placard in front of them saying they have no resources.


The guy who importunes folk with young kids and twists balloons for them.


One of the young men who blow into a tube and move their fingers over the holes in it. Regularly seen across the river with his scrawny dog, going to or coming from the gypsy encampment near my house in Pijolandia.


The bag-man who stands all day, every day at one of the narrow exits from the main square, jangling change in his hand.


That foto was taken yesterday and here’s one taken today. As you can see, he's wearing the same filthy clothes. But, then, he’s worn them for years and years. Strangely enough, he’s not covered in flies. Even more strangely, perhaps, he’s reading El País.


PONTEVEDRA’S GRAFITTI

Another feature of the city I’ve mentioned from time to time. The first one has been posted before so apologies to those who’ve already seen it:-






Some of you will have noted that someone in the last two is being accused of being gay. Possibly the same person. But someone else has had the decency to blot out the name.

BAGPIPES AND STUFF

Here’s a typical group of local musicians, who were playing in the squares of the old quarter yesterday.


And here’s a duo playing in mufti today, near an exhibition of instruments used for traditional Galician music.


And here are a few of said instruments.





I guess it’d be accurate to say all these have Celtic connotations. And that both the costumes which the group is wearing and the instruments go back to at least, well, the 18th century.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Reading Richard Ford’s 1855 Handbook for Travellers in Spain, I was pleased to see his positive description of the Bierzo region of Galicia as “One of the most interesting nooks in the whole peninsula.” Less impressive was his complaint that, although it was an ideal place to grow strawberries, the locals weren’t up to it. But he does confirm that Galician would have become the language of the entire peninsula if only Alonso El Sabio (The Wise) hadn’t plumped to have his legal codes drawn up in Castellano.

Back in the present day . . . Spain’s newspaper editors seem to have had one of those swings of attitude I mentioned yesterday. Now that the government has said it plans to ban the salacious ads which bring them so much revenue, the Association of Newspaper Editors has decided that prostitution is immoral and should be made illegal. Quite what their logic might be is rather lost on me.

Finally . . . Given the ambivalence of many Spaniards to their Arabic heritage, there has so be something ironic about the ladies of Pontevedra putting so much effort into making themselves look Moroccan once the summer sun has arrived. With great success, it has to be said. And mighty fine they look too.

Friday, July 16, 2010

It seems that a bidding war has broken out for Paul the prescient octopus. As one octopus looks much like another to me, I trust the winner is prepared to invest in some DNA testing before handing over the cash.

Well, President Zapatero’s handling of the Spanish economy may not have been exemplary but at least, as a good socialist, his heart’s in the right place. He announced yesterday, at the end of the State of the Nation debate in parliament, that his government intends to put an end to the pages and pages of ads for whores and brothels at the back of most Spanish newspapers. Well, we will see. It’s possible the measure will be muscled out by even more important matters, now that the good times are well and truly over. And bad times forecast to get even worse.

Incidentally, the public is reported to have made the leader of the Opposition the victor in his personal battle with Sr Zapatero in this debate. But only just. Which is hardly impressive, given that the Opposition has an eight percentage points lead over the government in the polls. But then, hard as this is to believe, the personal rating of the said Opposition leader is even lower than that of the President. I guess the PP party would get rid of him immediately if there really were a sensible alternative.

After Spain had lost their first match in the World Cup to Switzerland, a wave of pessimism seemed to sweep over the country. Only to be replaced by an equally extreme sense of optimism and confidence just before the final with Germany. I was reminded of this when reading of national mood swings in this interesting article in today’s El País. The writer makes the point that Spain had excellent growth before the introduction of the euro ushered in the phoney construction boom that peaked in 2007. There is much to be proud of, she asserts, and the Spanish should not be as pessimistic and as self-flagellatory as they are. Well, maybe, but as even she admits, the widespread corruption of the last ten years has left them justifiably sceptical that their political class has the solutions to Spain’s deep problems. Which, I guess, is why the personal ratings of both major party leaders are so low.

Meanwhile, though, and at a macro level, Spain is having no difficulty in selling debt to the Chinese and to sovereign funds in Arab countries. I can’t help wondering whether the latter, recognising there’s no other way of restoring Al-Ándalus, are planning on getting the country back by buying it in a fire sale.

Finally . . . Are these tiny steps in the direction of real customer orientation? For the first time in eighteen months or so, my electricity supplier didn’t overestimate my usage last month and charge me accordingly. And my water company hasn’t increased its fixed costs this year but, instead, has raised the unit cost of a cubic litre of water for amounts above a certain level. Finally I’m not subsidising people who use ten times more than me. Or not as much as I have been anyway. Of course, I only know this because I have the time and inclination to study my bills. Spanish companies don't often write to their customers, either with good news or bad news. Not that there's ever a lot of the former.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It’s reported that “Spain's banks have relied more heavily on ECB funding as fears about their solvency have made credit on the wholesale financial markets more difficult to come by.” The Spanish president – Sr Zapatero - insists this situation will change when the bank stress test results are published soon and everyone will come to share his view that every rose in the Spanish garden is healthy. He has admitted, though, it’s been “a difficult, black year”. Thus proving what we all know – that’s he’s a hell of a lot better at looking backwards than forwards.

Which reminds me . . . It’s been announced recently that Spain’s troubled cajas (savings banks) will soon be able to sell up to 50% of their equity to private investors. But, given they’ll remain the playthings of local politicians, the general view is that no one sensible would want to put money in them. But we will see. Maybe it really is “too little, too late”. Which some would see as the personal philosophy of said Sr. Z.

It’s commonly said that drug-taking in Spain is second only to the UK in Europe. Which makes this controversial article from Qorreo all the more interesting.

Finally . . . A couple of public service announcements:-

1. RIP

It falls to me to announce the sudden death of Cade Seipas, one of the more prolific - if idiosyncratic - commentators to this blog. Indeed, his demise occurred not long after he had posted his final contribution.

Cade passed away in his sleep around midnight. As in life, so in death; he was completely alone and uncared for.

Doctors initially attributed the death to a brain tumour but, when the autopsy revealed the absence of a brain in the cranium, this theory was discounted, in favour of excessive self-and-other abuse. Which caused a few problems in the completion of the death certificate.

Cade was the founder, President – indeed the only member – of a sub-sub-sub-sub group of a tiny band of people known (very) commonly as Galician Nationalists. In this cause, there was nothing – no matter how stupid and offensive – he was prepared to keep to himself. Indeed, it's now thought he suffocated on his own verbal vomit.

Cade will be sorely missed. If only by himself.

Notwithstanding this sad death, I am sure Cade's pronouncements will continue to echo - unheard - around the ether.

Readers should feel free to post their own tributes to this remarkable but now extinct creature.

2. Over-inflated tyres

Back down on earth  . . . If you’re driving a car in Galicia – and possibly anywhere in Spain – it’s quite likely your tyres have been over-inflated by the tyre shop or garage servicing your car. So, just in case this doesn’t worry you, here’s a list of the possible consequences from the web:-
- Over-inflated tyres don’t grip the road as well. There is less traction and poorer handling. Poor road conditions such as a wet or icy road magnify this problem, making it more likely you'll have an accident.
- Over-inflation causes tyres to overheat and increases the risk of a puncture. This could lead to loss of control and a serious accident.
- The tread wears out faster in the centre of the tyre. You'll need to replace the tyres sooner, an expensive penalty
- Over-inflated tyres, being stiffer and more rigid, are also more susceptible to damage from hitting pot-holes or striking curbs.

So, you might want to take a look at your tyres tomorrow. If not, don't blame me if you kill yourself. And are condemned to listen to Mr Cade for the rest of eternity.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Click here for a nice comment on the Spain’s World Cup triumph against the backcloth of the various economic and political problems being (mis)managed by President Zapatero.

My final word on football . . . It was nice to see a Spanish columnist giving some credit for the current Spanish style not only to the ‘total football’ of the Dutch teams of the 70s but also to the English team of 1966. As everyone knows, this was the first to play without traditional wingers and had a midfield team of Ball, Peters, Hurst and Greaves which the writer felt was the predecessor of that of Busquets, Alsonso, Xavi and Iniesta. He also saw Del Bosque as a similar manager to Ramsey. Who am I to argue?

My fellow blogger in Santiago/Ourense (Xoán-Wahn) has introduced me to hipocoristicos, which are essentially familiar diminutives of first names. You can read about them here at Wikipedia.es. For now, here’s just a short list of some of the strangest ones for Spanish males. As you can see, the ‘ch’ sound is much favoured for this process:-
Anastasio – Tacho
Ángel – Gelu/Golu
Benjamín – Mincho
Daniel - Mampo, Mampiño, Mampao, Mampuñen
Horatio - Lacho
Inonencio – Chencho [Is anyone really called this these days?]
José – Pepe [There actually is a certain logic to this. Think Joseph and padre putativo]
Luis - Huicho/Güicho
Raúl – Chinchoso
Ricardo – Yayo
Vicente – Titín

And here’s just one amusing feminine one:-
Lucía Fernanda – Lucifer.

Hard as this may be for anyone familiar with the Spanish statistics to believe, it’s reported that the number of women involved in prostitution here has increased during the recession. Logically I guess, the business is moving into private flats. And the percentage of Spanish women involved (traditionally very low) is also rising. Which is all very sad.

For some years now, I’ve been putting food out for the birds in the garden. Which probably explains why I have a community of at least forty house-sparrows living somewhere on the top of my house. But I’ve been a bit slack recently and I suspect this is why my old dog barely finishes eating before a brown horde descends on his dish to seize the leftovers. As least, I’d assumed they were leftovers but I guess it’s possible the spadgers have learned to intimidate him by mobbing him as he tries to eat. Either way, I don’t mind about our feathered friends. But the rats coming up from the drains are another thing and I’ve declared war on them today. It’s 1-0 so far. Which is what we call a “Spanish score” in the trade.

By the way . . . In case any of you have googled, this is a spadger. Not this.

Finally, here’s an article explaining why there are more pilgrims than ever this year on the various caminos to Santiago. And, inevitably, here’s the link to the write-up of my own recent experience. Just in case you missed any of the earlier ones . ..

Finally, finally . . . My thanks to whoever it was wrote directly to me from the USA about the vuvuzela possibly being banned. WorldBook.com tells me I have a message from you but won’t give me access to it so that I can reply. I’ve no idea whether this is a general problem or whether you’re being specifically penalized.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Just in case anyone’s that interested, here’s an article sympathetic to the challenge faced by the (English) referee to the Holland v. Spain World Cup Final on Sunday night. In a word, it was a bitch of a match. But with the Dutch as the main culprits, does that make it a butch of a match? You decide.

One Spanish article I read listed all the mistakes the writer felt the odious Mr Webb had made. Except the one of missing Iniesta possibly being offside when he scored the only goal. Funny that. But, anyway, we all agree that the right team won and that Spain deserved to become champions for the quality of the football they play. Even the Dutch. And it was a joy to witness the nationwide celebrations of the achievement.

I actually watched the game with three Dutch folk (volk?) and so it wasn’t surprising that the room didn’t exactly resound to complaints about outlandish (or even Netherlandish) tactics. There was some talk of the referee being too harsh and Spaniards going down like sissies but I took this to be irony. If I’d been back in Pontevedra, I’d have joined Spanish friends in the main square to watch the match on a big screen there. Which only happened, I heard today, as a result of pressure from the Pontevedra provincial government. For, in a pathetic attempt to emulate what they must see as Catalan statesmanship, the local BNG nationalist party which runs the city had tried to stop this. As a result of which, I’m betting their share of the vote in the next regional elections will fall below the mere 14-15% they got last time round. It’s tough being a nationalist party when even you don’t demand secession but they are their own worst enemies at times.

I was going to mention the reports of our neighbours in northern Portugal being close to revolt against what they see as neglect on the part of the government down in Lisbon but then came a rather more interesting item – viz. that “Playboy magazine is terminating its Portuguese edition after an outcry over a photo-shoot depicting Jesus Christ alongside topless models”. This, it seems, was part of a somewhat misguided tribute to the recently deceased author José Saramago. More here. With pictures.

Another language difference . . . In English, if you are rapacious, you’d sell your grandmother. In Spanish, it’s your mother. Freud could probably have explained this.

Finally, driving up into the hills today, I felt my car was handling a little differently from usual. Recalling it had been serviced on Friday, I checked the tyres. To find they were all more than 25% over-inflated. This, of course, happens every time you have new tyres put on in a workshop here. But this was the dealer who sold me the car in the first place. So I’m left with the question – Is there a universal belief in Spain either that all tyres should be over-inflated? Or, alternatively, does everyone here really believe that all cars of whatever make and size should have their tyres inflated to exactly the same pressure? If so, why? Or is it just Galicia?

Monday, July 12, 2010

No prizes for guessing what event fills the newspapers and TV in Spain today, to the virtual exclusion of all else. Presumably the world has stopped turning.

But, anyway . . . . Right result. Wrong match.

And now it seems the two nations can agree on only one thing – that the (English) referee was dreadful. The Dutch say he was a “media chump” and the Spanish insist he was a brilliant accomplice to the wretched tactics of the men from the (very) Low Countries. Indeed, article after article in the Spanish press give the impression the consensus here is that at least two of the Dutch team should have been sent off during the first half and most of the rest during the second. Even though this would have made the game a nonsense and given Spain an empty victory. That said, no sooner had the final whistle gone than my younger daughter called me from the UK to say the commentators there had said at the end of full time it was remarkable Holland still had eleven men on the field. So I guess the truth lies somewhere between the Dutch and Spanish views. And my sympathies go to the hapless Mr Webb, who’d said before the match he’d be happiest if there was no need to mention his name after it. As it is, the man who gave a record 13 yellow cards will always be remembered in Spain as the ludicrously lenient protagonista negativo of the match. So naturally lenient, in fact, that his wife had claimed he couldn’t control his own children. Who said Spain doesn’t have an Anglo-type tabloid press? Oh, it was me.

I guess that, if all the Dutch players had actually been sent off during the 90 minutes, there’d have been less concern about the Spanish team being able to convert their fabulous footwork into goals. A shortcoming which kept all of us chewing on our nails – at least metaphorically – right up to the bitter end of extra time.

Anyway . . . Here’s a couple of articles from a UK perspective. Neither of them particularly sympathetic to the Dutch tactics or their morning-after perspective. From the left-of-centre Guardian and the right-of-centre Telegraph. As one commentator put it, at least the Dutch have taken from the English the accolade of being the most deluded about the quality of their football.

Up behind Pontevedra - in the mountain town of Carballiño, famous for its octopus cooking - the residents have offered 30,000 euros for Prophetic Paul. It's not clear whether they want to display or eat him. If the latter, he'd surely be delicious.

Finally . . . An (English) friend has told me a story which may well be the definitive illustration of the relationship between noise and fun here in Spain. This, he swears, was a conversation between him and his (Spanish) girlfriend this weekend. I’ll leave you to decide what they were up to at the time:-
Him: Sweetheart, could you keep the noise down a bit?
Her: ?Por que?
Him: Well, the windows are open.
Her: ?Y que!¿
Him: Well the neighbours might be a bit disturbed.
Her: ?Y que!¿

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Well, the big news around here is, of course that I’ve finished my write up of the Camino I did recently with friends and have managed to resolve the problem of recalcitrant fotos that didn’t want to be published. You can see it here.

The other big news is that the angry Catalan reaction to the recent pronouncements of the Constitutional Court on their new Statute appears to have grown with the publication of the full judgement. At least among the political class. A propos, here’s an article from Qorreo on the subject. As the writer says, everyone in this imbroglio seems to be a loser. Perhaps that’s why the judgement was four years coming.

Another interesting article I read today was this one from Mark Stucklin on the possibility of a debate in the Spanish parliament on the notorious Coastal Law of 1989. The one which has helped produce the property abuses for which Spain is now (in)famous. Incidentally, someone somewhere has accused the Spanish “land grab” laws of the south east as being comparable to Mugabe’s policies in Zimbabwe. President Zapatero has naturally denied this. So it can’t be true.

Every time I read about salaries and benefits now prevailing in the British civil service and public sector, it strikes me that – whatever the level of euroscepticism in the UK might be – there’s certainly been a lot of convergence with the Continental model of government. Here’s a quote from an article by one commentator this morning:- “Civil servants' pension schemes are out of control, with the cost of topping them up rising from £4.6 billion in 2001 to £9.4 billion in 2015. The Public Sector Pension Commission described them as operating "like an unstable Ponzi scheme, [which] will only work if tomorrow's generations are able to stomach a higher cost to pay for the unfunded promises made today". Under the disgraceful stewardship of Mr Brown and Tony Blair, more than 900,000 jobs were added to the state's wage bill. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts that about 500,000 of these will be lost as George Osborne and Danny Alexander try to restore sanity to the Treasury madhouse. The trouble is, we can neither afford to keep them nor get rid of them, because many civil servants are entitled to three years' salary if made redundant. In some cases, the payoff is six and a half years of income. This is way beyond outrageous.” So much for the days of swapping income for job security.

Finally . . . My Vigo friend Anthea reports in a recent blog that she’s experienced one of the few forms of begging yet to reach us here in Pontevedra. Though I could be wrong on this; I don’t live in a downtown flat – “There was a ring at the doorbell. When we opened the door there was a fairly crestfallen chap there, reasonably respectable looking, who explained that he lived in the block next door, had been out of work for 6 months, owed three months rent and was asking the neighbours to contribute to his collection. Really? A bit unlikely. No chance! He carried a clipboard, a five euro note and a handful of change to give the impression others had already contributed. 10/10 for initiative but that’s all.”

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