Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Rainstorm

This was the view yesterday from my terrace during the freak rainstorm that washed Mojácar clean. In fact: not so clean, as mudslides and falling boulders blocked some of our roads for a while. Our 'dry riverbed', the optimistically called 'Rio de Aguas', lived up to its name for once and turned into a proper river as water flowed down from the interior. I shall have to dust off the old kayak. There are rumours of several house-floods, as water either came through the door or via some crack in the flat roof that all the homes in our town are obliged to feature, but we survived more or less unscathed.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to be Taken for a Spaniard

Forget learning a few words of Spanish and introducing a morning brandy into your café-life, there’s more to becoming a Spaniard than not turning green each time they put a bull-fight on the telly.
First of all, you have to look Spanish. Many people from foreign parts manage this easily enough, and the whole thing is, I agree, down to fate, but, if you look like a Swede, it doesn’t matter how fluent you might be in the language and culture, you will still be on the outside, looking in. In short, Mother Nature is cruel about our looks: take the case of two Nordic looking Spanish friends of mine. I once went out to some local dives in Marbella with these two work-colleagues, Alfonso and Juan. Alfonso is blond and has a beard. He comes from Motril. Juan is a redhead and is from Estepona. Me, I look like a Swede. After Alfonso was complimented on his Spanish for the third time (‘not bad – how long have you been in Spain…?'), and Juan was advised to try a glass of ‘we call this vee-no’, we decided to either split up – or to stick to the English bars.
My dad was once drinking in a bar in Murcia with some fellow who, as my father recalled later, ‘looked like a syphilitic Turkish tax-inspector’. ‘Where do you suppose I am from?’ asked the swarthy gentleman as he bought another round of drinks. ‘Denmark?’ suggested my father to his delighted companion, who triumphantly admitted that he was, in fact, a tax-inspector from Istanbul.
‘Spanish’ is not a language (it’s called ‘Castilian’ anyway), but a cultural identity. There is no point speaking it if you have nothing of value to say. You need context. Please don’t go on about Gordon Brown because no one in Spain has heard of him. Just say the same stuff but switch to Zapatero. In fact, try watching Spanish TV which not only helps you with the language, it also helps you with the culture, informs you about what’s going on around the corner and increases your enjoyment and understanding of this country. You can’t carry on living like an exile like a child pressing his nose to the glass of an English toyshop, missing 95% of what’s happening here (and who’s doing it), just for the sunburn.
To assimilate here – and I don’t mean just being able to buy a drink for the old shepherd who lives in the frightful dive across the hill and whose vocabulary is probably around a hundred words (say two weeks of study with a Donald Duck comic in Spanish) – you need to adopt a few new mannerisms. Three things spring to mind. The proper use of swear-words, never using a winker and the correct disposal of rubbish.


These are the Spanish equivalents of those naughty words that Spellcheck doesn’t like. All those three, four and six letter words that we learnt at a tender and impressionable age. Here, they don’t use asterisks. In Spanish – a wonderful language for swearing in – what might be considered as the harsher words to our way of thinking are here used to great and often gentle effect. You will find the most remarkable terms used towards friends and family, and I will, since the subject is considered disturbing in English, limit myself to just one example.
Lorenzo (a vile old boozer who lives across the way) was telling me about his lunatic and alarmingly cross-eyed son, who had, just that very morning, enjoyed a short conversation with his father about the colours of the sunrise as they briefly melted and blurred into the sides of the hill. ‘Si, hijo mio. Tienes razón coño’, his dad assured him. ‘Bloody right yes, you silly bastard’ would be an understatement as a direct translation, but, in effect, the old boy was really being quite understanding.

Traffic Matters

Never use your winker while driving. No one ever does. On roundabouts a winking car usually means a foreigner is driving, or else the winker has been on for months. Don’t trust it and expect anything. The only time it’s used is probably when the motorist says to himself ‘bugger me, I wonder what this knob does..?’ Actually, in the old days, when driving was a more neighbourly and enjoyable activity than it is today, when we had roads instead of sterile motorways with speed cameras hidden in bushes, when driving half-crocked was considered socially acceptable and people asked for a ride by standing in the middle of the highway, the winker was used by truck-drivers to allow you to overtake. The left-winker meant: ‘the road is empty ahead, please feel free to pass at your convenience’ – or perhaps it meant ‘I’m turning left and there’s a huge pantechnicon bearing down on you’ – or, as I’ve said, ‘help, my winker is stuck’. But that was then. Now, no one uses them. The horn, now there’s a useful button. Very handy for zebra crossings.

A Spreading Waste

The third vital thing to know, if you want to pass yourself off as a Spaniard, particularly one from the south, is the proper disposal of rubbish.
What you do is you throw it out of the nearest window.
This is the hardest of all to get right. Really. And you thought windows were for the view!
Bung it out the window or chuck it on the floor or dump it in the corner-
It’s starting to sound like a song, like the recipe for sangria (‘one of white and one of red…'). Everything must go.
The ditches are full of rubbish, with plastic bags gamboling playfully in the wind and empty beer cans rolling noisily across the highways of the province. Dead cats stare reproachfully at the traffic as empty disposable lighters bounce off their crushed skulls. Of course, it’s not just the Great Outside that’s brimming with junk that, all too rarely, receives a cursory scrape by order of the local government.
Although, we are beginning to see some small political will towards cleaning up, putting things in containers and bottle banks and generally looking like ‘somebody is doing something’.
I remember being given a gamba when I first came to Mojácar. I stripped it down, ate it and chooped the brains (as instructed), but then, feeling uncertain, I put the shattered remains, sticky legs and surviving goo discretely back onto the tapa-dish. No, no! On the floor! I learnt. With the rest of the junk. I had noticed that I was standing up to my ankles in paper, tooth-picks, stoppers, used lottery tickets, fines and pictures of Franco. But, soon enough, a drudge scuttled under me with her broom and plastic scoopy-thing leaving the scene fresh for further onslaught. Nowadays, they either don’t give you a tapa, or else there’s some little baskets invitingly scattered around below the bar, which appears to be a sensible arrangement.
At least, to a fellow who looks like a Swede.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Someone Sensible in Marbella

Some towns want foreigners – more than others. While places like the Catalonian town of Vic or the Madrid town of Torrejon de Ardoz are in the news at the moment for not allowing ‘illegal’ foreigners to register on the padrón – the town hall register of inhabitants – and what the hell is an illegal human being anyway? – others, like Marbella, are keen to match, as closely as possible, the legal number of inhabitants with the actual number.

The Marbella ‘councilor for tourism and extranjeros’ (sigh!), one José Luis Hernandez, says that ‘The fact that the residents, whether Spanish or foreign, don’t get on the padrón contributes towards a collapse in public services. For this reason, we have only half of the number of police that we need, or hospital beds, or courthouses, schools, taxis, buses and so on for a city of this size’.
Marbella has 140,000 inhabitants (from 130 nationalities) officially, but the service industries, such as the local garbage collection company, estimate a year-round population of some 235,000 souls.
Mojácar and many other towns where foreigners live, whether the ‘illegal’ ones who have come here to work without papers, or the comparatively rich ones who have transferred themselves from one European country to another, are failing to get everybody onto the padrón, and the whole community suffers as a direct result.
Curiously, Marbella excepting, no other ‘tourist’ or ‘foreigner’ town has made efforts to address this problem – perhaps concerned by the threat of the ‘uncontrolled vote’ of the foreigners.
Don’t worry Mr Mayor – we’d all vote for YOU.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Picture and a Thousand Words

Well yes, you can always find just the right photograph. This rather pugnacious one features in today's El Mundo (Andalucía) and heads a story about the demonstration yesterday in Almería City of a group of (generally speaking) Northern European property owners, whose properties have arbitrarily been classed by the regional government as 'ilegal', which means in English 'lacking in the correct paperwork'.
The properties, generally in out-of-the-way interior villages, were legal enough when they were being built, in fact, the town halls were overjoyed to see the stimulation of their shrinking and moribund pueblos as fresh money poured in creating a plethora of jobs and, indeed, taxes. Yes, here's the paperwork. They were legal enough as well when the promotors flew to strange towns in England and elsewhere to show their videos. They were legal when the local lawyers and notaries and town councillors checked the paperwork and they were legal when the homes were sold (those ones which were completed, but that's a different story).
But, it's the autonomous government which needs to be attended to. Yes, things were fine then, but, they're not fine now. Without the permits from Seville, you can't get electricity. Without the right paperwork, you can't get water. So, many retired people, safely installed in their new homes in Eastern Almería (or elsewhere) are on a generator. Or a hose-pipe. Or maybe, they've just been served demolition papers.
Others we know of (a story I heard again yesterday) buy their home and as the papers are processed, the agent or builder took out a fresh mortgage against the property which, it's so clear, the new and unconscious owner will have to deal with. Still other owners find part of their land taken in legal and town hall supported expropriation for commercial ends (known as 'Land Grab') where the dispossessed owner has to pay for the privilege.
So, while the newspaper may have chosen this picture to make some patriotic or jingoist point, the fact is, despite yesterday's march being entirely peaceful (how could it ever be otherwise?), it is also true that our demonstrator that models this picture has every right to be indignant.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The World is my Oyster

‘Yes, good afternoon’, says the phone in Spanish, ‘my name is Josefina. I would like to talk with the subscriber of this number, Don…’
‘Good afternoon…’
It was awhile after lunch and I’d just got into bed for an enjoyable siesta. After all, there’s one thing about Spain, people leave you alone after your midday meal so you can have a rewarding kip. I’m wrapped in a sheet, four blankets and a wooly hat. It’s cold this afternoon. And now the phone is ringing.
‘Lissen here, Alberta, or whuddever your name is, I don’t want anything. I’ve already got one. We are delighted with the service. Please go away’.
‘…with the subscriber of this number’.
‘Jiminy Cricket, Penélope, he’s away on his hols’.
‘When can I talk with…?’
‘Between us, Genoveva, he’s in the Tower of London having his toenails removed. Why don’t you call back when they’ve let him go, say in about ten year’s time?’
Don’t you just hate it? You’ve got all snuggly under the covers, the TV has been switched off, the dogs have had the scraps from a very satisfying lunch the remains of which is gently bubbling and writhing its affable way through your upper intestine. Even the last remaining fly of the season is comatose, wandering slowly around on the ceiling out of harm's way. Why would any person call at this time? Especially some girlie from the phone company. Don’t they sleep, these people?
I unplug the phone from the wall before Josefina can find any reinforcements and get back into bed. ‘It was a wrong number’ I tell my wife, who has managed to doze through the whole thing.
God I hate telemarketing. That fellow who rings once a month rain or shine and wants to help me invest my fortune on the Stock Market. The joker who tried to sell me a course in English (‘but I am English’, ‘Yes, but you could improve your language skills with our system’), the stupid people from the phone company who want only to be told how deliriously happy I am with their service. And they do not take ‘no’ for an answer. They will ring at the most inappropriate moments - rather like my bank manager come to think of it - and they will expect courtesy from your part.
Yesterday, somebody rang me with some sales gimmick… and suddenly put me on ‘hold’! It’s a wonder I didn’t ring him back.
The whole thing is worse than the spam you get on your emails, which is, at any rate, now pretty much under control these days. Nigerians, Russian girls and improbable prizes. In America you can now register your phone with the government with a program called ‘Do Not Call’, and sales-people will apparently voluntarily agree not to harass you. The only callers free from this are those who conduct surveys (‘Hello, what do you think about the new telemarketing laws?’) and, of course, political ‘vote for us’ calls.
Sometimes here in Spain, the telephone lady will insist on speaking to the ‘abonado’, the subscriber. Perhaps when I’ve neglected to pay the phone-bill. Sometimes I say I’m ‘me’, when the fact is I’m not, really. You see, there’s a small problem, as I never reported the passing of my dad to Telefonica, and so the listing remains in his name, some 23 years after his death.
Well, it seemed like too much of a performance, you know what they are like here: we just love that paperwork.
The other day, I had to go to the correos to pay the phone bill. They have a special thing on the post office computer: phone number, amount owed and the ‘NIE’ (tax number) of the subscriber. Click, fiddle and pay. All done, have a nice day. Unfortunately, I really didn’t have any idea of my Dad’s old residence card number and, without it, the computer will do its level best to shrug its shoulders and waggle its eyebrows. Can’t be done, Old Sport.
But here the mobile phone comes into its own.
‘Hello, can I speak to Josefina? Listen girl, do you remember me? Can you tell me my dad’s ID number because I’m in the GPO and I’m trying to pay the bill and, because the phone is cut, I can’t ring him and ask him what his…’
‘Really, that’s great, thanks’.
That’s right, she told me.
I get messages on the mobile phone as well, things with moving shapes, pictures, filmettes and text. I can’t see them, don’t want them and distrust their nasty ways. Where is the button to delete this stuff?
You want to watch out for these messages – the other day some company fired half its staff with an SMS.
Man, that saves some time and stamps!
The kids love it, though. They send meaningless tripe (I’m sorry, I meant ‘interesting messages of high social value’) to each other with a speed that is quite remarkable. The muscles they must develop in those thumbs!

My great grandfather was a journalist, and he was called along by Alex G Bell – apparently by a messenger pigeon – to witness the invention of the telephone. You probably know the story. Alex is standing there, surrounded by journalists – well, three or four of them, the rest were covering the latest invasion of Afghanistan – staring at this black bakelite doodad sat on a table.
‘Well’, said my ancestor after a suitable pause, ‘what’s it called?’
‘I call it a telephone’.
‘And what, pray tell, does it do?’
‘Until somebody else builds another one, I’m buggered if I know’ replied the Great Man.
Communications have advanced wonderfully since then and now we are never far from our mobile phone. Many new expressions have come into the language, like ‘What, I can’t hear you’ and ‘I’ve run out of credit’ and ‘blasted thing, I don’t have coverage here’ and of course the latest ‘hold on, there’s a police car on the side of the road’.
We all do it. Today, I saw our local cop speeding off towards some intrigue, with a phone pressed firmly to his ear.
I had a call this morning ‘hello, are you Lenox? You’ve left your phone in my bar’.
Ah for the good old days. A squat black phone on the hall table. Eccles, the butler picks it up:
‘Pennsilvania 65000? – it’s for you Sir’.
Now they are in every room, in every pocket.
So anyway, my great grandfather, alerted by a second carrier pigeon, returned the following month to the home of the inventor.
‘Look, now it works a charm’, he said proudly, ‘in a moment, it will ring’.
It rang.
‘Yes, hello’.
‘Good afternoon. My name is Josefina, I would like to talk to the subscriber…’

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Potted Version of Events

The story starts with Helen and Len Prior whose house was demolished (in front of cameras) on Jan 9th 2008. They were an ordinary retired couple who had built a house - with all legal papers (at least, apparently) like so many others who have moved from the inhospitable north of Europe to live in Southern Spain. Their house was demolished, against the instructions and wishes of the town hall of Vera, Almería and a large local demonstration was held in Vera shortly thereafter, supported by both foreigners and local people.
Another demonstration, this time in an interior and moribund town called Cantoria was held in September 2008 against the declaration by the Junta de Andalucía's local gauleiter of 'viviendas ilegales' in that town. An ITV crew made a film - 'Paradise Lost' which is on YouTube (plus a second version dubbed into Spanish) - which highlighted the demo. Spain's reputation, on the back of this and other tv shows, plus ample press reports, takes a dive. The situation is not mentioned or covered at all in Spain (except by local town radios or small papers). The damage to the economy of the area is not discussed.
A few months later (Jan 9th 2009, the first anniversary of the outrage against the Priors), a large demo was held in Almeria City. The Brits, generally retired, came out and demonstrated. I used the image at the time of 'carpet-slippers and walking sticks... some of the demonstrators stopping for a pee or a beer along the route'.
The Junta de Andalucía is by now talking about '11,000' illegal homes in Eastern Almeria (and tens of thousands more in the rest of the autonomy). In Valencia, other related problems are being publicised abroad - in particular the 'Land Grab' which brings various MEPs to the area and later forms the basis of 'The Auken Report' which slams the Spanish state in Brussels.
Over Christmas, eight more houses are served with final demolition orders - this time in Albox. The families are all Brits and, apparently, are unaware of the paperwork which the town hall has been holding since September. We then hear that another house is to be demolished on January 12th, next to the Priors in Vera. The local Brit property owners association calls for a candle-lit vigil for the Priors on their 2nd anniversary (they have been living in their garage,which escaped the demolition, for the past two years) and a fresh and larger demo for 11th January once again in Almeria City.

The damage to Spain's reputation abroad is huge. Stories of tens of thousands of 'illegal homes' belonging to Britons in Spain is hardly going to stimulate the arrival of home-buyers. The shattered Almería economy (30% unemployment) desperately needs a reversal of this situation and the home-owners need to feel protected. The Andalucian government must create an agency to inform, advise, protect and defend the foreign home-makers, because it is in their interest to do so.
As we all know only to well, even those of us whose homes are legal and not under threat, not in the path of another road, railway or hospital complex and nowhere near the ever-increasing distance from the sea in the retroactive 'ley de costas', there is no talk of compensation, no Rule of Law and no comeback on the promoters, builders or politicians.

See for updates, and this site for full history of events.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Whoops: Early New Year Prank

Well, we were all enormously excited when the New Year rang in and our very own Mr Zapatero became president, no, I mean ¡presidente! of the entire 27 countries of the European Union. Long may his reign... I'm so sorry. Six months apparently.
Is it long enough for King Zap to fix the faltering European economy, which, er, apparently is now only faltering in Spain and Latvia. Or was it Lithuania. One of those.
Here's a jolly picture of the official front page of the Presidencia Española website:
Looks like they confused Mr Hasbeen with Mr Bean.
Best joke of all: they apparently spent 11,9 million euros in security for this website. Tell that to the hackers!