Spain through the looking glass

Archive for January 2013

Spaced out

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OK. So Andalusia isn’t Australia (my home). But it does have its epic moments and I love the light and the distances. Here are a few of the photos of southern Spain I’ve taken lately.


Midday near Olvera


Setting sun, Gaucin (behind Malaga)


Gaucin again; this time on a cloudy afternoon


Near Ronda, one of Andalusia’s most spectacular towns


The Segura/Cazorla National Park is the second largest in Europe, and my favourite part of Andalusia.


On the edges of Grazalema National Park


Written by georgemills25

January 29, 2013 at 22:25

Accidents do happen

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A couple of months back I posted about the fact that there was no official word for serendipity in Spanish. Today, though, I spotted today the following blurb in the style blog of one of Spain’s leading dailies, the ABC. Perhaps ‘serendipity’ is finally on the rise.


The blurb reads: On the 28 January 1754, Horace Walpole coined the word ‘serendipity’ in a letter that he wrote to Thomas Mann.


Written by georgemills25

January 28, 2013 at 19:34

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The great sell off

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Like many intellectually vain people, I tend to think I’m better at speaking foreign languages than I actually am. This means I spend a lot of time in Spain pretending I understand what is going on when, in fact, I haven’t got a clue. Every now and then, though, I get tired of faking it.

The other day, for instance, I went to a newsstand near my house to buy the El País newspaper. Because costs for most things have gone up since the start of the year, I had to check the price. The newsagent told me and said something else which I didn’t get but which – by the look on his face – was obviously supposed to be funny. So what did I do? I made a stupid grunting, giggling, spluttering noise and turned away.

Halfway through the door, however, I realised I wanted to know what the man had actually been going on about. At which point he said: ‘Sale muy barato, no? Todo El Pais, solo 1.30 euros’ (something like ‘That’s pretty cheap for the whole country, right? Only €1.30’).

‘Oh,’ I said, the penny finally dropping. ‘It’s a joke, a play on words!’ My newspaper, you see is called El País, which means ‘the country’. He was making a (rather bad) joke about how cheap Spain was.

I laughed again, mostly to make up for not having laughed harder the first time. But it was only when I got halfway down the street that I got to thinking: how much might it actually cost to buy a whole country? Was there actually a way to work it out?

A first quick internet search led me to a fairly standard economic equation on wikianswers. According to one author, when you are buying a business, a common formula is to take annual gross sales and add 10%. So if you were to sell a hardware store that grossed 500,000 dollars annually you would aim to sell it for $550,000. Applying the same model for Spain, if Spain’s annual GDP is $1.49 trillion, we could realistically hope to flog off the entire country for $1.582 trillion dollars. Not exactly a snip, but the sort of deal the US could seriously ponder given its GDP nudges 15 billion dollars annually. And if you were to factor in the debt Spain is carrying at the moment, you certainly might manage to chip a bit off the asking price.

But what if countries were more like houses? Could we measure their value by calculating their total land value? Let’s say, for instance, that I want to buy all the land in Spain. I’ll first assume – conservatively – that 90 per cent of Spain’s roughly 500,000 square kilometres is either undeveloped or agricultural land. The average price for this ‘unused’ land price is €177.6 per square metre and so for this 450,000 kilometres squared, we get a value of 76,950,000,000,000 Euros. To this we need to add the value of the other, built-up, 10 per cent, for which we’d have to fork out the staggering sum of 80,300,000,000,000. The grand total for Spain is now 157,250,000,000,000 Euros and things are starting to look decidedly pricier than the €1.30 I paid for my newspaper the other day.

Then we could also probably get a bulk discount. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson effectively doubled the size of the United States by buying up Louisiana for the bargain basement price of $15 million, or less than 3 cents per acre. Some half a century later, Alaska was snapped up for the even cheaper sum of $11,250,000. So perhaps we could knock a quarter or even a third off the price in the paragraph above, especially given that some of the land in Spain is, for various reasons, going to be unusable.

Beyond economics, there are other ways to value countries. One method would be to count the cost in lives lost through wars related to nationhood. Estimates show, for example, that some 20 million Soviet citizens died to protect the USSR against the Germans while tiny East Timor saw around 100,000 people lose their lives in a long struggle to gain independence from Indonesia. Meanwhile, in the Spanish Civil War as many as half a million people died to defend the version of the country they believed in. Thus Spain was ‘bought’ at the cost of 500,000 deaths.

Then there are the instances of soft power as way of ‘buying’ countries. Some commentators argue China is currently buying up slabs of Africa with its policy of exchanging infrastructure for trade opportunities. For instance, China currently buys 60 per cent of Sudan’s oil exports and a whopping 71 per cent of Sudanese exports while promising to invest heavily into water infrastructure and air and sea ports for the country. At the pointier end of the spectrum, private investors are engaged in turbo-charged land grabs in both Asia and Africa as first-world countries rush to ensure future food security. The UK charity Oxfam says 30 per cent of land in Liberia has been sold off in the last 5 years; as a result, people have been forcefully evicted and left without access to food sources. In such cases, countries are effectively being sold out the back door.

And with the Spanish government drawing up privatisation plans for everything from the country’s rail network to the nation’s water supplies, there may well be a few opportunities for private companies to grab their own bit of Spain for a lot less than you might think. Stay tuned.

Written by georgemills25

January 26, 2013 at 13:34

Heroes of the crisis

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Hats off to Emilio José Aguilar, a restaurant owner from Majorca who is proving there is actually such a thing as a free lunch.

Aguilar is serving up 50 free meals a day to homeless people at his restaurant called ‘El Cordobés’ in the Majorcan town of Port d’Alcúdia, the Diario de Mallorca newspaper reported recently.

‘Normally we cook up three different tapas every day,’ Aguilar explained to the newspaper. ‘But in winter we cook up a pan of lentils or potatoes, and the last time we did it, we made it a bit bigger and invited along some people in need.’

Aguilar said cost wasn’t a factor and that for 25 or 30 euros he could cook up a soup that for 50 people.

In theory, non-paying guests at El Cordobés need to show their unemployment card, but even that is not a fixed rule. ‘One thing is clear: if someone is really is need, they can come every day without shame,’ said Aguilar.

The 34-year-old chef came up with the idea on the spur of the moment. He then posted the news on his Facebook page and within minutes he was inundated with congratulations. But Aguilar’s recent attempts to garner financial support from the local town council have yet to bear fruit, with the mayor saying that the administration can’t back a private business to provide social services.

Aguilar was unemployed for 2 years in his native Cordoba and says he suffered from depression. ‘I know what it’s like to open the fridge and find it empty,’ he told the Diario de Mallorca.

Written by georgemills25

January 24, 2013 at 14:04

You shall know them by their voices

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It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when I actually enjoyed the infernal racket of Spain. During my virgin visit to this country nearly a decade ago, I positively revelled in the honking traffic and the screaming waiters and the 3am grumble of garbage trucks; it all struck me as yet more evidence of this country’s inherent vital energy. Now, though, it just drives me spare (check out these charming gentlemen who visit my street everyday to sell oranges from the back of a van).

The general rule of thumb in Spain is that you should make as much noise as possible at any given moment. Why talk if you can shout? Why gently place a cup on a table if it can land with a deafening crash? There also seems to be some unwritten rule stating that all doors have to be slammed hard enough to shake at least a little plaster from the walls of any neighbouring buildings.

This Spanish passion for absurd noise levels is pretty much a national trait but there does appear to be a gradual intensification as you head south; by the time you reach the quasi-Africa of Andalusia, everyday life is cacophonous.  On many occasions I’ve wandered into an almost empty bar in southern Spain only to find that the three or four people sitting inside are making more noise than the entire crowd at a Swedish football final. And much of this brouhaha can be put down to the fact that most Andalusians place little stock in actually listening to each other; instead the general conversational style involves everyone trying to drown out the tiresome voices of their companions.

My upstairs neighbours here in Seville are fairly typical in their propensity to argue loudly about everything. While I have never actually met the elderly inhabitants of apartment 4D, I feel I know their habits intimately. I know, for example, that the woman who lives up there spends most of her time stringing clothes out on an ancient rusting washing line that – to judge by the way it screeches painfully every time it is extended and retracted – hasn’t been oiled since Franco transitioned to the other side. The husband, meanwhile, is either slow or has had a stroke (or both), and he’s definitely at least half deaf, the upshot being that his speech is a disturbingly alien-sounding slurred yell.

Every day, this couple host a woman and a child for lunch (I think they are the daughter and grandson). The daughter arrives at about half past two and then cooks with her aging mother – although perhaps ‘cooks with’ isn’t quite apt: their culinary collaboration is more akin to a running battle with the younger woman criticising everything her mother does. ‘Que non! Que no se puede!’ (No! But you can’t do that!), the younger woman squeals at least 20 times during the making of every meal. Then grandma will usually start doing something which involves a series of large thumps and which could mean she is tenderising a piece of meat or perhaps killing some small animal.

At some stage during the cooking, either mum or daughter will decide she can no longer tolerate the other’s company and will turn on the television (at full volume, naturally). The two women will then proceed to watch a show where two other women are screaming at each other while a belligerent studio audience claps or jeers their every utterance.

Before the family sit down to eat lunch – always at 3, for most Spaniards are exceedingly regular in their habits – the television will be switched off. It’s not always clear, however, when this has happened, so seamlessly do the television arguments blend into the real life feuds of the inhabitants of 4D.

During lunch, the grandson will finally come to life and decide he doesn’t want to sit still and that – actually – he would much prefer to run around the apartment and knock over random pieces of heavy furniture. This, in turn, sets off granddad who has, until now, been relatively quiet. Because of his extraterrestrial-inflected voicing, I can never make grandpa’s words, but it seems he is complaining about his lunch because every time he mouths off, his wife and daughter yell something about what an ungrateful old so-and-so he is.

When I first came to Spain five years ago, I didn’t grasp the critical importance of noise here. This caused me no end of grief in everyday social situations. Someone would be talking to me, and I would be nodding my head or smiling or grimacing and just generally doing all the usual things one does in my part of the world (Australia) to show that one is listening to and empathising with the other person. But because I was neither interrupting nor trying to talk over the top of the other person, and because I wasn’t spitting out a constant stream of empty interjections, people took me for dull, or even worse, thick. Now I have learned never to be a silent listener but always to be butting in and generally carrying my social weight.  

Recently I got talking with a friend for mine from Seville about the incessant noise in Spain and he nodded sagely. He told me that he had once spent a night in the country in a house that was so quiet it has led him to have some kind of a nervous turn. In the end, he’d grown so edgy that he’d been forced to get up and switch on the television and a couple of lights just so that he could relax enough to drift off to asleep. The peace of the countryside terrified him.

It seems that while people in some countries prefer to keep silent about their fears, the Spaniards have chosen to shout theirs down.

Written by georgemills25

January 17, 2013 at 20:49

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Seville’s hottest women

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Seville is full of saintly virgins, or rather images thereof. They adorn the walls of churches, chapels, convents, monasteries, bars, restaurants and private residences all over the city. Here are five of my favourite sevilliana virgins (in no particular order):


La divina pastora (‘the divine shepherdess’ with the tower of Seville Cathedral in the background)


Nuestra Señora del Mar (the most beautiful of the bunch?)


Nuestra Señora de la Hiniesta


Santísima Virgen de Guadalupe


Nuestra Señora de Regla

Postscript: While reading about the recent anniversary of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ or Flight 1549,  I came across the story of the patron saint of flight attendants – Bona of Pisa. Bona worked as an official guide for the Camino de Santiago in the 12th century, doing the trip an amazing 10 times. If you know about any other obscure or odd patron saints, let me know.

Written by georgemills25

January 14, 2013 at 11:16

Posted in religion, seville, society, Spain

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The undeveloping world

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I’ve just spent nearly a month away from Spain – most recently in Switzerland for Christmas, and before that in South East Asia for a wedding.

It’s amazing just how quickly you leave la crisis behind, and how – beyond the foggy confines (pictures here) of the Iberian Peninsula – the rest of the world just keeps barrelling on towards the eventual apocalypse with nary a thought for Spain other than, perhaps, some random football-related musing.

Anyway, so about four weeks ago, I flew out of a Madrid twinkling with Christmas lights and 18 hours later I found myself perched on the back of a motorbike taxi in downtown Saigon, Vietnam: tropical wind in my hair, charcoal stoves, the whole neon circus of South East Asia. And I couldn’t help feeling: what a frigging relief. What bliss to have more than 10,000 kilometres of Eurasian continent between me and Spain and to be so far from the constant groaning and moaning that is Europe at the start of this second decade of Millennium 3.


My first morning in Saigon, I woke up long before dawn and couldn’t get back to sleep, partly because I’ve always been hopeless with jet-lag but also because I didn’t want to miss the early morning activity – the hour or so on either side of dawn being the best time of day in Vietnam (and in Asia generally). So I dragged myself out of bed a little after 5 a.m. and wandered down to the local park to watch all the people doing their anarchic bends and stretches against a backdrop of aquarelle blue. There were the usual badminton matches going on too, and several cha-cha-cha classes populated by heavily perspiring old ladies in nylon jumpsuits.


Next, I staggered down to the main market and sipped my way through about a pint of ridiculously strong Vietnamese coffee while the stall holders set up for the day’s trade. So much repetition of tiny details: vegetables being rinsed to within an inch of their lives, the wiping down of glass cabinets and the laying out of deadly chilli sauces. Everywhere, too, smashing of ice blocks and lazy flip-flopping boys with towering hairstyles.


After the market, I walked and watched the city wake up. I paid someone a dollar or two to repair my shoes and the same again to get my phone-Vodafone unlocked (In Asia, they still have actual service, as opposed to what we refer to as ‘customer service’). All around me, the usual buzz of motorcycle traffic, the beeping of horns, the cries of rubbish collectors, school children in pristine uniforms, old men playing Chinese chess and something else I’d forgotten – industry, industriousness.


It took me a while to put my finger on it, but that’s exactly what I’d been missing in Spain. Vietnam, you see, is full of people working. They’re zipping around on their motorbikes selling things or buying things or making things or fixing things or inspecting things or cleaning things or talking about things.

No one in Vietnam’s rich – or hardly anyone – and many people don’t have what we would call a ‘job’. There are people working 7 days a week for a €100 a month and workers who share cramped apartments with a dozen other immigrants from the countryside. The hospitals are overcrowded, the traffic is a nightmare and corruption is rife. The Communist party is leeching off the people and there are beggars and crazy folk who wander the streets aimlessly – and yet, yet there was none of the horrible inertia of Spain. Vietnam was full of energy and hope and I saw it and I saw that it was good.


My fortnight in Asia was like a beautiful exotic dream: a dream of how things could be. Back in Spain, back in chilly Madrid, it was drizzling and everyone seemed so damned rich and everyone seemed so damned unhappy, and I thought, where the hell am I and what the fuck am I doing here?


Written by georgemills25

January 9, 2013 at 11:16