Spain through the looking glass

Archive for February 2013

Madrileño by stealth

with 3 comments

For the last couple of weeks, I have waking up in Seville on Monday and getting on a train to another country called Spain. Or at least that’s how it feels.

After a period living in the capital of Andalusia, I now find myself commuting to Madrid for work. At the moment, I am in the national capital from Monday to Friday but soon my transition will be complete and I am even to become a citizen of this fine communidad.


Madrid at dusk. Photo: Moyan Brenn

To be frank, it’s all quite disorienting. After last year’s sojourn in Saigon, I’ve been enjoying the relative intimacy of a city with just 700,000 souls, give or take a few. In Seville you get to know lots of faces, and can amble from one end of the old town to the other in a pleasant hour or so. In Madrid, by contrast, my fold-out map comes with more creases than a tramp’s spare pants. The sheer number of neighbourhoods here is staggering. Will I ever know my Chamberis from my Chuecas or my Legazpis from my Listas? It seems highly unlikely.

Anyway, last Friday evening, I caught the fast train back from Madrid and stumbled out of Seville’s Santa Justa station a little after midnight. Home. The city smelled of olives and a vacant lot was flush with flowers.  I thought: I will miss this place.

But the capital does have its virtues and delights. One advantage to being here in the centre of Spain – here in this city on the River Manzanares – is that they speak Spanish, rather than the language approximating Spanish which I have become accustomed to in Andalusia. I no longer feel quite so foolish with my highly correct Castillian.

I’m enjoying, too, the boulevards of Madrid, and the gentle slopes, for Madrid is a metropolis of inclines and slides. It’s an elegant old beast as well. On Gran Vía, there are shades of London’s Pall Mall while the residences around the Retiro are as slim-hipped and stylish as any Parisian apartment block. Then there are the armies of mincing long-legged women and – in winter – dark-coated old men who might be taking a break from the set of a fifties film.

But —but — will I ever feel at home here? Train rides have become such a metaphor for my life: all these cities as stations, apartments like luggage offices, a constant swapping of keys and letterboxes and corner stores and then a quick look over the shoulder as the place recedes. Next stop, señores pasajeros, Madrid.


Written by georgemills25

February 21, 2013 at 21:29

Radio patio

with one comment

The slang term for the rumour mill in Spanish is radio patio, an expression comes from the habit of eavesdropping on one’s neighbours via an interior patio – a common feature of many Spanish buildings.

The video here is a follow up to my previous post about noise in Spain. Here you can listen in as my upstairs neighbours sit down to lunch.

You have to crank up the volume to get a more life-like effect.

Written by georgemills25

February 17, 2013 at 13:22

Posted in España, seville, society, Spain

Anybody out there?

leave a comment »

Anybody out there?

Poor guy obviously missed the class on negative pronouns

Written by georgemills25

February 17, 2013 at 12:48

Green tape/red

leave a comment »

A few days ago, a friend and I decided to escape an increasingly malodorous Seville (see my previous post about the city’s rubbish strike) and take off for the hills.

Our plan was simple: we would take the 2-hour bus ride south to the Sierra de Grazalema National Park and tackle as much of the spectacular Pinsapar track as we had time for.

The Pinsapar route takes you up into the mountains and then leads you through a stand of ancient ‘dinosaur’ pines. This is a world of rocky outcrops, circling vultures and – on clear days – views over to Morocco. The route is also pretty popular so the powers-that-be make you apply for a permit for a permit before setting out; in this way, they can cap overall numbers.

The first time I went up to Grazalema, I didn’t know about the paperwork, and was never challenged. The second time, however, I got to the head of the trail only to be sent back 20-kilometre down the road to get the necessary paperwork. Not much fun, especially if you don’t have a car.

So this week I didn’t want to take any chances: our first stop would be the national park visitors’ centre in the village of El Bosque. Once there, we had to wait a while before we were served. Eventually, though, a very nice young woman with very bad English took out details and filled out a lengthy form with all our details. This was then duly stamped because nothing official in Spain – and I mean nothing – takes place without the all-important sello, or seal.

Eventually Rosa – or Margarita or Hortensia – she shared her name with a flower, I remember that much) – gave us a piece of paper.

I thought we were finished. Fat chance.

‘Now hab to take thees to the otra office for the permit,’ said our flower, pointing at our form.

‘This isn’t the permit?’

She shook her head and then proceeded to take out a little map and draw us the route to another office nearby. So around the bullring we walked (for about the third time), and down a hill to where we found office number 2.

There was no one there. Or rather, there were several people there, but nobody who looked like they might be able to provide us with the all-important second stamp. Soon, though, a little man little even by Spanish standards – and with what looked like two glass eyes – snatched my form from me.

He then ducked into another office with it and while we watched through a little window he laboriously filled out all the same details that the woman in the first office had just written up.

‘Um, why do you have two offices?’ I asked, unable to help myself. ‘I mean, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.’

He rolled his glassy eyes. ‘To you, maybe not. But to us, yes!’

‘But,’ I suggested daringly, ‘the offices seem to do – you know – the same thing.’

‘Ah hah! But the other office is run by a private company. This is the more technical part.’

‘So why don’t they just hand out the bloody permits at the first office,’ I wanted to say. But I was nervous that we might be sent packing with no paperwork.

We got the permit.

A few minutes later, my friend and I walked off past the bullring of El Bosque for the fourth time and studied our hard-won prize. The form I was holding was known as an “Autorización para la realización de itinerarios por la zona de reserve del parque natural Sierra de Grazalema”, or to translate that into something approximating English: “Authorisation for the realisation of walking routes in the conservation area of Sierra Grazalema National Park”.

In other words, a walk in the park.

Written by georgemills25

February 12, 2013 at 20:18

Talking rubbish

leave a comment »

For the last few nights, Seville has been preternaturally quiet. Eerily so.

Generally I fall asleep here to the symphonic thud and thump of municipal street cleaners emptying the dozen or so garbage containers that line our street. Since last Sunday, though, the garbage collectors have been on strike. The result? A disconcerting – very un-Sevillian – silence between midnight and dawn. It’s almost too quiet to sleep.

At first, the strike didn’t bother anyone much, and one group was positively delighted: the city’s  garbage scavengers (and de facto recyclers). With the street cleaners out of the picture, they could rake through trash bags that were now conveniently piled up on the street instead of being buried deep inside a dumpster. It was a bonanza, but a short-lived one. Even the rubbish hunters are now struggling with the smell.


Today is day 9 of Seville’s rubbish strike; there are mountains of plastic bags on every corner, like postmodern sculptures only more interesting.

The rubbish story has been brewing since last year and involves a dispute between Seville’s town hall and workers at the city’s publicly-owned cleaning company Lipassam. The sticking points in negotiations between the two parties are holiday pay (reduced) and working hours (extended to 37.5 hours a week).

You might think the Sevillianos feel some solidarity with the poor fluorescent-jacketed workers of Lipassam; theirs is not a job I’d particularly want, and they are – after all – being asked to work more hours for less money. However, the handful of people I’ve talked to seem to think the city’s cleaners are little more than a pack of thieving whingers. The reason? They earn too much (and must therefore somehow be cheating the system, or so is the inference in this pathologically distrustful country).

Anyway, the town hall says the average annual wage for a member of the city’s garbage crews is €30,885 (around £25,000 or $US42,000) To put this in perspective, the average gross salary in Spain for 2010 – the last year for which figures are available – was €22.790,20 while El Publico pointed the most common salary that year was actually only around €15,500. So the Lipassam workers are doing quite well.

Apparently – and again this only according to my completely unscientific straw poll – these workers should therefore be happy with their lot. More than one person I spoke to suggested the Lipassam workers should be fired to a man/woman and replaced with some of those members of the 6 million-strong army of unemployed people in Spain who would happily work for far less than €30,885.

Sad days in Spain when non/workers turn upon non/workers.

Meanwhile, it has to be said that Lipassam’s own staff have not been terribly effective at making friends and influencing people. Several days ago, El Mundo newspaper published photos of cleaners demonstrating by littering the streets with scraps of paper they had no intention of picking up. Bad call guys.

And how do I feel? Oddly enough, I’ve been enjoying this garbage strike. It adds a touch of drama to the streets, and operates as a visual (and olfactory) counterpoint to the corruption scandal that has hit Spain’s ruling Popular Party in the last few days. In fact, I’m happy for the mountains of rubbish bags to grow so high that I have to wade through them – so high in fact that I can’t even see the horrible eyesore that is the new Cajasol Tower. That would be something.

Written by georgemills25

February 6, 2013 at 09:29

On the blink

leave a comment »

Of all the useful Spanish words to learn before arriving in this country, averiado must be very near the top the list.

Translated directly, averiado means something like ‘out of order’ or ‘defective’, or just plain ‘not working’. In Spain, however, it actually signifies more like ‘used to work once’ or ‘may possibly work again at some future date’.

Ah! the strange poetry of averiado. In Spain, you will encounter it everywhere, generally scribbled on pieces of paper which have been tacked on to everything from bathroom taps to automatic doors. You will also see it near stationary lifts and escalators, or on automatic teller machines and — very commonly – on toilet doors. And if you prick your ears, you will hear it often in train stations and airports too.


Sometimes, these little ‘averiado’ notices will be crisp and new, as if placed mere minutes ago. On other (more frequent) occasions, the paper will be yellowed and curling at the edges like some child’s treasure map.  Perhaps there were good intentions once. Maybe the service people were all set to swing by to fix the bubblegum dispenser/public phone/cigarette machine but discovered at the last minute that their van was – well – averiado.

Perhaps the only positive to finding those little notices is that you don’t fruitlessly waste energy and money. At least the announcements stop you from depositing your money into a dodgy vending machine or, worse, pissing into a blocked urinal.

Unfortunately, much of what is on the blink in Spain is not advertised as such. President Mariano Rajoy continues to maintain that the country doesn’t need a financial bailout from Europe while everyone else knows it’s just a question of timing. Rising taxes are punishing a struggling middle class and parts of the country are looking to quit the unholy union of autonomous provinces.

Come to think of it, perhaps the Spanish flag should temporarily be changed to include some kind of warning to locals and visitors alike. I can see it now: AVERIADO in bold black letters right where the Royal Coat of Arms now stands.

Written by georgemills25

February 1, 2013 at 09:20