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Spain through the looking glass

Archive for the ‘Austerity measures’ Category

Another silly love song

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A few years ago, the downtowns of even Spain’s most humble cities, towns and villages were about as close to urban nirvana as you can get. Wheelchair-friendly pavements gleamed and glistened under bright southern skies. Traffic lights winked comfortingly at the intersections of streets without traffic and municipals gardens were a dazzling display of magnolias and oleanders.

Polished park benches, pretty pergolas, and manicured roundabouts: you could barely move without tripping over an EU-sponsored fountain or footbridge.

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Then Spain’s construction-driven gold rush ended. And the arrival of the crisis was like an earthquake with millions of tiny aftershocks; these are still rattling the country’s foundations five years later.

Spain’s town halls were no more immune to this seismic shifting than anyone else. More used to spending cash than saving it, they began hunting around for ways to cut corners. And one of the casualties was street cleaning.

But the problem with cutting your maintenance budget is that the results are hard to hide. Bins fill up and then overflow, spilling out trails of half-crushed beer cans and used lottery tickets. Litter is driven along by the wind and then collects in forgotten corners. Parks and gardens dry out and became parched as lonesome drunks.

This dirt is an outward manifestation of the crisis and particularly dispiriting, given Spain is a country where cleanliness is a point of both domestic and civic pride. Letting your streets fall into disrepair is as unthinkable as donning last season’s clothes because you can no longer afford to replace them.

Madrid has not been immune this general decline in upkeep. If you look beyond the lacy frills of the Plaza Mayor or the velvet swagger of the city’s swanky Salamanca neighbourhood, you’ll see the rents in the fabric: the buckled footpaths, a shabby plot of overgrown grass fronting a ramshackle palace, a pair of overfull recycling containers.

Indeed, if you believe the country’s biggest newspaper, Madrid has become dirty, unloved and unlovable. This is, apparently, a city without a story, without an image, and without that single Eifel-tower style monument that would make it a world-class city. To make matters worse, Madrid’s nightlife is moribund, the streets are filthy and there is a lack of a general direction or plan.

The newspaper’s attack – or perhaps wake-up call is the better way to put it? – didn’t come out of nowhere. Just weeks ago, Madrid lost its bid to host the 2020 Olympics. It was the Spanish capital’s third time of trying, and before the vote many people honestly seemed to believe that the world owed Spain something, that all the years of hardship would be rewarded with the spinning of the Karmic wheel. Winning the Olympics would be some kind of international redemption. It would mark a glorious new chapter for Spain.

Instead we were treated to the astonishing – and perhaps never to be seen again – sight of thousands of Spaniards reduced to complete silence as they learned Tokyo, not Madrid, would be the lucky hosts.

Perhaps this was a case of straws breaking camel’s backs. Maybe until that moment, the judgement on Madrid was still out. Now, though, it seems you can say whatever you like about the Spanish capital.

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This Madrid bashing is all very unusual – for me at least, as it’s the first time I’ve come across it in Spain. This is not Australia where people tend to despise Sydney and Sydneysiders with joyful abandon. This is not England with its bitter resentment of the black hole that is London, or even Italy where the residents of every town in the land pretty much hate the residents of every other town in the land. By contrast, Spaniards seem, for the most part, to have a sort of grudging affection for this scruffy redbrick city on the plains.

This Madrid bashing is strange, too, because the more time I spend here the more I like this big-city -writ-small with its museums, and shady parks and grubby unpretentious bars. I love its tangle of neighbourhoods that live – happily it seems – without a plan or a direction.

I’m sure, too, that Madrid has seen better days and far worse days and will cycle through both again.  But what I also know is Madrid will never again be this Madrid where I spent my first autumn and rejoiced at its constantly changing skies, or at the just-glimpsed view of the mountains on the city’s fringes, or simply enjoyed that delicious moment leaving home each morning in October when the air was a little too cool to be entirely comfortable but ‘cold’ was just a word.

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Written by georgemills25

October 19, 2013 at 15:17

Talking rubbish

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Written by georgemills25

January 9, 2013 at 11:16

Childhood poverty a growing concern

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ImageChildhood poverty in Spain shot up by 45 per cent during the first two years of the economic crisis, a new study shows.

The study carried out by the Observatorio Social de España and the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) reveals that Spanish children were among the hardest hit in Europe during the early days of the economic crisis from 2007 to 2009.

The authors of The Impact of the Crisis on Families and Childhood report found that a staggering 26 per cent of Spanish households with children were in a precarious financial position in 2009. For households without children, this number was 15.4 per cent.

The authors of the new study which tries to gauge the impact of the crisis on five EU countries also discovered that the destruction of male employment was particularly dramatic in Spain when the crisis kicked in. With relatively few social benefits available to families with children, many women were forced to take on the mantle of the main breadwinner. As a result, from 2007 to 2009 Spain saw a 6 per cent fall in the number of households where the man was working and the woman wasn’t actively seeking employment.

At the same time, the country witnessed a 3.5 per cent rise in the number of households where the woman was in employment and the man was receiving benefits.

During a presentation of the study in Barcelona on Tuesday (timed to coincide with the United Nations’ Universal Day of Children), UPF sociology professor Sebastià Saras said the situation in Spain had been aggravated by policies that aided the middle class and left the poor out in the cold. Saras said the lack of government policies aimed at reducing childhood poverty meant many children were now going without proper meals while some kids –especially those of immigrants from outside the European Union – were struggling to access healthcare.

Also during this seminar, study coordinator Mónica Clua-Losada said reductions in subsidies for meals in school canteens had seen many children going home for lunch and then simply not coming back afterwards. The result was increased levels of fracaso escolar, or kids flunking out.

Meanwhile OSE director Vicenç Navarr said Spain’s social spending per child was the lowest of all the 15 core EU nations and Saras added that the situation had clearly gotten worse in the intervening years.

In similar news, the NGO Save the Children said on Tuesday that some 2,226,000 Spanish children, or 27.2 per cent of all kids in the country, were now living below the poverty line.

Save the Children spokesperson Yolanda Román said that while the government recognised the seriousness of the situation, they were to yet to take on board UN recommendations and implement specific and convincing measures to eradicate childhood poverty.

The NGO also pointed out that recent spending cuts on the part of Rajoy’s government were harming the rights of children and this could lead to social exclusion and affect everything from children’s health to their education.

Save the Children went on to note that 82 per cent of all recent cases of Spanish families being forcibly evicted from their homes had involved families with children.

This morning, the UNICEF president for Valencia Bienvenida Guerrero said in a press conference that Spain’s institutions needed to think long and hard about the effect of their decisions on children. Referring in part to evictions of families from their homes, Guerrero added that the authorities needed to think about how to reduce the negative effects of policy choices on this vulnerable group.

The UNICEF president for Valencia concluded by stressing that children also had a right to give their opinions and participate in civic life.

Written by georgemills25

November 21, 2012 at 15:35

Reading between the lines

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Today is National Library Day in Spain but the country’s readers have little cause for celebration.

The budget for Spain’s network of 52 national libraries has been slashed by 20 per cent over the last two years and anecdotal evidence suggests the picture for the country’s more than 5,000 municipal libraries is even grimmer.

A week ago, leading Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on the dire financial situation of the library of Guadalajara, a town of some 85,000 people about an hour’s drive from Madrid. To all intents and purposes, Guadalajara’s library is a resounding success story. Frequented by 40 per cent of the local population, it boasts over 30,000 users. The institution doesn’t just loan out books; it has positioned itself as a centre of cultural activity by running reading clubs, staging concerts and hosting art exhibitions. But the money has dried up.

Back in 2007, before the crisis hit, this thriving library had €150,000 to splash on new material. This year, the figure is down to €46,000. In 2013, the library’s administrators are expecting nothing. That’s right. Not one euro.

Fortunately for Guadalajara, its citizens are helping pick up the tab. Readers are currently forking out for subscriptions to 62 publications and a number of library card holders have donated their entire book collections to help keep the shelves interesting.

But the outlook for most of Spain’s libraries is not as positive. The latest figures from Spain’s culture ministry show that 56 institutions saw their doors close for good in 2010. In 2006 and 2007, by contrast, a total of 170 libraries were born.

One of the institutions that closed last year was in the conservative southern city of Granada. Towards the end of 2011, a group of concerned residents in the neighbourhood of Zaidín staged a long protest to draw attention to the plight of their local lending library. After a 3-month standoff, they suffered the indignity of being forcefully removed by local police.

Footage of the event shows protesters cheerfully singing on the library steps on a cold winter morning. At one point, a large red truck pulls up and the drivers emerge to strip the small municipal library of its treasures. Several members of the Policía Local have also turned up for good measure. These officers proceed to politely explain their actions to the gathered protesters and then begin to carry away the irate locals one at a time.

The actions of the police were – procedurally speaking at least – beyond reproach, but the frustration of the aggrieved locals is indicative of the way that many people in Spain are beginning to see such cuts as unnecessarily punitive.

There is, too, something particularly dispiriting about reductions in spending on culture. As the Spanish novelist Javier Marías pointed out in a recent post to his weekly blog, the more difficult everyday life becomes, the greater our need for escape.

In a staunch defence of his industry, Marías pointed out that what people call “culture” – whether movies or books or music – contributes 4 per cent to Spain’s GDP and provides jobs to some 600,000 people. More importantly, though, the novelist stressed the loss to the imaginative realm that is resulting from the Spanish government’s penchant for budget cuts.

Marías finishes by quoting Isak Dinesen who once said: “All pain becomes bearable if it is transformed into a story.” Unfortunately, the story of Spain’s crisis is far from over.

Written by georgemills25

October 24, 2012 at 12:16