Spain through the looking glass

Archive for the ‘crisis’ Category

Spain’s walking dead

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From time to time I find myself thinking about the television show The Walking Dead and why I haven’t managed to stop watching it yet.

For those of you who have been lucky enough to miss the series, The Walking Dead is a post-apocalyptic zombie horror show set in the American south. Based on comic books, it centres on a group of people who have miraculously avoided catching a disease which has turned most humans on the planet into zombies, or ‘walkers’ as they are called in the series.

Photo: Franco Folini

It’s an irresistible premise: for me at least. As a child of the eighties, I grew up in the shadow of The Bomb (remember that?) and I was reared on a steady diet of post-nuclear holocaust disaster literature. The most brilliant of these stories was — and remains — Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a novel about humanity 2,000 years post-Armageddon.

Before I was ready for Hoban, though, there was the early 50s novel The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham about the colonisation of earth by deadly plants. In Wyndham’s world, nearly everyone has been blinded by a spectacular but retina-burning meteorite shower. In the first scene of the novel, our hero wakes up in a hospital the morning after the celestial show which he was unable to watch because his eyes were bandaged. When he tries to summon a nurse or a doctor, no one comes. He soon discovers he has, in fact, been saved from blindness on two counts.

The Walking Dead borrows a lot from The Day of the Triffids; the first-ever episode even rephrased the opening scene of the Wyndham novel with the main character sheriff Rick Grimes waking alone in a hospital. This is not the only parallel between the two shows. Both, for example, have their own-eyed man who “is king in the land of the blind”. In John Wyndham’s novel, this situation is metaphorical. In The Walking Dead — an almost intolerably literal show — we have the character of the governor whose eye was removed in an act of revenge.

The television show and the 50s novel share one other key element. They are both almost quite dreadful, and I don’t mean in the horror sense.

Looking back at The Day of The Triffids now, I see that the writing is appalling clunky. In The Waking Dead, there are moments of technical brilliance—the zombies themselves are spectacular — but the show is generally awful. The acting is tolerable at best. The action is glacial in its progression, and the sets seem amazingly rickety for such a high profile show. So why do I keep watching?

Photo: James Fischer

Part of the answer is habit of course. And some of the fascination has to do with me wanting to see when the zombies are next going to turn some innocent victim into a gruesome mass of exposed tendons. But I also think there is some deeper subtext. I think The Walking Dead is popular because it serves as a useful metaphor for the current economic crisis.

The television show deals with a group of people who have lived through a Lehman Brothers-style cataclysmic event and must somehow find new meaning in life while also processing the guilt they feel at having survived the worst of it all. Meanwhile, the vast mass of humanity refuses to conveniently disappear. The streets of the brave new world in The Walking Dead are populated by zombies or ‘walkers’. In the show, these ‘people’ lurch around in the search for their next fleshy meal emitting agonising groans from time to time. In Spain, you can see them sleeping in doorways, begging at the portals of supermarkets, or selling tissues to cars stopped at traffic lights. Some have found solace in drink and drugs. Others stay at home and out of sight.

Meanwhile, the one percent — those, like me, with work and food and a home —try not to have too much contact with the zombies so as to avoid contagion. We keep our heads down on the streets and in the office. We keep the target small and forget to say thank you for our good luck as often as we should.

The really pending question in The Walking Dead, and the one that has been hinted at in series three, is that of a possible cure. Are the zombies an unchangeable feature of the landscape in the future, or will some magic formula restore our loved ones to us? If this is the case, then it’s not going to be a simple process. Expect more bailouts to follow.

And Happy Easter everyone, especially to the good people of Cyprus.


Written by georgemills25

March 31, 2013 at 12:37

On the blink

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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

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

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

Madrid business school named Europe’s best

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Madrid’s IE Business School has just been named Europe’s best by the Financial Times while two other Spanish institutes also help round out the UK business daily’s top ten.

In a crisis-bucking trend, Madrid’s prestigious IE moved up the FT’s business school rankings three places from last year’s number 4 spot. By doing so, the school also managed to knock France’s HEC Paris off a lofty perch it had held for six straight years.

There was even more good news for Spain with the University of Navarra’s IESE Business School claiming the FT’s number 6 spot and Barcelona’s ESADE coming in at number 7.

The Financial Times bases its ranking on schools’ performance across five programs – MBAs, executive MBAs, masters in management and open and custom executive education. To do this, the paper looks at the average salaries of graduates once they are three years out of the school but also awards extra points to school with a more international student mix.

Faculties get extra brownie points if they can boast of higher percentages of women and foreign teachers on staff while having a higher proportion of teachers with doctorates also pushes up a school’s rankings.

IE greeted the news of the Financial Times gong by saying the result consolidated their position as one of the best business schools in the world in terms of postgraduate education in business management.

Meanwhile, ESADE dean Alfons Sauquet told La Vanguardia newspaper that the result reflected the school’s dedication to excellence and its capacity to adapt in times of crisis.

Written by georgemills25

December 5, 2012 at 21:03

Banks secure EC bailout

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The European Commission today agreed to a €37-billion bailout of four troubled Spanish banks but there are some serious strings attached.

The tough conditions imposed by the EU for the bailout mean the Banco de Valencia will soon cease to exist while Novagalicia Banco faces a sell-off within the next five years.

Meanwhile, the other two nationalised lenders – Bankia and Catalunya Caixa – will be forced to slash staff and branch numbers to meet strict cost-cutting requirements imposed by the EC.

In a move that Commission Vice-President in charge of competition policy Joaquín Almunia called “a milestone” in cooperation between the euro area countries and Spain, the EC has rubber stamped the restructuring plans of Spain’s four nationalised banks in Bankia, Catalunya Caixa, Novagalicia Banco and the Banco de Valencia.

In a press release earlier of today, the commission stated: ‘The in-depth restructuring undergone by BFA/Bankia, Catalunya Caixa and Novagalicia Banco will allow them to become viable in the long-term without continued state support. Moreover, the banks and their stakeholders [will] adequately contribute to the costs of restructuring.’

But the same press release also handed a death sentence to Banco de Valencia with the commission saying the viability of that institution ‘could not be restored on a standalone basis’. According to plans drawn up by Spain’s Fund for Orderly Bank Restructuring (or FROB) – the legal body charged with overseeing the overhaul of Spain’s banking sector – the bank will now receive €4.5 billion in funding before being sold onto giant CaixaBank for the less than princely sum of €1.

The EC deal also means the eventual sale of Novagalicia Banco with Spain committed to a sell-off of the institution by the end of the five-year restructuring period.

And while both Bankia and Catalunya Caixa have been handed stays of execution, they face a tough road ahead. The EC has given the lenders until 2017 to slash their balance sheets ‘by more than 60 per cent’ compared to 2010 levels. The banks will also have to stay well away from real estate lending and refocus their lending activities towards retail banking and loans to SMEs.

Under EC rules, the banks will also have to shed various industrial equity stakes and subsidiaries to limit a future need for aid. Bankia and Catalunya Banc will also have to wave goodbye to trading and treasury portfolio of fixed-income securities.

In Spain, the aftershocks of the announcement were felt almost immediately with Bankia quickly announcing dramatic plans to lay off 28 per cent of its workforce through the slashing of 6,000 jobs. The bank will also turn off the lights for the last time in over 1,000 offices as it rushes to meet EC requirements.

It was the failure of Bankia last May that initially led to Madrid to enter into negotiations with the EC for a €100 billion bank bailout.

The funds for the bank bailout will come from the eurozone’s European Stability Mechanism.

Written by georgemills25

November 28, 2012 at 16:03