Spain through the looking glass

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Spain’s walking dead

with 2 comments

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

The undeveloping world

with 2 comments

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

Arabic legacy lives on in Spain

leave a comment »

Yesterday, December 18, was UNESCO’s first ever World Arabic Language Day.

“By celebrating the Arabic language, we are acknowledging the tremendous contribution of its writers, scientists and artists to universal culture,” said Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova in a statement marking the occasion.


The Emirates Airlines logo is of one of the most widely recognised example of Arabic calligraphy in the world today.

Arabic has played a small but not insignificant role in the development of the Spanish language via the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. From 711 to 1492, many regions of modern-day Portugal and Spain were ruled by dynasties and emirates whose origins lay in the Maghreb.

That 800-year period was one of great scientific and cultural energy in southern Spain with Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars engaged in an open dialogue the likes of which have rarely been seen since.

Traces of Muslim Spain can still be found in modern day Spanish with some 1,000 words of classical Arabic origin present in the language. Some key examples include: azúcar (sugar); alcalde (or mayor, from the Arabic qāḍī, meaning judge); aceituna (āz-zeitūna, or olive); algodón (cotton); cero (the number ‘zero’ from the Arabic ṣifr, meaning empty); alalǧabru (algebra); zanahoria (carrot) and ajedrez (chess).

Various Iberian place names also have Arabic origins. The name Gibraltar comes from the Arabic Jabal-ı Tārıq, orthe hill of Tariq, which is named after the Moorish general Tariq ibn-Ziyad who was one of the advance guard of the Moorish force that entered southern Spain in 711.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia tells us that the name for Madrid is derived from original Arabic name al-MagrīT, meaning source of water, and the name for the Guadalquivir river (al-wādĩ al-kabi) simply means big river.

According to UNESCO, Arabic is currently the official language of 22 of its Member States and has more than 422 million speakers in the Arab world while being used by more than 1.5 billion Muslims globally.


An example of zoomorphic Arabic calligraphy from the Sudanese artist Hassan Musa.

Written by georgemills25

December 19, 2012 at 18:44

How Salvador Dali conned Yoko Ono out of $10,000

with one comment


The Spanish painter Salvador Dali once conned the Japanese artist and musician Yoko Ono into paying $10,000 for a fake hair from his moustache, says Dali’s one-time muse and lover Amanda Lear.

“Throughout his life, Dali could never resist it when someone waved a cheque under his nose,” the singer and actress Lear told French magazine VSD in an article published this week.

Speaking about the painter whose work is the subject of a major new retrospective at Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou, the French chanteuse said Dali almost sold John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono a real hair. But he thought Yoko Ono was a witch and that she might cast a spell on him.

“He sent me out into the garden to get a blade of dried grass and I put it in a pretty little box,” Lear said, explaining how Ono had been conned.

“The nitwit paid $10,000,” Lear said. “Dali loved swindling people.”

Lear met Dali in 1965 when she was 18 and the painter was 61.

Written by georgemills25

November 29, 2012 at 18:15

The Spanish way to cheat

leave a comment »

A long time ago in a suburb (not so) far way, I taught English to impossibly cute but horribly spoiled Spanish children.

It was a match made in heaven: me and kids. Except for the part about the kids.

Thankfully I was well prepared for the task. Having been initiated into the intricate art of “stir and settle” – a complex pedagogical teaching technique which requires years of rigorous study and which, for the layperson, is based on the idea that one should alternately wear children out with frenzied activity and then lull them into a deep stupor – my classes usually went off without a hitch.

Over the years, I devised a plethora of exciting games to teach our beautiful language. For most of these games I divided my class into two teams and the games were always highly competitive, not to say vicious. From a practical standpoint, they generally involved the kids running in circles or jumping up and down or thumping something (or – even better – each other). It was all hysterical good fun and could go on for several minutes at which point one of three main things generally happened. Either one of the little nippers would incur a serious injury (a common scenario) or the children would collapse, panting and unable to continue (less common but by no means rare) – or, and this was by far the most frequent occurrence – one of the teams would surround me in a tight circle.

And this is when the chanting would start. ‘Estafa!’ the kids would shout. And again: louder each time.  Estafa! Estafa! Estafa!’

For a long while, I didn’t know what this curious word meant. I just assumed my students were engaged in some purifying dance-based ritual. Or maybe they were singing to the spirits of the earth. They did seem a little upset at times, and there was a strange atmosphere in the air but I assumed it was just a cultural thing.

And so it went for some weeks, until one day I decided to ask my manager about this puzzling Spanish rite. ‘Estafa?’ said this woman, clearly put out by my question. ‘It’s means a swindle or a con.’

And suddenly everything became clear: the post-class hostility, those death stares I’d been at the receiving end of – it was all because my students thought I had been cheating them during the games. The losing team assumed I was manipulating the system for the benefit of the other side. I was clearly an estafador, or con artist.

Of course I already knew that children had an almost pathological sense of justice. It was another fact I’d learned during my many weeks years of demanding training (along with how to spot which kids were on Ritalin). What I didn’t know was how strongly this sense of right and wrong was, in Spain, accompanied by a sixth sense for the estafa.

The art of detecting the estafa is a key skill in this country, like knowing the opening hours of all the various government departments or picking exactly the right moment to buy cheap railway tickets online. Outsiders can never really hope to master these fine arts and are probably destined to a life of hopeless victimhood as they fall prey to one scam after another.

But even the canny Spaniards cannot avoid the staggering variety of estafas in this country. They too, for instance, have to pay €3 in bank charges every month and then spend half of a Sunday afternoon wandering around the city looking for a cash machine that is actually working. And most Spaniards have absolutely no way of avoiding queuing for half an hour at the local office of their electricity company just to complain about twice daily blackouts.

It’s also impossible for honest Spaniards to avoid paying the higher goods and services tax brought in last month so that the government can foot its bills.

And all these university students who spend 16 years getting an education only to end up jobless and living with their parents and wondering whether they might not be better off moving to Germany or Chile? Well they are at the pointy end of the biggest con of all.

Written by georgemills25

November 19, 2012 at 09:54

(Un)Happy accidents

with 2 comments

Late last week, I discovered a shocking truth about the Spanish: they have no word for serendipity. Or at least not yet.

While the Spaniards have – in chiripa – a nifty little noun which ploughs some of the same furrow (the word means “fluke” or a “lucky break”), their dictionary still lacks a single term that does all the heavy-lifting of own serendipity.

Or do they? Because anyone with a moment to spare can easily hop online and find that – actually – there is a word in Spanish very like our own silvery serendipity: its serendipia. And we are not talking about some left-field term here. A Google search brings up a full 333,000 hits. There is a Spanish-language site called and a too.

There is even a (Spanish) Wikipedia entry for the Spanish word which provides not only a definition – identical to the standard meaning in English – but also a full etymology (including a rundown of author Horace Walpole’s coining of the word in 1754) and a useful list of examples of the phenomenon.

So what’s going on? Is there a Spanish version of serendipity or not. Well, yes and no. Because it turns out that serendipia is currently in linguistic limbo as it awaits official approval from Spain’s linguistic overlords, the Real Academia Española.

The RAE is the royal body charged with keeping the unruly Spanish language in check in much the same way that the Académie Francaise sets the spelling and grammar rules for French. And until Spain’s royal language academy pulls out its wax seal for serendipia, it is not a word (voz) but a mere palabreja, which mean a strange word, or a word of little importance (and which – oddly enough – itself does not appear exist in my huge printed Collins Spanish dictionary. Were the editors messing with us?).

Anyway, I would never have been exposed to the terrible secret of Spain’s lack of serendipity if the RAE hadn’t taken the unprecedented step of meeting in public last week. The members of this ancient order – it was founded in 1713 to protect the “purity and splendour” of the Spanish language – usually meet behind closed doors at their neoclassical pile in Madrid. Last Thursday, however, they braved both the cold and Spain’s transport system to hold their weekly meeting in coastal Cadiz.

They were there to mark the 200th anniversary of the signing of Spain’s 1812 constitution, a document viewed as Spain’s owners Magna Carta and which being, Spanish, has a nickname: La Pepa.

So to celebrate La Pepa’s bicentenary, the Academy invited 250 guests to come and listen as they discussed such as pressing issues as who should fill the vacant seats on their committee. More critically, though, the meeting involved a gabfest about words that should be included in the all-important RAE dictionary, the online version of which receives over 40 million hits a month. And the highlight of the hour and a half long meeting came during a discussion of – you guessed it – the non-RAE approved word serendipia.

Several members of the RAE were plumping pretty hard for serendipity. Álvarez de Miranda, director of the RAE dictionary pointed out the word already existed in the academy’s databases while his colleague Luis Mateo Díez added that the word, though little used, had a certain prestige, especially in the scientific field. Unfortunately, Academy members were unable agree on either the merits of the word or its exact meaning. However, RAE honorary director Víctor García de la Concha did promise to go off and ‘analyse the documentation’.

And to think: if it hadn’t been for some vague wanderings around the internet late last week, I would never have discovered that the people of Spain have no word that refers to happy accidents like – just to take one example – discovering that you country you have chosen to live in – despite its terrible crisis, and despite the looming threat of tomorrow’s general strike –still has people tasked with deciding what words should and shouldn’t appear in the dictionary.

Let’s hope serendipia gets its official recognition soon.

Written by georgemills25

November 13, 2012 at 09:26

Posted in Culture, language, society, Spain

Spain’s Chinese take a stand

leave a comment »

The last few years have seen a subtle but noticeable change in the landscape of the average Spanish high street. Now, alongside all the fruterías and faramacías and salones de belleza, there is almost always at least one cut-price emporium run by a Chinese family.

My neighbourhood has four of five of these places. A couple of them are tiny; two are cavernous as airport hangars. All are filled to the rafters with goods shipped in from Guangzhou, Shanghai and Qingdao. You can easily lose yourself for hours in the bigger establishments: you might, for example, go in needing an egg lifter and a cork notice board and come out, as happened to me recently, half an hour later with a fig plant and a fridge magnet instead.

For me, these Asian bazaars – known locally as chinos, have made shopping in Spain not just more fun but also a whole lot easier. The Chinese shops are always open, they have almost everything you could ever want and their prices are of the sort to drive Spanish shop holders crazy.

And the chinos have been thriving. Until recently, that is.

In a post from last month, I mentioned that Spanish police had busted a dastardly money-laundering ring run by Spain-based Chinese impresario Gao Ping. Well it turns out that since that raid (details here) in which over €11 million in cash was seized, there have been reports of Spanish shoppers deserting the chinos in droves. Traders at the huge Cobo Calleja Industrial Estate in Madrid claim, for example, that 70 per cent of their business has evaporated.

Wanting to follow this up, I conducted a straw poll of the various Chinese-run businesses in my neighbourhood and learned that business here in Seville was also slower, although the Halloween demand for capes and ghouls masks had mitigated this somewhat.

You might expect Spain’s Chinese community to accept this new state of affairs with resignation: instead they have surprised everybody with a spirited bout of self-defence. Last week, for example, representatives from 25 Chinese associations based in Spain sat down with journalists from the EFE news agency and roundly condemned all criminal actions before going on to say that not one member of Spain’s Chinese community should be afraid to report illegal activity.

In that same meeting (video footage here), Julia Zhang, president of Asociación Nihao España, told EFE that Chinese children in Spain were currently afraid to go to school or catch the metro because they were being taunted with the words ‘mafia kids’. Zhang also said that some customers in Chinese-run grocery stores were refusing to cough up for the tax component of product prices because “the Chinese don’t pay taxes anyway” (which struck me as more than slightly ironic).

Then this weekend just gone, in another remarkable turn of events, Chinese shop owners at Madrid’s Cobo Calleja Industrial Estate – which is the largest conglomeration of Chinese businesses in Europe – took the unheard of step of closing up shop for a day as part of a bid to reclaim their image. Speaking about the protest, Law student Yinong Chen, one of the spokespersons for the local traders group, said it was time to challenge the misconception in Spanish society at large that the country’s Chinese population represented a closed and secretive society.

Chen said the Chinese in Spain were just like the Spaniards of earlier generations: they had come to this country as immigrants and were now working hard and making sacrifices to earn an honest living.

Some 165,000 people of Chinese descent currently live in Spain and the community has grown six times in the last decade. Thirteen per cent of Spain’s Chinese community were actually born in Spain and 70 per cent come from the region around Qingtian and Wenzhou.

Spain has an uneasy relationship with the Chinese. In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, the country’s Olympic basketball teams caused a stir when they posed for their team photos by making slit-eyed gestures.


It’s the thought that counts

Written by georgemills25

November 5, 2012 at 17:54