Spain through the looking glass

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Other Spains: Bilbao

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I’ve always had a bit of a thing for second tier cities — the sorts of unglamorous places you make a detour to if your holidays are a little longer than usual fortnight, or that you visit if you just happen to be in the area, but which otherwise drop off the list.

Perhaps I like these places so much because my own home town of Melbourne, Australia is such a perfect example. Melbourne always plays second fiddle to Sydney: it’s Australia without the good weather, without the opera house, and without the stunning ocean beaches. Everyone is dying to go to Sydney, but very few people have died wishing they’d visited its less pretty sister.

My home town befuddles tourists; they wander around and take photos of our ‘sights’ —a clock made of flowers!  a lane with cool graffiti! — and puzzle over why the locals seem so damn cheerful all the time. “A great place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit” is my standard line when people ask me about Melbourne. And the same could probably be said for all sort of overlooked places around the world, cities like Indianapolis or Nanning or pretty much any town in the Low Countries which isn’t Amsterdam.

Spain’s Bilbao is another proud member of this second city club. While this Basque city isn’t exactly a secret, especially since the Guggenheim Foundation decided to plonk a massive architectural flight of fantasy here, Bilbao is still some way down the Spanish tourism food chain. Poor Bilbao has to compete not just with limelight stealers Madrid and Barcelona but also with heavyweights like Salamanca and Seville and Santiago de Compostela.


No one in Bilbao seems particularly worried about their secondary status, though. Indeed, on a preternaturally bright weekend in early December, the city has its chest well and truly puffed out. The banks of the river brim with cheery dogwalkers and the usual mass of families with their glamorous mothers and heavyset but happy menfolk.


I know I am in the Basque Country here, and I am therefore in one of the other ‘Spains’. For there is no one single Spain, or even the “two Spains” (left versus right, for example, or monarchist versus republican) so beloved of Spaniards. Instead this country sometimes feels as stitched together and ill-fitting as any post-imperialist nation in Africa. Spain’s 1812 constitution even reflected this plurality by calling the country ‘Spains’ and it wasn’t until the 1876 constitution that the founding padres settled on the singular form.


But even in this country of contrasts, the Basques are notoriously different. To begin with, they live in a very un-Spanish and fairytale-like landscape of steep wooded slopes and misty valleys. Then there is their character. They are typically portrayed as dour and hardworking, traits you don’t associate with this country. Strangest of all, though, is the Basque language. Full of jagged ‘x’s and ‘k’s, it appears to be related to no other language at all. How exciting. On a Saturday afternoon in Bilbao though, I have to say my predominant feeling is one of being still very much in Spain. I am just an ignorant tourist of course, but the differences all feel cosmetic.

Arriving here from Madrid reminds me, say, of travelling from the German-speaking part of Switzerland into the French part. Crossing that border in Switzerland, suddenly you are hit by the fact that the signs are in a different language, or that the sausages are fatter (or thinner), and the people greet you with different words. But at the same time the architecture is still pretty much the same, people shop in the same supermarket chains and there is the identical Swiss politeness about the business of living.


In Bilbao, these superficial differences are: the occasional distinctive green, red and white Ikurriña, or Basque flag; old men in black berets, and the pincho-style tapas. There is the geography too. The city crawls discretely up a succession of greener than green hills, again making me feel like I am back in The North.

But I don’t feel I’ve left Spain. Rather, seeing Bilbao is expanding my idea of what this country is, and makes it seem even more amazing. Though of course my perception is distorted, because this is a holiday weekend and many of the people on the streets of Bilbao right now are tourists. Also, I really know very little about the city, and certainly not enough to know whether or not it is fundamentally different from the Spain I think I know.  My Swiss comparison isn’t really fair either. Switzerland has had almost a millennium to work out how to live with its many contradictions, and there have been plenty of wars along the way, while modern Spain is a 40-year-old democracy with a very recent civil war to come to terms with. Franco did this country few favours, and in the case of the Basques, even less. By trying to oppress the language and the regional culture — as invented as much of this may be — he gave rise to ETA.


Bilbao seems to have stepped away from this history though. The city has experienced a renaissance of sorts in recent years, thanks to the arrival of the Guggenheim museum, yes, but also thanks to its mayor Iñaki Azkuna, who currently holds the title of the World’s Best Mayor. There are urban renewal projects everywhere. The place feels well cared for, and the people seem to have reached a happy comprise with nature. In short, I left Bilbao with a positive feeling about Spain, something which hasn’t happened a lot recently.


Written by georgemills25

December 29, 2013 at 10:51

Posted in España, society, Spain, travel

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

Easter, Madrid

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What better place to spend the start of Europe’s great spring celebration than in the woods among the rabbits and the birds?






Written by georgemills25

March 24, 2013 at 20:25

The Good Book

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I went to Toledo a day late.

I visited Toledo on Sunday instead of Saturday because Spain’s national railway company Renfe couldn’t get its act together to sell me a ticket.

Whole volumes could be written about the vagaries of of rail travel in Spain but I promise to keep my rant as short: my trip to Toledo was delayed a by 24 hours because none of the ticket machines at Madrid’s Atocha station were working, and because the staff in the ticket office seemed more interested in chatting with each other than flogging off tickets for the 10:20 to Toledo.

You can imagine the scene: crowds of confused tourists, irate Spanish grandmothers in fur coats, a slightly nervous, slightly overweight security guard. The minutes ticking away. I missed the train.

My first official complaint in Spain.

My first official complaint in Spain.

Anyway, it turned out the Saturday trip down to Atocha station wasn’t entirely fruitless. I didn’t make the train but I did have the pleasure of filling in my first bona fide complaint in all my years in Spain. That’s right: I actually resorted to the hoja de reclamaciones, or the official complaints book.

If you’ve spent any time in Spain, you’ve probably been vaguely aware of the existence of such things. These books — part of this country’s rickety consumer rights infrastructure —provide a way for people to vent their frustrations over anything from cheating taxi drivers to churlish taxidermists. In Andalusia, for example, the hojas are actually obligatory for all businesses, whether they be a religious artifacts shop or a first communion fashion store or a flamenco designer’s boutique.

After a while, you don’t really see these little signs, in that same way you don’t — in a bar — notice all the posters of waxy-looking Jesuses decked out in crowns of thorns or the mouldering stuffed bulls’ heads that line the walls. So it is with the hoja de reclamaciones.

But last Saturday at Atocha station I entered into the fray of civil society and demanded The Book. Driven along by indignado rage, I stormed into the Renfe customer service centre and noted down my litany of frustrations into a purple A4 jotter which felt like something you might use to decorate the set of a television show about a 1950s advertising firm. My complaint was then carbon-copied in quadruplicate — seriously – before each individual copy was decorated with a seal.

The Renfe staff on duty could not have been less interested. They handed me the book almost wordlessly and then silently presented me with two copies for my records. It set me wondering how many millions of these complaints forms have been filled out and filed away in dusty cabinets over the decades. Will anything ever come of my grievance? I wait with not-very-bated breath.

And Toledo? Well, given that – for reasons which remain mysterious — all Spanish towns have to be the capital of something, I can safely report back that Toledo appears to be the capital of Marzipan and swordmaking. Neither of these were items that I particularly felt like buying last Sunday, but it did occur to me a day or two later that some sort of sabre might have come in handy at the ticket office at Atocha station.

Written by georgemills25

March 16, 2013 at 10:14

Spring in my step

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I’ve just had my first morning in Madrid after three weeks of living here. That’s to say, I’ve just had my first morning which didn’t involve alarm clocks and rapid-fire ablutions and gulped-down cereal before traipsing off to an office to sit before a computer.

Today, instead, I had one of those real mornings where sleep ebbs and flows and it takes you hours to climb out of bed and only then because it’s time to saludar al señor Roca, or greet Mr Roca, as the Spaniards sometimes put it, referring to the company that makes so many toilets here.

Anyway, this morning there were no mobile phones and I didn’t go online and the sun was shining so brightly in this city of Cervantes that I knew I would end up walking.

When I left the house, I thought I was going to the river. I’ve been staying in Madrid’s La Latina neighbourhood this week and each day I’d look at the map and see the tell-tale little sliver of blue and think: ‘I must get down to that bloody river’. So that’s where my feet took me first.

And actually it was just slightly disappointing. Because despite the impressive black fish and the solid bridges, the Manzanares is little more than a trickle really; it’s no Seine, and it’s certainly no Mekong. The city is re-landscaping the zone too, so that the river banks are dotted with a multitude of rather sad-looking saplings. Like upturned brooms, and worn-out ones at that.

But it turns out that I wasn’t destined for the river anyway. Apparently my subconscious mind had been busy fomenting its own plans these last seven days. Because after the river I continued on and into the vast green space that is the Casa de Campo, Madrid’s biggest park. It’s huge and very popular too, especially on bright Saturdays like today, I suppose.


Casa de Campo, Madrid. Photo: Luis Pabon

For the first kilometre or so I was dodging alls sorts of odd people in neon costumes (joggers mostly and whooping, pumped-up bike mountain riders). Then I arrived in a whole other landscape, a sort of a park within a park. This mini-dehesa, or Mediterranean forest, was almost silent and dense with gnarly old oak trees, not to mention a sparse population of solitary forest philosophers doing very un-city like things like admiring sticks or gazing up into the sky at passing herons.

I started to climb and after a while I reached the top of a pine-capped hill from which I had views of Spain’s jumbled capital with its oddly-muted palette of cream and terracotta and Colombia blue and forest green.

Anyway, as the perfect morning slipped into history, and as I walked and my body started to remember what it was actually designed for, I had a delightful creeping realisation. Taking in the milky blue sky and the chattering parrots and the drifting storks, I became aware that this was spring welcoming me to 2013.

Written by georgemills25

March 2, 2013 at 22:40

Posted in España, Madrid, Spain, travel

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Madrileño by stealth

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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

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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