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

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

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.


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

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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