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Spain through the looking glass

Archive for the ‘Spending cuts’ 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

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.

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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?

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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 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

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

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.

Averiado

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

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